Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Asian leaders may be next terror target

ISOLATED Jemaah Islamiyah has pulled off devastating attacks on 'soft targets,' but anti-terror experts say internal divisions and fund shortages are forcing it to aim higher


An al-Qaeda-linked group that staged the deadliest post-Sept. 11 terror bombing is shifting tactics and believed to be planning assassinations of Western and regional leaders in Asia, moving away from large-scale strikes against civilian targets, officials said.

Increasingly isolated and on the run, Jemaah Islamiyah's capabilities have been eroded by dozens of arrests, a shortage of funds and divisions within its leadership.

As a result, the group isn't focusing on coordinated attacks like the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people and last year's suicide bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, which killed 12 people, officials said.

"The threat has been contained but it is still there and has not been eliminated completely," said Zainal Abidin Zain, director-general of Southeast Asia's US-backed anti-terror center in Malaysia.

Jemaah Islamiyah remains the most dangerous terror group in Southeast Asia. But the Marriott bombing was the last large-scale attack attributed to the group. Some security officials suggest the arrests of key members -- including Hambali, the group's alleged operations chief -- has stripped it of the ability to strike in a big way anytime soon.

Remnants of Jemaah Islamiyah have tried to regroup in Indonesia so they could launch more strikes but Hambali's arrest has hindered the enterprise, a Malaysian government official said on condition of anonymity.

Jemaah Islamiyah's alleged leader, Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is jailed in Indonesia awaiting trial on allegations that he ordered the Marriott attack and other charges.

The group still has an estimated 2,000 operatives throughout Southeast Asia. But the organization has been infiltrated by informants, doesn't have enough money and faces a public increasingly intolerant of terrorism, according to Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert who has studied the organization.

"All the major bombing operations that we know of involved the transfer of some money from outside," Jones said. "From interrogation depositions that we've gotten hold of, it seems there isn't enough money to support the organization, let alone the families of members who have been detained."

The Marriott bombing sparked outrage in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, because 11 of the 12 victims were Indonesian. It also triggered divisions within Jemaah Islamiyah, Indonesian police say.

Key members pushed to abandon attacks on so-called soft targets, saying they fail to further their goals of establishing an Islamic state by 2025, police said. They would rather focus on religious indoctrination and building a base throughout the country.

But police have warned that Jemaah Islamiyah is planning attacks to disrupt Indonesia's presidential election on Sept. 20.

A senior Indonesian anti-terror official, Ansyaad Mbai, said police were investigating information that Jemaah Islamiyah has shifted to assassination squads.

"The possibility of assassinations squads is very high," he said. "We don't discount it because Jemaah Islamiyah has used it before."

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