Suspect May Be Southeast Asia's Link to Al Qaeda

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sometimes he calls himself Mike, sometimes Abu Saad. He speaks several languages and has traveled through much of the Islamic world. His specialty: blowing things up, especially public buildings crowded with people.

Now he sits in a concrete cell at the national police headquarters in Manila. Investigators suspect that he is linked to Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda organization. And on Saturday, authorities in Singapore said he was a man with a mission: to activate an underground terror network after Sept. 11 and initiate a wave of bomb attacks against Western targets, including the U.S. Embassy in Singapore.

They also confirmed that his real name is Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi.

Born in Indonesia, the 30-year-old Muslim was arrested Jan. 15 by Philippine immigration officials acting on a tip from Singapore. He could prove to be the common thread linking extremist Islamic groups operating in at least four countries: the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

During interrogation, Al-Ghozi admitted responsibility for five bombs that exploded 13 months ago in Manila, killing 22 people and injuring about 100. He also told investigators where to find a ton of buried TNT and a stash of automatic weapons that were to be used in upcoming attacks against U.S. facilities in the region.

"The timely arrest of Al-Ghozi and three other suspected terrorists and the seizure of their explosive and firearms cache thwarted plans of the extremist groups to conduct bombing activities in Metro Manila and abroad," Philippine police said in a statement after his arrest.

Al-Ghozi may well be the most important catch yet in the breakup of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network that has led to 13 arrests in Singapore, 23 in Malaysia and five in the Philippines during the last two months.

"According to our information, he had a mission to conduct terrorist attacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, in particular the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Singapore," said Gen. Crescencio Maralit, chief spokesman for the Philippine federal police.

For investigators, Al-Ghozi could help unravel the complex web of connections among terrorist groups in the region. For example:

* As a teenager in Indonesia, he attended an Islamic school in Central Java co-founded by Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of heading the Jemaah Islamiah network.

* In the Philippines, police identify Al-Ghozi as a demolitions expert, bomb maker and explosives trainer for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group seeking to create an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

* In Singapore, besides confirming that he went by the code name "Mike," authorities said Saturday that he had brought orders in October for the Jemaah Islamiah terror cells to begin acquiring explosives for attacks on U.S. targets. He worked with a second foreign operative code-named "Sammy" who is believed to be linked with Al Qaeda.

The connections between these groups could have important ramifications for the United States.

Washington has begun deploying a force of 650 troops to the southern Philippines to help train Philippine soldiers to combat Abu Sayyaf, a rebel gang of Islamic kidnappers holding two American missionaries hostage there. Some officials suggest that there is a link between Al Qaeda and the brutal Abu Sayyaf, although the evidence is sketchy at best.

Until now, no connection has been established between Al Qaeda and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which has an armed force of about 15,000 troops and is negotiating a peace agreement with the Philippine government after years of fighting. But if Al-Ghozi's arrest leads to evidence that Al Qaeda and the Moro rebels are allied, the United States could find itself facing a wider conflict in the region.

The eldest of four children, Al-Ghozi grew up in the East Java district of Madiun. When he was 12, his parents sent him to a boarding school called Al-Mukmin in the city of Solo, where he lived and studied for the next six years. His parents say they chose the school because it emphasized discipline and didn't cost too much.

The school itself has become controversial since the detention of suspected Jemaah Islamiah members in Singapore and Malaysia. Some of those arrested have identified Bashir, the network's co-founder, as the overall leader of Jemaah Islamiah.

Police in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, questioned the 63-year-old cleric for two days last week about his connection to Jemaah Islamiah, but he has not been arrested.

In an interview with The Times on Saturday, Bashir said he had never met Al-Ghozi.

"I heard about Al-Ghozi from the newspapers," Bashir said. "People say he studied in my school in 1987 or 1988, and at that time I was living in Malaysia. So I don't really know who he is."

According to his parents, upon Al-Ghozi's graduation at 18 in 1989, he received a full scholarship to study at a religious school in Pakistan. Bashir said he and the Al-Mukmin school played no part in sending the young student to the South Asian subcontinent.

"He said he got a scholarship, but I don't know from where," said Al-Ghozi's father, Zainuri, a local legislator in Madiun. "When he was in Pakistan, he never contacted us. Not a telephone call. Not even a letter. Sometimes we wondered how he was doing."

It was common for Al Qaeda to recruit potential operatives from religious schools in Pakistan, but there is no indication whether Al-Ghozi spent time in Afghanistan or attended Al Qaeda training camps there.

His parents said he left Pakistan in 1995 and returned to Indonesia to visit the family. He left after a month, saying he was moving to Malaysia. They did not see him again for three more years.

The last time he was home was eight months ago, when he brought his wife, a Malaysian, to visit. He told his father that he was working as a preacher in Malaysia.

Al-Ghozi's mother, Rukanah, says her son was devoted to Islam and fasted every Monday and Thursday. When he was home, they prayed together. He prized cleanliness and always read the Koran after praying, she says. Sometimes he would tell his mother not to talk in a loud voice because women should speak softly.

Unlike many devout Muslims--but like the Sept. 11 hijackers--Al-Ghozi usually wore Western-style clothes and was clean-shaven.

"I cannot forget his kindness," his mother said. "All our family cried when they heard the news, because we think that he is a very nice person."

Investigators have revealed little about Al-Ghozi's travels since 1995 but indicate that he spent time in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia.

During questioning, he confessed to police that he provided money and explosives for the deadly bombings in Manila on Dec. 30, 2000. He also admitted that he phoned the police and the media, identified himself as "a freedom fighter" and claimed credit for the blasts, which went off almost simultaneously in busy parts of the capital, including a transit station.

Investigators recently began examining whether the Manila bombings may have been connected to explosions in Indonesia six days earlier. That Christmas Eve, bombs went off nearly simultaneously in churches in 10 cities, killing 19 people and injuring more than 100.

Police are also looking at the possibility that Al-Ghozi was connected to a heretofore-unexplained blast at the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta on Aug. 1, 2000, that seriously injured Ambassador Leonides Caday and killed two other people.

Philippine authorities arrested Al-Ghozi in the early morning of Jan. 15 just hours before he was scheduled to leave the country and fly to the Thai capital, Bangkok. He was picked up in a largely Muslim neighborhood of Manila about a mile from the presidential palace.

He claimed to be a Filipino and was using Philippine travel documents under three names--Al-Ghozi, Abu Saad and Sammy Salih Jamil.

But under questioning, police say, he quickly admitted his role in the Manila bombings and told officials of the explosives hidden in the southern Philippine city of General Santos.

"According to his own admission, he was deeply involved in the Dec. 30 bombings," Gen. Maralit said. "He admitted that he supplied money and explosives for the bombing. He was one of the key players."

Some officials wonder if his rapid confession was aimed at steering police away from a grander scheme, such as a planned attack elsewhere in the region.

Authorities in Singapore say Al-Ghozi and the operative named Sammy arrived in the city-state in October and began working with a five-member Jemaah Islamiah cell to videotape potential targets. A copy of the videotape was found by police in the office of Fathi Abu Bakar Bafana, one of the cell members.

Members of another Jemaah Islamiah cell had prepared a plan in 1999 to bomb U.S. sailors near a transit station in Singapore, authorities say. The group videotaped the targets and delivered a copy of the tape to a top Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda leaders decided not to proceed with the bombing, but the plan convinced them that the Singapore group could mount a successful terror attack, officials say.

Among the targets that Al-Ghozi and his collaborators cased in October were the U.S. and Israeli embassies, the British and Australian high commissions and commercial buildings where prominent U.S. companies have offices, authorities say.

Al-Ghozi and Sammy directed the cell members to purchase 17 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly explosive fertilizer, to make truck bombs. Once the local cell prepared the explosives, according to the plan, an outsider would carry out the attacks.

However, based on a tip from a local citizen, Singaporean police already had members of the group under surveillance. In December, before the cell could take delivery of the fertilizer, police arrested 13 suspected members.

Singaporean authorities said that it was arrested cell members who identified Al-Ghozi as "Mike." "Sammy" has not been found.

*

Sari Sudarsono of The Times' Jakarta Bureau contributed to this report.

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