Al-Qaeda links with Southeast Asia fraying
A top Indonesian terror suspect captured in the Pakistani town where Osama bin Laden was later killed insists he was unaware of the al-Qaeda leader’s presence there, according to the video of his interrogation obtained by The Associated Press.
Alleged master bomb maker Umar Patek also described his frustration in re-establishing militant ties in his quest to go to Afghanistan and fight American soldiers. After flying on his own to Pakistan, he waited there for months before a years-old militant contact finally came for him.
His remarks, if true, would further bolster evidence that Southeast Asia’s Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist movement, responsible for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings, is now largely cut off from its long-standing al-Qaeda sponsorship, thanks in part to a relentless crackdown that has largely decimated their ranks.
Patek, whose trial resumes Monday in Jakarta for his alleged role in the Bali bombings that killed more than 200, was one of the last few remaining ranking Jemaah Islamiyah militants still on the run when Pakistani intelligence agents arrested him a year ago in the northwestern town of Abbottabad.
Although Jemaah Islamiyah is past its prime it is not vanquished, said Sidney Jones, a noted terrorism analyst from the International Crisis Group.
“Islamist radical groups in Southeast Asia, particularly those in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia have been damaged but they are still dangerous,” she told the AP.
“They can stand their own ground. They are not linked to al-Qaeda in any traditional way, but we have seen new waves of groups - to which al-Qaeda is not connected at all - emerge and become more of a threat in Indonesia,” she said. “However, the Indonesian police in particular is managing the threat very well.”
Four months after Patek’s arrest, U.S. Navy SEALS flew into Abbottabad and killed bin Laden.
Patek’s arrest from a safe house so close to bin Laden’s hide-out initially triggered speculation the terrorist leaders of al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia were more connected that had been thought. Some Indonesian government officials had also hinted at a link.
U.S. and Pakistani officials said that Patek’s presence in Abbottabad was a coincidence - and Patek’s own words seem to support that view.
The 30-minute video of the interrogation by Indonesian police in September on his return home shows the 45-year-old insisting he was in Pakistan on a personal mission to go to Afghanistan with his wife and conduct jihad there.
A smiling Patek, dressed in a white robe and a gold-white striped skull cap, says in the video: “This was a personal mission of mine to journey to Afghanistan. No one ordered me to, and I wasn’t out to build a new network.”
“It was pure coincidence that I was in the same town as Osama bin Laden ... It had to be God’s will.”
“All the time I was there, I stayed inside the house. In fact, I never left my room,” said Patek, who is accused of making the massive car bomb that struck two nightclubs on Bali’s famous Kuta beach, killing 202 people, mostly tourists.
Patek admitted to building the bomb during an earlier interrogation in Pakistan immediately after his arrest. He could face death by firing squad if convicted of various terrorism-related charges.
A top intelligence official in the Philippines cautioned that it was too early to conclude that Patek did not plan to hook up with bin Laden in Pakistan, given that only al-Qaeda had the resources Patek needed to pursue plans of setting up a new militant training camp, as he was suspected of seeking to do.
The official noted that most captured terrorists try to mislead investigators to protect themselves, their comrades and future plots.
Patek had shown intense passion for jihad, or holy war, in his homeland and in the southern Philippines, and it was strange that he would suddenly decide to go to an unfamiliar destination like Afghanistan, said the official, who was closely associated with the manhunt for Patek.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of a lack of authority to talk to reporters
Just before the 2002 bombings, Patek left Bali and went to a Muslim-dominated region of southern Philippines.
He told interrogators he came back several times from the Philippines to Indonesia to attend to family matters before deciding to travel to wage jihad in Afghanistan, flying first to Pakistan in August 2010.
“Some say I had fled ... that’s not true. I never fled. I just migrated, merely to wage a holy war to help fellow Muslims who are oppressed in their lands ... in the Philippines and Palestine,” Patek said in the video interrogation, this time with a straight face.
“If I knew how to go to Palestine, I might have gone there. But because I didn’t know how, I (intended to go) to Afghanistan through Pakistan.”
Patek told the interrogators that he wrote to a years-old email contact of a Pakistani militant named Badar, whom he apparently had never met, asking for help to go to Afghanistan.
Relying on such an old contact suggests Patek had been unable to forge any new jihadist ties in recent years. It was a far cry from the early 2000s, when Jemaah Islamiyah was believed to have received funding and operational support from al-Qaeda, and some JI leaders were believed to have close relations with al-Qaeda leaders from their days in militant training camps in Afghanistan.
He’d originally gotten Badar’s email address by his fellow radical, Imam Samudra, one of the masterminds of the Bali bombings, when both were in the Philippines. Samudra was convicted and executed in late 2008.
Patek said approached a Pakistani shopkeeper, Nadeem Akhtar, who helped him get a Pakistani business visa through his connections in the embassy in Jakarta.
Akhtar was deported from Indonesia on August 27, 2010, for overstaying his visa. Three days later, Patek and his Filipino wife followed, using forged passports and stayed in Akhtar’s house for two months. He later moved to the town of Multan to learn honey production and also got a visa extension for another three months.
During his five month stay in Pakistan, Patek said, he didn’t do anything except trade in honey while waiting for his militant contact, Badar, who finally came to pick him up from Multan.
Badar and another man who identified himself as Haidar, took Patek and his wife to Abbottabad in January 2011, he said. It is unclear which of Pakistan’s Islamist militant groups Badar and Haidar were part of.
They stayed in Haidar’s parents’ house in a room on the upper floor while waiting for the next stage of their journey to Afghanistan.
Nine days later, a squad of heavily armed Pakistani intelligence agents raided the house and captured Patek after shooting him in the thigh.