The Shadow Over The Summit
As leaders meet, Southeast Asia gets serious about its terrorists
Thailand's freewheeling capital, Bangkok, is undergoing a kind of urban lockdown this week. As many as 10,000 soldiers and cops are being deployed across the city. Overhead, F-16 fighter jets will patrol the skies. Even the city's taxi drivers and hotel clerks are being trained to spot suspicious characters. The reason: the October 20-21 summit of 21 presidents and prime ministers from around the Pacific Rim, including President Bush.
The unprecedented security is but the latest sign that the region is finally taking terrorism seriously. While Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network is on the run in much of the world, it has sunk deep roots in Southeast Asia and has officials there on edge. "I cannot think of another region where there is such a large number of members, sympathizers, and supporters of al Qaeda and its network," says analyst Rohan Gunaratna, who advises governments on terrorism. Malaysia and the Philippines have played key roles in al Qaeda's most ambitious plans, serving as a base for the plotters of 9/11 and other attacks. Al Qaeda's camps in Afghanistan trained hundreds of Southeast Asian jihadists, and they have returned home to foment terrorism and insurgency.
U.S. officials say that "extreme measures" are being taken to guard President Bush and his entourage throughout a trip that includes stops in Japan, the Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, and Australia. They believe the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit itself will be secure but worry about so-called soft targets, such as western businesses and tourist spots. Adding to the unease: reports that al Qaeda has smuggled a half-dozen shoulder-fired missiles into Thailand. The reports are unconfirmed, but intelligence sources note that al Qaeda operatives had sought similar missiles in neighboring Cambodia late last year.
Bloody record. At the heart of al Qaeda's work in the region stands Jemaah Islamiyah, an ambitious homegrown network with cells that stretch from Thailand and Indonesia down to Australia. Singaporean officials believe JI has some 5,000 members, with a hard core of several hundred operatives. Founded around 1995 by veterans of the anti-Soviet Afghan war, JI calls for formation of a pan-Islamic state encompassing the region's 200 million Muslims.
JI's record is a bloody one. Its bombings last October in Bali, Indonesia, murdered 202 people and wounded hundreds more in the worst terrorist attack since 9/11. The group is blamed for an August 5 blast at a Marriott hotel in Jakarta, which killed a dozen others. And JI is now believed to have been behind the "Christmas Eve bombings" in 2000--a wave of attacks against nearly 40 Christian churches and priests across Indonesia that killed 19 and wounded 120. Security officials believe they have thwarted dozens of attacks, including plots to bomb U.S. and allied diplomatic posts and to crash a hijacked Aeroflot plane into Singapore's international airport.
Until a year ago, Washington's warnings about JI and al Qaeda fell on deaf ears through much of the region. Indonesian officials finally got the message after the Bali bombings, which crippled the nation's tourist trade. Thai officials, too, proved reluctant partners until this summer, when they found one of al Qaeda's top terrorists plotting attacks from just outside Bangkok. With local authorities finally on board, a sustained crackdown has produced over 200 arrests of JI members. In recent weeks, Indonesian courts have sentenced three defendants in the Bali case to death by firing squad and meted out stiff prison terms to 13 others. Once considered untouchable, Abu Bakar Bashir, the 65-year-old cleric thought to be JI's spiritual head, was slapped with four years in jail for sedition. "They're having to devote considerable resources to not getting caught," says CIA veteran Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a Bangkok-based security firm. "They're on the defensive."