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Articulo Romesh Ratnesar. The Time. 23.09.02

Romesh Ratnesar

For someone interested in quietly leading a terrorist's life, the rainy Indonesian hamlet of Cijeruk is a nice place to settle down. Nestled among lush, green paddies and swaying banana trees, an hour's drive outside the chaotic capital city of Jakarta, Cijeruk consists of a single two-lane road lined by a row of well-kept cottages. It's a good spot to hide from the authorities, if you have reason to be on the run — which may be how Omar al-Faruq, a 31-year-old drifter from Kuwait, ended up living there, in a concrete house that belonged to the family of his Indonesian wife Mira Agustina, 24. After moving to Cijeruk last year, al-Faruq tried to fit in with locals, getting by with functional Indonesian-language skills and an ID card that said he was from the eastern Indonesian city of Ambon. His wife says he read and taught the Koran and stayed close to home — until one day in June, when he vanished. "He called at noon that Wednesday to say he was going to the mosque," says Mira. "I never heard from him again."

If she is to be believed, Mira, like the rest of the world, is only beginning to discover the truth about her husband. On June 5 government agents arrested al-Faruq at a mosque in nearby Bogor. Three days later, Indonesian authorities deported al-Faruq to the U.S.-held air base in Bagram, Afghanistan, where CIA investigators have been interrogating suspected members of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist organization. But al-Faruq was no ordinary operative.

According to a secret CIA document and regional intelligence reports obtained by TIME, U.S. officials already had reason to believe al-Faruq was one of bin Laden's top representatives in Southeast Asia, responsible for coordinating the activities of the region's disparate Islamic militant groups and employing their forces to conduct terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies. According to one regional intelligence memo, the CIA had been told of al-Faruq's role by Abu Zubaydah, the highest ranking al-Qaeda official in U.S. custody and a valuable, if at times manipulative, source of intelligence on the terror network and its plans. Initially, al-Faruq was not as cooperative. Though al-Faruq was subjected to three months of psychological interrogation tactics — a U.S. counterterrorism official says they included isolation and sleep deprivation — he stayed virtually silent.

But early last week al-Faruq finally broke down. On Sept. 9, according to a secret CIA summary of the interview, al-Faruq confessed that he was, in fact, al-Qaeda's senior representative in Southeast Asia. Then came an even more shocking confession: according to the CIA document, al-Faruq said two senior al-Qaeda officials, Abu Zubaydah and Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, had ordered him to "plan large-scale attacks against U.S. interests in Indonesia, Malaysia, (the) Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Taiwan, Vietnam and Cambodia. In particular," the document continues, "(al-)Faruq prepared a plan to conduct simultaneous car/truck bomb attacks against U.S. embassies in the region to take place on or near" the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Al-Faruq said that, despite his arrest, backup operatives were in place to "assume responsibilities to carry out operations as planned." If successfully executed, such a coordinated assault could produce thousands of casualties. Fearing an attack could come at any moment, al-Faruq's interrogators relayed his revelations to the CIA's Counterterrorism Center in Langley, Va. Al-Faruq's story tracked with several recent intelligence reports from Southeast Asia about an increase in suspicious activities near American embassies. A day later the U.S. issued its code-orange terror alert. Al-Faruq's threatened attacks never occurred.

Omar al-Faruq's confessions, as detailed in the intelligence reports obtained by TIME, are much more than a single operative's warnings about possible plots against U.S. interests; they also provide a wealth of new and unpublished detail about the broad reach of al-Qaeda, its efforts to establish a base of operations outside Afghanistan and its success in pulling disparate militant groups and criminals into its lethal struggle against the West. At the same time, the documents illustrate the speed and determination with which U.S. intelligence agents and their foreign counterparts are working to untangle al-Qaeda's web of terror before the group strikes again.

Investigators are still verifying the credibility of the numerous leads into alleged al-Qaeda conspirators identified by al-Faruq. The intelligence documents, combined with TIME's investigation of al-Faruq's past, reveal that:

With al-Faruq acting as the point man, al-Qaeda received financial and operational assistance from Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a militant group that seeks to establish a pure Islamic state in Southeast Asia and is active in at least five countries — Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. The CIA report states that Abubakar Ba'asyir, 64, the cleric who is the alleged spiritual leader of JI, "authorized Faruq to use JI operatives and resources to conduct" the embassy bombings planned for last week; al-Faruq told the CIA that Ba'asyir dispatched a JI member named Abu al-Furkan to oversee a planned attack on the U.S. embassy in Malaysia. Al-Faruq said Ba'asyir was also behind a 1999 bombing of Jakarta's largest mosque and then blamed Christians for the act. Ba'asyir is wanted by Singapore for his alleged role as the mastermind of last December's foiled al-Qaeda plot to bomb U.S. targets there. Indonesian officials have so far declined to arrest him, saying they have no evidence linking him to terrorist activity.

In a separate regional intelligence report obtained by TIME, a high-ranking JI member now in custody told investigators that he hosted Zacarias Moussaoui — currently on trial in the U.S. for conspiring in the Sept. 11 attacks — during Moussaoui's swing through Malaysia in 2000. According to the source, Moussaoui went by the alias "John" and told the operative to buy four tons of fertilizer, presumably to build a bomb. Moussaoui left the country before giving any further instructions on what to do with the fertilizer.

Acting as an al-Qaeda operative, al-Faruq, the CIA report says, was "the mastermind behind all the Christmas 2000 bombings in Indonesia" — a wave of attacks on Christian churches — which killed 18 and injured more than 100. Earlier that year, al-Faruq "cased the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta to develop a plan to destroy the embassy with a large car bomb." He abandoned the plan when the U.S. hardened the building's security after a separate, credible threat in October 2000.

Increasing numbers of al-Qaeda operatives are moving into Southeast Asia. In May, according to a regional report, six "Middle Eastern terrorists" slipped into Indonesia. Counterterrorism officials say that, based on information provided by al-Faruq, the U.S. believes Southeast Asia now has the world's highest concentration of al-Qaeda operatives outside Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Al-Faruq told the CIA that some of al-Qaeda's operations in the region were funded through a branch of al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, an international charity based in Saudi Arabia, with offices in several Islamic countries. According to one regional intel memo, Faruq told his interrogators "money was laundered through the foundation by donors from the Middle East." Government sources tell TIME that U.S. investigators believe the charity is a "significant" source of funding for terrorist groups associated with al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia. Counterterrorism officials are also investigating possible links between al-Qaeda and top al-Haramain officials in Saudi Arabia.

What does it all mean? al-faruq's confession serves as a reminder that even after losing its base in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda is actively forging and reconstituting ties with violent extremists around the world who are receptive to bin Laden's cause. "They are bulking up," says a U.S. Administration official. "We don't have our arms around them yet."

To a sprawling organization like al-Qaeda, Omar al-Faruq was the ideal operative, a man whose networking skills were at least as impressive as his appetite for destruction. Born in Kuwait on May 24, 1971, he got his first taste of jihad in the early 1990s when he trained at an al-Qaeda camp in Khaldan, Afghanistan. He spent three years at the camp, becoming close to both al-Mughira al Gaza'iri, the camp's leader, and senior bin Laden associate Abu Zubaydah. In 1995, at Abu Zubaydah's suggestion, al-Faruq procured a fake passport and traveled with al-Mughira to the Philippines. There he joined Camp Abubakar, a terrorist-training facility run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Philippine-based rebel group fighting for independence from Manila. According to a regional intelligence report, al-Faruq, while in the Philippines, unsuccessfully tried to enter flight school, in the hopes of commandeering a commercial plane and blowing it up.

Al-Faruq maintained close ties with Abu Zubaydah and al-Qaeda. In the late 1990s al-Faruq slipped into Indonesia to take control of al-Qaeda's operations in Southeast Asia. Across a belt of territory stretching from Myanmar (formerly Burma) to eastern Indonesia, radical Islam was on the rise, with militants occupying swaths of the region's steamy jungle terrain. In Indonesia the fall of the dictator Suharto in 1998 left the world's most populous Islamic country in a state of turmoil and turned it into a fertile breeding ground for potential al-Qaeda terrorists. Al-Faruq married Mira, the daughter of a former Islamic activist, and linked up with an Indonesian businessman named Agus Dwikarna, who was active in the Indonesian Mujahedin Council (MMI). A purportedly nonviolent political organization, the MMI was founded by Abubakar Ba'asyir — the Indonesian cleric also believed to be the spiritual leader of JI, which is run by Ba'asyir's former student Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali. In addition to his alleged links to scores of bank robberies and murders in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines, Hambali is believed to have colluded with al-Qaeda since 1995. Western intelligence officials say he played host to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers during their trip to Malaysia in 2000. Hambali is thought to have gone into hiding, but his organization remains active. In an interview with TIME, JI members said al-Qaeda operatives continue to meet with radical groups in the region, and, according to one of them, JI boasts a cadre of 20 suicide bombers "waiting and ready to carry out attacks if instructed."

While intelligence officials have long believed that Hambali ran the day-to-day operations of JI, al-Faruq told the CIA that Ba'asyir was just as eager to work with al-Qaeda, even dispatching his aides to procure weapons and explosives for al-Faruq and his cronies. Last week Ba'asyir repeated his longstanding denial of connection with terrorist groups. "I don't have any link whatsoever with al-Qaeda," he told TIME, "but if al-Qaeda's struggle is for the best interest of Islam, I support it."

According to a foreign intelligence report, al-Faruq told the CIA he helped Dwikarna establish Laskar Jundullah, a militant Islamic group dedicated to forming an Islamic state and involved in attacks on Christian villages in central Sulawesi province. Beginning in mid-1999, al-Faruq claims, he launched a succession of audacious but generally unsuccessful terrorist plots. In May of that year, al-Faruq met with several potential accomplices at a villa in west Java and hatched a plan to kill current Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, who was then a candidate for the presidency. The plot involved buying weapons in Malaysia and the Philippines, but the group failed to get the guns into Indonesia. Last year a second assassination scheme — it involved detonating a bomb at a meeting of Megawati and other ruling party leaders — fizzled when the designated bomber lost his leg and was arrested after the bomb he was carrying blew up prematurely near the Atrium Mall in Jakarta in August 2001.

Around that time, al-Faruq began running into trouble. He had been living near Dwikarna in Makassar, in South Sulawesi province, but because of his poor language ability, he never managed to acquire an Indonesian passport. In mid-2001, immigration authorities detained al-Faruq temporarily and prepared to deport him. Al-Faruq skipped town, heading to Cijeruk with Mira and their baby daughter. After Sept. 11 he stayed in contact with Abu Zubaydah during the U.S. military campaign against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. Abu Zubaydah told al-Faruq that he should plan to return soon to Kuwait, but in the meantime, al-Faruq was to set in motion new terrorist missions. Knowing the U.S. Navy was scheduled to conduct joint exercises in the Surabaya harbor in late May, al-Faruq plotted a suicide attack against a U.S. ship, similar to the deadly al-Qaeda operation against the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen in 2000. He drafted a Somali operative named Gharib to help find Arabs willing to participate in the suicide mission. But when he failed to recruit enough operatives to carry out the plan, al-Faruq had to scrap it.

What al-Faruq may not have known was that in early 2002, U.S. and regional intelligence officials had picked up his signal. On Feb. 25, according to intelligence reports, the CIA informed regional counterparts that three Indonesian-based Islamic militants had established a training school for terrorists on the island of Borneo. Indonesian investigators discovered that four MMI operatives, including al-Faruq, had held training exercises at the same location. While al-Faruq initially managed to stay beyond the reach of authorities, some of his closest associates ran out of luck. In March Dwikarna was arrested in Manila after airport security guards discovered plastic explosives and detonation cables in his suitcase; the next month U.S. and Pakistani forces seized Abu Zubaydah in Faisalabad, Pakistan. A regional intelligence brief says on April 27 the CIA reported that the same cell-phone number, 081-2957-6852, had been programmed into the handsets of both Dwikarna and Abu Zubaydah. The number was al-Faruq's.

Investigators soon realized al-Faruq was a man with connections. An al-Qaeda prisoner at America's Camp X Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, also had al-Faruq's number. The same intelligence report says the CIA traced a number dialed by Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian JI militant arrested for suspected involvement in last December's Singapore bomb plot, back to al-Faruq. In May, the report continues, the CIA found that Ibin al-Khattab, the late Chechen commander with ties to al-Qaeda, had once placed a call to al-Faruq on his cell phone. On May 2, shortly after discovering that al-Faruq had acquired a fake Indonesian passport, the Indonesian government authorized agents to arrest him. Intelligence reports say that on May 23, U.S. interrogators questioning Abu Zubaydah showed him a picture of al-Faruq. Abu Zubaydah quickly identified his old friend as "al-Faruq al Kuwait." He then told his inquisitors the tangled tale of al-Faruq's quest to turn Southeast Asia into an al-Qaeda stronghold. Two weeks later, authorities swooped in on al-Faruq at a mosque in Bogor. Says Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, the country's chief security minister: "It was quite rapid work."

Though al-Faruq's odyssey has ended, his story finally divulged, the reasons he knowingly risked so much to pursue a life of terrorism remain a mystery perhaps even to those who knew him best. Back in Cijeruk, now left to raise their children alone, al-Faruq's wife Mira insists that she knows nothing about her husband's past — even though, in his testimony to the CIA, intelligence officials say, al-Faruq alludes to Mira's participation in his terrorist plots. She claims al-Faruq never even told her he was Kuwaiti. But she does recall a piece of advice he once gave her. "When we got married, he made me promise that if he disappeared one day, I would not go looking for him," she says. "So I kept my commitment and didn't search."

Fuente: The Time
Fecha: 23.09.02

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