US may turn attention to far east terror groups
Pentagon says Filipino separatists have links to al-Qaida
Matthew Engel in Washington
Thursday October 11, 2001
The second front in Washington's war on terrorism may soon be opened up in the far east, where the US believes there are several groups that have links to the al-Qaida network.
Officials at the state department and the Pentagon are known to be especially alarmed about the situation in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country.
Suggestions that covert operations would soon - or may already - be under way there, as well as in the Philippines and possibly also Malaysia, were given some credence by sources close to the administration yesterday. There has been strong opposition in all three states to the US attacks on Afghanistan.
There has been fighting this week between Philippines troops and Muslim separatist fighters from the Abu Sayyaf group, which the US claims is linked to al-Qaida. The Philippines government says 21 rebels have been killed.
Tony Blair last night said the "first phase" of the war was against Afghanistan, but refused to rule out military action against other countries. Asked whether Britain would back strikes against Iraq, he told BBC2's Newsnight: "What I am not going to be prepared to do is to say that if there is evidence that emerges in respect of other terrorist operations elsewhere in the world we are not going to take action."
The US secretary of state, Colin Powell, yesterday denied there were plans to move into the far east but also said the US campaign was directed "against terrorism wherever it may exist in the world".
President George Bush said yesterday that the eradication of global terrorism was "our calling". He added: "Now is the time to draw the line in the sand against the evil ones."
However, there were signs of uneasiness from the allies at the White House's apparent return to the boundless bellicosity of the early days of the crisis. Nato insisted yesterday that it would need more evidence before it could support attacks anywhere other than Afghanistan. The secretary general, Lord Robertson, said Nato's endorsement for anti-terrorist action was based on "dealing with those connected with and responsible for the attacks of September 11".
In the far east, a full-scale assault seems out of the question but the new US stance makes it highly credible that special forces could be drafted in to help governments stamp out rebellions with potentially dangerous international links.
Indonesia is a source of alarm for diplomatic and military strategists. It has been increasingly unstable politically and Gen Powell devoted much time during the build-up to Sunday's bombings to courting President Megawati Sukarnoputri to ensure her backing. "There's a huge concern that Indonesia could be the world's biggest powderkeg," one diplomat in Washington said.
Two Indonesian fundamentalist groups are suspected of having links to al-Qaida. One is the Islamic Defenders Front, whose leader, Muhammad Rizieq, described the US on Monday as a "terrorist nation... who must be driven from the face of the earth". It has also threatened foreigners and is known to raid bars and nightclubs frequented by expatriates.
The other group, Laskar Jihad, has been threatening to wage a holy war on the Molucca islands, which have experienced bloody religious riots in the past few years, and is suspected to have had reinforcements from the Taliban.
There have even been rumours in Washington that Osama bin Laden might be holed up in Indonesia. The diplomat described this as "implausible but not impossible. It's a big country and law enforcement and infrastructure is very primitive in large parts," he said. "There is no proper authority in some places." Despite Mrs Megawati's backing for the US position, her own vice-president, Hamzah Haz, has said the attacks merely "atoned" for past sins against other countries.
The New York Times yesterday quoted an administration official, who put greater emphasis on the threat from the predominantly Catholic Philippines, describing it as "a major operational hub". There is less direct threat in Malaysia but investigators have claimed that some of the September 11 hijackers had been seen there.