Australia Hunts for Terror Cells

Times Staff Writer

When two traveling Muslim preachers came here in the 1990s, Muchsen Thalib met them at the airport, drove them around and let them stay in his spare room for weeks at a time.

The holy men used the names Abdus Samad and Abdul Halim, but their host knew their true identities: Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar. They were militant clerics who had fled Indonesia in 1985 for Malaysia to avoid subversion charges.

This month, more than a dozen heavily armed Australian police and intelligence agents raided Thalib’s house and questioned him for hours about his ties to the two religious teachers. The officers carted away three computers, a mobile phone, a fax machine, stacks of documents and 15 videotapes that Thalib had made of the clerics’ lectures. They also took his passport.


“They consider me a terror suspect,” said the clothing shop owner. “They came with their guns and everything. They miscalculated about me. I would not support anyone who was involved in any type of crime.”

The preachers’ visits are the focus of an intensive investigation into whether the pair established “sleeper” terror cells in Australia, which until recently seemed far removed from the turmoil of the outside world.

Authorities here say Bashir visited Australia at least 11 times, often staying for weeks and traveling from city to city. Intelligence officers have raided the homes of more than a dozen Indonesian immigrants in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth -- sometimes breaking down the doors -- in their search for evidence of terrorists.

The Singapore and Malaysia governments say Bashir heads Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian terror network affiliated with Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda organization. Jemaah Islamiah has been blamed for dozens of attacks that killed more than 40 people.

Indonesian police arrested Bashir last month on charges that he was behind a series of church bombings, a mosque bombing and a plot to kill Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri. They suspect he also was behind the Oct. 12 bombing in Bali that killed 191 people, nearly half of them Australians.

Bashir has repeatedly denied involvement in terrorism but advocates the creation of a worldwide Islamic state. He says church bombings are justified in defense of Islam, and he praises Bin Laden as a true Muslim warrior.

The Bali blast killed more Australians overseas than any other event since World War II and has badly shaken this country of 19 million people. Many victims were young men and women enjoying an evening at a nightclub when the attack occurred. For weeks, there were funerals almost daily as the badly burned bodies of the victims were identified and returned home.

Australia has long been wary of neighboring Indonesia, a nation of 228 million and the world’s most populous Muslim country. Officials fear that the extremist Islamic ideology that inspires terror attacks elsewhere has spread to Australia’s community of 500,000 Muslims.

Two Australians seized overseas, Muslim convert David Hicks and Egyptian-born immigrant Mamdouh Habib, are locked up at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba on charges that they are associated with Al Qaeda.

One Singaporean Jemaah Islamiah member, Hashim bin Abas, traveled frequently to Australia on business before he was arrested in December for his alleged involvement in a plot to blow up the U.S. and Australian embassies in Singapore, among other targets.

In a videotape made last year and recently aired in the West, Bin Laden said Australia deserved to be attacked because it had helped predominantly Christian East Timor, a former Indonesian province, become independent. He asserted that the onetime Portuguese colony was “part of the Islamic world.” In an audiotape released last week, a voice identified as Bin Laden’s said Australia “ignored the warning until it woke up to the sounds of explosions in Bali.”

“We know that there are sympathizers of overseas terrorist organizations in Australia,” said Atty. Gen. Daryl Williams. “We know that there are people in Australia who trained with Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

In Perth, police raided the homes of Abdur Rahman Ayub, who reportedly fought for five years against Soviet forces in Afghanistan, and his brother, Abdul Rahim Ayub, who worked at an Islamic school in Australia.

No one has been arrested on terror charges as a result of the raids, although five people were picked up for immigration violations. Islamic leaders contend that the police tactics were an overreaction by a conservative government hostile to Muslim immigrants.

“We don’t think that any of the people have been involved in any kind of activity that could be classified as terrorism,” said Amjad Ali Mehboob, chief executive of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils.

The Bali bombing triggered numerous attacks against Muslims living in Australia, Islamic leaders say, and the police raids have fed fear and anger among Australians.

Mehboob said his office has received many reports of harassment of Muslims on the street, particularly women, whose head scarves make them visible. Much of the abuse is verbal, he said, but some Muslims have been physically attacked.

Williams insists that the government was justified in using armed officers in the raids because some of the targeted were known to keep weapons.

“We were not targeting the Muslim community in general,” he said. “We were not targeting Indonesians in general. We were targeting specific individuals.”

The agents collected “valuable information,” Williams said, adding, “The government does not accept at face value what has been said in the media by individuals who were the subjects of the raids.”

During his 11 visits to Australia, authorities say, Bashir sometimes traveled with Sungkar and sometimes on his own. Bashir’s last visit was in early 1998, the attorney general said.

Bashir told The Times in January that he had never been to Australia.

Sungkar last visited Australia in 1999, Williams said. Widely recognized as the more influential leader of the two, he died of a heart attack that year shortly after the two lifelong friends returned from exile to Indonesia.

Authorities say Bashir and Sungkar entered Australia under false names. Most likely, they used Malaysian passports, although they were not Malaysian citizens.

Indeed, Bashir may now be stateless.

Indonesian national Police Chief Dai Bachtiar says Bashir lost his Indonesian citizenship while living in Malaysia because he failed to report to the embassy during his first five years abroad, as required by law.

The chief’s comment raises the possibility that Bashir could be deported to Malaysia, where he has been wanted since December on terrorism charges. Deporting Bashir would relieve Indonesia of the responsibility for trying him while satisfying the demands of other nations that he be jailed. Malaysia has a strict security act that permits terror suspects to be locked up indefinitely without trial.

Williams said the Australian government is investigating whether Bashir used the same methods here that officials in Singapore and Malaysia say Jemaah Islamiah employed to form terrorist cells there.

In those countries, the group’s religious teachers sought out likely subjects, offered them Islamic training and then indoctrinated them with a twisted interpretation of Islam in which violence is justified and innocent women and children who are killed are simply casualties of war, officials say.

Several Sydney residents whose homes were raided said they attended sermons and met with the preachers, but they insisted that they never heard either man express extremist views. Bashir, they said, emphasized that Indonesian Muslim immigrants should attend mosque faithfully and live peacefully alongside Australians.

“He often told us to be good Muslims in this country,” said Jaya Basri, who said he attended three of Bashir’s lectures. “We should be nice to the neighbors, to others. He told us to be nice to the Australian government, too. He said we should do that because -- and I really remember this one -- our condition here is much better than in Indonesia.”

Basri’s home in Sydney was one of the first raided. He apparently came to the attention of Australian intelligence because he circulated a newsletter in the Indonesian community that mentioned Bashir. Basri, who immigrated in 1994, denies any connection to terrorism and says he was just reporting on events in Indonesia.

“We are not members of Jemaah Islamiah. We do not have any link with Jemaah Islamiah,” he said. “Why do they blame us?”

Another subject of the raids was Kushmir Nesirwan, who arrived in Australia in 1975 and became a citizen in 1990. He attended some of Bashir’s sermons and once invited the cleric to his house for lunch.

A devout Muslim, Nesirwan says that two years ago he visited Indonesia’s Molucca Islands -- the scene of bitter fighting between Muslims and Christians -- to see for himself what was happening.

However, the 48-year-old butcher says he has nothing to do with violence and resents that publicity over the raids has made him a target. “They call me a terrorist when I’m walking down the street,” he said.

When Thalib heard about the raids, he knew that agents would want to speak to him.

Not only had the two clerics been his guests, but he had also hosted another Indonesian militant, Laskar Jihad leader Jafar Umar Thalib, who is his cousin. Laskar Jihad sent thousands of Muslim militants to fight Christians in the Moluccas.

Muchsen Thalib, 50, said he called the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and offered to come in. Instead, more than a dozen agents arrived at his door at 6 a.m. the following day and searched his house for more than six hours. The agents accused him of being a terrorist and threatened him with 25 years in prison under Australia’s new anti-terror law, he said.

“There was no reason to come with weapons and make everyone scared,” said Thalib, who became an Australian citizen in 1999. “I keep asking myself, why did they do this to me?”