The Asian Front
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
SIMON MARKS: Rush hour at the Yishun subway station in Singapore: Trains come and go every few minutes with the crisp efficiency for which this city state is known. Commuters, eager to help Singapore bounce back from recession, head to work. But our cameras aren’t the first cameras to have filmed this location.
This videotape of the Yishun subway station was found in Afghanistan. It’s narrated by one of the leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian militant group supportive of Osama bin Laden. It’s effectively an offer to attack Americans in Singapore on al-Qaida’s behalf.
VOICE ON TAPE: You will notice how the boxes that are placed on the motorcycles. These are the same type of boxes which we intend to use.
SIMON MARKS: The plan presented to one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants: To plant explosives in a bicycle and park it at the station. The bomb would be detonated when busloads of U.S. military personnel were passing by. A separate attack was also planned against U.S. Naval vessels heading into port here. Documents recovered by U.S.
Special Forces in Afghanistan refer to a kill zone in these waters. Thirteen leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah are now in detention in Singapore. They were arrested shortly before the authorities received the videotape from Afghanistan. The hunt is on for other members of the group who remain on the run. Wong Kan Seng is Singapore’s home affairs minister.
WONG KAN SENG: I think many Singaporeans were shocked, very surprised that indeed we have a small group of Singaporeans trying to perpetuate this terrorism in Singapore. Fortunately the plan was not proceeded with.
SIMON MARKS: And do you have a sense of why the al-Qaida leaders did not authorize the plan to be carried out?
WONG KAN SENG: We don’t know. Perhaps they could have other priorities at the time.
SIMON MARKS: Singapore’s Muslim community has unreservedly condemned the plot to attack Americans here. In this Asian melting pot of diverse races and cultures, there was enormous surprise when the plot was revealed, and it’s prompted a wide public debate about how Singaporeans can best strengthen an integrated society. It’s also led the government to exercise continued vigilance in case other plots are being hatched.
WONG KAN SENG: We don’t see the existence of any other group in Singapore for now.
SIMON MARKS: For now?
SIMON MARKS: The Singaporean government is proud of foiling the apparent plot to attack U.S. targets here. It’s promising to continue working with U.S. authorities in the hunt for al-Qaida sympathizers who might seek to act in Osama bin Laden’s name.
But elsewhere in this region, the U.S. cannot count on similar support in identifying and eradicating groups that could act as al-Qaida’s Asian proxies. Just 75 minutes by air from Singapore, in the sprawling Indonesian capital Jakarta, the war on terror has not been hitting the headlines. This has: The worst flooding in a generation to inundate Jakarta has left more than 60 people dead, communities destroyed, and a government under pressure, literally, to dig citizens out of the mud.
But the monsoon isn’t the only storm cloud gathering over Indonesia. The government is fighting to contain an uprising by rebels in one far-flung province. Violence between Muslims and Christians dominates another region to the East.
And now the United States argues that this, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, home to 200 million people across an archipelago of 13,000 remote islands, is a base for a growing number of al-Qaida cells and supporters.
That’s a contention vigorously denied by government ministers and Muslim leaders like Din Syamsuddin, who heads an umbrella organization of Indonesian Muslim groups that advises the country’s president.
SIMON MARKS: So when the United States says that it believes that there have been terrorist training camps on Indonesian territory, you say?
DIN SYAMSUDDIN: We don’t have any information about that. The American and the Indonesian governments have to prove it with hard evidence.
SIMON MARKS: U.S. officials say there’s plenty of evidence available. This is as close as cameras can now get to the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, after al-Qaida was found to have obtained detailed plans of the compound. U.S. officials say they believe Osama bin Laden’s organization operated at least one terrorist training camp on Indonesian soil.
And under U.S. pressure, a string of Muslim leaders has been interrogated by the police here. This man, Abu Bakar Bashir, a 63-year-old cleric, runs a religious school where most of the Singaporean plotters studied. He’s accused of being a leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, the group responsible for the plot in Singapore.
He admits to "rejoicing" when he heard of the September 11 attacks, but has been freed by the Indonesians. Political analyst Kusnanto Angorro says that’s no surprise.
KUSNANTO ANGORRO: No, I don’t think so. I think there are very complicated issues, especially dealing with the people like Abu Bakar Bashir.
SIMON MARKS: He argues that in response to September 11, the Indonesian government is navigating treacherous waters.
KUSNANTO ANGORRO: We condemn terrorism, and we understand that international terrorism is nonconventional threat to security and threat against humanity, and there is no other way than cooperate with other in combating terrorism. However, at the policy level, then it would be very difficult to expect that between the U.S. and the Indonesian government would have some common response.
SIMON MARKS: The government’s difficulties were on display in Washington late last year. President Megawati Sukarnoputri visited president bush at the White House and spoke only in the most general terms about her reaction to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
PRESIDENT MEGAWATI SUKARNOPUTRI: After I heard and witnessed and saw what happened, the tragic events in New York and Washington, I immediately issued a statement which strongly condemned these attacks, which were very inhumane.
And afterwards, I sent a letter to President Bush expressing my condolences. So this is the position of my government on this issue, so it’s very clear.
SIMON MARKS: But what is not very clear is whether the president, now back at her palace in Jakarta, intends to accept $18 million in U.S. aid that she’s been offered to help combat terrorism. For now, she can legitimately claim to be busy resolving the difficulties created by the country’s floods, an issue nature has pushed to the top of her current agenda.
Even if the Indonesian government had the time or the inclination to see things Washington’s way, it’s under intense pressure not to cooperate with President Bush in his war on terror.
And that pressure originates here, in the impoverished shantytowns of this country that serve as a natural breeding ground for Islamic militancy.
Even the poorest of communities are marked by the minarets of mosques. The country’s Islamic organizations have enormous influence over domestic Indonesian politics. At a newsstand outside Jakarta’s largest mosque, we found literature accusing the United States of waging war on Islam and accusing Israel of being behind the September 11 attacks. Local religious leaders reject all offers of U.S. financial assistance.
And in a further indication that the Bush Administration’s options are limited here, they also reject any notion that the joint military exercises recently staged by the U.S. in Thailand or the ongoing U.S. military presence in the Philippines would ever be acceptable in Indonesia.
DIN SYAMSUDDIN: They have to be careful. This is the largest Muslim country; cannot be taken for granted, okay? Not only the radical, the fundamentalists, but the moderates will feel that this is kind of demeaning of the Muslims here in the country, in Indonesia.
SIMON MARKS: So Indonesian analysts say there’s not much the U.S. can do to prevent the country becoming a secure haven for al-Qaida sympathizers. They say any attempts by Washington to impose a solution without Jakarta’s consent would be doomed.
KUSNANTO ANGORRO: Do you think that would be possible? I don’t think so. I mean, from international relation point of view, that would likely create some problem, especially because many people here in Indonesia still believe in the noninterference in domestic affairs, for example.
So I think the U.S., if it would like to do so, then need an approval from Indonesian government.
SIMON MARKS: Nine thousand miles and thirteen time zones from the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, governments across Asia are facing their own dilemmas confronting the threat of terrorism. In places like Singapore, the U.S. can count on cooperation and support.
But in other parts of this region, the associates of al-Qaida may still find places to hide and places to plan, far from the reach of U.S. military might.