A Troubling Sense of Deja Vu
The feds are scrambling to address new terrorism threats in both Asia and Africa
Last October, as they investigated a deadly suicide bombing at tourist-packed restaurants in Bali, Indonesian police got what seemed like an important, albeit grim, investigative break: They recovered the decapitated and swollen heads of three of the suicide bombers. At the Indonesian government's request, FBI forensic experts in Washington digitally reconstructed the bombers' faces using sophisticated biometrics. But when Indonesian police distributed the FBI photos along with the original headshots, looking for help in their investigation, no one came forward.
The failure to identify the Bali bombers highlights the conundrum that FBI and other law enforcement and intelligence agencies face: how to track the movement of radical Islamist terrorists in the vast string of islands of Southeast Asia, where poverty and ethnic and religious strife have resulted in a surge of Islamic fundamentalism. "You have tens of thousands of islands with no contact with each other, minimal contact with mass media, and few policing services," says Thomas Fuentes, special agent in charge of the FBI's office of international operations, "making them a fertile area for recruiting, training, and deploying suicide bombers."
Two-front war. Half a world away, those same concerns apply to another vast, underdeveloped, and largely unpoliced land--Africa. The African continent has long been a stepchild of U.S. foreign policy, especially the nations of North Africa and one in particular: Somalia. Each week, there are two charter flights from Dubai to Bosaaso, a port city in northern Somalia, ferrying cash, weapons, and jihadists into the largely ungoverned country, where the reigning Islamic cleric is believed to have pledged loyalty, or bayat, to Osama bin Laden. A recent jihadist recruiting video shows Somali Islamic and non-Somali Arab radicals fighting U.S.-backed secular warlords in Mogadishu; now those radical Islamic warlords seem to be in charge. "It's the same type of scenario we saw in Afghanistan as the Taliban were consolidating control," says J. Peter Pham, an Africa expert at James Madison University. "I have a great sense of deja vu."
And so does the Bush administration. At the Pentagon, the CIA, the State Department, and the FBI, there is a heightened sense of urgency about these threats and an energetic set of new efforts to prevent these lawless lands from becoming hotbeds of terrorism. But critics wonder whether it's already too late. "We haven't put our resources in there; we haven't asked the right questions," says Pham. "Our commitment to date has been minimal."
And yet, the U.S. government long has known that these regions are fraught with peril. Several major attacks or plots against U.S. targets have had some link to the Philippines, including mid-1990s plots to blow up 11 American airliners over Asia and to assassinate Pope John Paul II and President Bill Clinton, and the 9/11 attacks, which also were traced, in part, to Malaysia. As for Africa, three of the four suspects who tried but failed to pull off a second round of attacks on London's commuter trains last July came from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.