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Indonesia ripe for bin Laden

Weak central authority has opened the way for radical Muslim groups to gain a foothold in this far-flung nation of islands.

©Los Angeles Times

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 14, 2001

Weak central authority has opened the way for radical Muslim groups to gain a foothold in this far-flung nation of islands.

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Osama bin Laden, suspected of masterminding Tuesday's attacks in New York and at the Pentagon, has begun operating in Indonesia, where social chaos and rising Islamic fundamentalism provide a rich recruiting ground, authorities said.

Bin Laden, sought by the United States for his alleged role in the 1998 bombing of two embassies in Africa, is thought to be planning a terrorist attack in Indonesia, possibly against the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta, officials said. The embassy has been on high alert for a month.

Intelligence officials also think the bin Laden organization might seek to use the vast, unruly Indonesian archipelago as a staging area for attacks in other countries.

Islamic fundamentalism has found many new supporters in Indonesia since 1998, when the downfall of Suharto ended more than three decades of military dictatorship.

Government restrictions that once kept Muslim extremists in check have disappeared. However, no effective law enforcement system has been established to replace authoritarian rule, creating a state of lawlessness.

Indonesian officials said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick raised the issue of bin Laden with President Megawati Sukarnoputri when he visited last month.

They expect the matter to come up again when Megawati meets President Bush in Washington. A meeting between the two is scheduled for next week, but could be postponed because of Tuesday's attacks.

Lt. Gen. Kiki Syahnakri, deputy chief of the Indonesian army, warned recently that international terrorist activity is likely to escalate in Indonesia, a sprawling country of 17,000 islands.

"The chances are very high that in the next three years we will fight terrorism, specifically international terrorism that enters Indonesia," the general told the Australian newspaper. "We also received information from America, as well as other parties, of Osama bin Laden's presence in Indonesia."

During the 1990s, bin Laden is believed to have funneled money to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the southern Philippines and trained some Indonesians there along with Filipinos.

Over the past year, fighters from Afghanistan with alleged links to bin Laden have traveled to Indonesia's Maluku islands to join forces with Laskar Jihad, an extremist Indonesian Islamic group that is seeking to drive Christians from the region.

Western officials say that Laskar Jihad has adopted methods similar to other groups connected to bin Laden, including using the same kind of detonator for their bombs.

Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia's population is Muslim.

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