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Dire Straits

The war on terror's Singapore front.

Mar 3, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 24 • By AUSTIN BAY
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The short version of JI's "education program" is that terrorist cash muscles out public and moderate Muslim educators in Malaysian villages. Undermining the schools "preys on a [strategic] weakness in Malaysia," the scholar says. "Their object is to undermine moderate Muslims."

I ask for his definition of a moderate Muslim.

"A Muslim who accepts the nation-state system," he replies.

THE OCTOBER 12, 2002, bombing of a nightclub on the Indonesian island of Bali was a "choice target," Colter tells me. No, Colter isn't his real name, but it should be. His blue eyes are as hard as gun barrels. He is an "American asset." That's the lingo, which is supposed to say a load without saying much. "Bali's a Hindu island with Australian tourists. Australia is an active U.S. ally. That blast was an economic shot at Indonesia. New York Times Sunday travel section readers know where Bali is."

The Bali bombing killed almost 200 people and injured another 300. It also demonstrated that al Qaeda was still probing Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

"What kind of counterterror cooperation exists with Indonesia since Bali?" I ask Chang, when I see him again.

"Since Bali the Indonesian police have been able to act more readily. Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore--the police cooperate closely."

"But until the Bali mess, the Indonesian government was publicly denying the threat of radical Islamists in Indonesia?" I prod.

Chang doesn't reply.

Subways are another choice target. Singapore beefed up its counterterror unit after the 1995 Aum Shin Rikyo sarin nerve gas attack in Tokyo. A December 2000 terror attack on the Manila metro sent shock waves through the region. Indonesian Islamic militants were implicated in that attack. Filipino and other intelligence services had already developed dossiers linking JI to the Philippines' Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Jihadis trained with the MILF in the southern Philippines until the Philippine military began overrunning the camps in 2000 and 2001.

But for the clinching evidence putting JI in al Qaeda's bosom, check out the reconnaissance video of Singapore's Yishun metro station, which can be downloaded from the Singapore Ministry of Home Affairs website ( Yishun is a subway stop near Sembawang, where U.S. naval facilities are located. The narrator of the video analyzes the arrival of the connecting bus outside the station and discusses the comings and goings of U.S. military personnel. One sequence focuses on a street drain as the voice, in cold sing-song, muses that it could be "useful."

The tape sounds like a bad outtake from "Mission Impossible." But it isn't. The Yishun tape was acquired by "American assets" in Afghanistan.

"Singapore's ISD was already onto the JI cell when U.S. forces picked up the video in an Afghan location," Colter tells me.

"But someone in D.C. took credit for the tape as leading to December 2001's mass round-up of jihadis?" I ask.

"ISD has a legitimate gripe," Colter replies.

Arrests and convictions of terrorists are a measure of success, and by that measure Singapore has an extraordinary track record for busting terror cells. The biggest roundups were in December 2001 (15 arrests) and in September 2002 (21 arrests). I know all about Lee Kwan Yew, the imperious boss of the city-state. I know about the canings (a punishment dating from British colonial days); I know the press gets clamped occasionally. I know the government arranges dates for men and women with college degrees because it worries about eugenics and about population decline. Singapore desperately needs an effective political opposition. That being said, it's a party town and no police state. The arrests of terrorists speak to the threat level, not to police intrusiveness.

Home Affairs Ministry spokesman Mrs. Ong-Chew Peck Wan tells me, "After September 11, we stepped up our security measures, including tightening border and immigration controls, protecting our key installations, particularly those strategic to us. As well as very sensitive targets, for example, the embassies."

The December 2001 arrests thwarted embassy bombings. An Indonesian, Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, was subsequently arrested in the Philippines in connection with planned attacks. Al-Ghozi was identified as one of two al Qaeda terror experts who advised the Singapore cell.

IN THE ENTRANCE HALLWAY of the U.S. embassy stands a bell given to the city of Singapore by Paul Revere's daughter. The bell was cast by the Revere works in Boston in the 1840s.

Getting into the embassy to see it, however, is a trick in these post-9/11 days. Outside Gurkhas patrol, inside Marines and plainclothesmen aided by electronics examine every stitch.

Frank Lavin, U.S. ambassador to Singapore, is an energetic and erudite man. "This is a war with many fronts and requires intense cooperation," he says. "Southeast Asia is a major theater of this war, no doubt about that. Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation. Jemaah Islamiyah's transnational character demonstrates the need to cooperate. Singapore's done a superb job, as good as the U.S. But we know there could still be an incident."

I mention a video I've seen, one shot from the bus stop across the street, the U.S. embassy cased as a target.

"Diplomats are in the front line of this war," is his clipped response.

As I leave the embassy, a guard with a smile to put a cheshire cat to shame watches, his submachine gun professionally slung.

"What unit are you in?" I ask.

"Gurkha Contingent." Translation: He's a mercenary working special security duties for Singapore.

"The bus stop across the street. I saw a video shot by terrorists from that spot."

"Not now," he replies. No cockiness, lots of confidence.

"That's an MP-5," I say, pointing to his weapon.

"Yes . . . do you know it?"

"When I was in the American Army I had an M-3 .45 caliber sub in my tank. Not as fancy as that MP-5."

"When were you in the Army?"

"Well, I'm still in the reserves."

"Really?" With a quick click he pops me a salute.

I start to tell him I'm here as a writer. But I don't. I salute him, then head down the sidewalk to the street, a stretch of concrete that's as much a front line in this strange world war as Wall Street, or the Pentagon, or a minefield in southern Iraq.

Austin Bay is an author and syndicated columnist. His novel "The Wrong Side of Brightness" will be published this spring by Putnam/Berkley Books.