The Magazine

Dire Straits

The war on terror's Singapore front.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By AUSTIN BAY
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"Then you go find open sources who can confirm chatter," Chang says. "What I am trying to say to you, from my experience, is that American vessels and foreign embassies are not necessarily their only targets, Colonel."

Colonel. A careful investigator, he'd been to my website and elsewhere. I tell him I'm just a reservist.

"Yes," Chang smiles. "Yes, Mr. Bay." He amuses himself.

"But you agree a U.S. Navy ship is a prime target. Big headlines?"

"There are other attractive targets," he says, "from their [JI's] perspective. Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Indonesia--this region's been with this longer than you. We've been targets longer than you. I don't say this to insult. . . . America has joined our war."

Three weeks after this conversation, the Singapore Home Affairs Ministry released a white paper confirming JI's plans for a sea attack. According to the report, markings on a topographical map ISD acquired "identified a strategic kill zone where the channel was narrowest and where the naval ships would have no room to avoid a collision with a suicide vessel."

But evidence gathered by Singapore's ISD over the past five years also makes Chang's point: Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia lie first and foremost in JI's geo-strategic kill zone. JI has large plans for the whole of Southeast Asia, plans dating from well before 9/11. Drawing on cadres schooled in past radical political movements that used Islam as both a wedge issue and a rallying cause, JI seeks to establish a grand "Islamic state" stretching from southern Thailand through Malaysia, the Philippine and Indonesian archipelagoes, and Australia. Indeed, JI produced a "green map" where the reach of sharia, as interpreted by JI leadership, extends into the Australian continent and New Guinea. Fanciful? Megalomaniacal? After 9/11 only the willfully blind can dismiss the motivating power of such an imperial eschatology.

Chang shows me a copy of JI's dreamland, pulling the map from his brown notebook and placing it on the counter. It's our second meeting. Chang orders a latte as I study the map. Borneo, Java, Thailand's Krak peninsula, the whole of the Philippines, western and northern Australia shaded in this photocopy.

"They believe it," he says.

And belief, in that crowd, becomes bombs. Or, rather, it becomes dreams of bombing campaigns. JI hatched plans to attack Singapore's international airport. JI jihadis reconnoitered the cargo center on Singapore's Jurong Island. Shipping containers may be the most frightening potential delivery device for a terrorist's nuclear bomb. A Taiwanese businessman told me about his company's concerns with the safety of shipping containers moving through the Strait. Singapore worries him less than Malaysia because "Singapore police do a serious job of cargo inspection." Still, seized notes and confessions from arrested JI operatives about an attack on the Jurong complex put a scare in trade-dependent Singapore. Which is the strategic ploy.

"JI chooses [terror operations] in Singapore for the demonstrative effect," says K. Kesavapany, director of Singapore's Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. We are in his chauffeured car, driving down Napier Road, a toney, tree-shaded boulevard where the U.S., British, and Australian embassies line up like well-fenced bunkers. All three, as well as the Israeli embassy, had made JI's target list. "We in Singapore have our guard up, so if al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah could get it done here, a terror strike, they can get it done anywhere in the region. That is the message." We pass a bus stop across from the U.S. embassy, the spot where a JI recon team videotaped the approaches to the American compound.

"We're an island World Trade Center," Kesavapany adds, as his driver turns the corner to drop me off at my hotel.

Over afternoon tea I get a scholar's take on JI's plans for Malaysia. Again, no direct attribution. Why? He's a Muslim and, to paraphrase Mr. Kesavapany, he comes from a country where JI can get it done.

"Jemaah Islamiyah in Malaysia. They are clever, yes. They have an education program. But their secret is no secret. It's money. Arab money. Saudi Arab money."

"Can you prove that?"

"Where else but oil does it come from?" he says. "I know what I am told. With that money they promote the Arabization of our Islam in Southeast Asia. Object and you face personal violence."

Arabization is a highly nuanced term, one used repeatedly among Malaysian and Indonesian Muslims I talk to. The general drift is that it represents a movement toward an aggressive anti-Western, anti-secular, and racially tinged Islam in Southeast Asia, the racial tinge being anti-Chinese.