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Thailand: A safe haven for al Qaeda?

From Maria Ressa
CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief

Hambali. His whereabouts are unknown
Hambali. His whereabouts are unknown

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Al Qaeda operatives may be turning to Thailand after crackdowns in neighboring countries. CNN's Maria Ressa reports. (December 5)
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SPECIAL REPORT
JIHAD IN ASIA
A CNN Special Report by Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa
SPECIAL REPORT
War against terror: Southeast Asia front 

(CNN) -- Thailand may be committing the same mistake as Indonesia which long denied the presence of a terror network within its borders, an ongoing CNN investigation has found.

Evidence is mounting that the country has unwittingly been playing a role for terror network operatives in Southeast Asia, and could, at the very least be providing a safe haven for al Qaeda.

When al Qaeda operative Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi was arrested in the Philippines early this year, he was on his way to Thailand.

Based on confidential intelligence documents obtained by CNN, Al-Ghozi told his Filipino interrogators al Qaeda operatives were told to meet in Thailand to avoid a terror crackdown in neighboring Singapore and Malaysia.

Al-Ghozi never made it to that meeting, but another al Qaeda operative did -- Canadian-Kuwaiti Mohammed Mansour Jabarah.

An intelligence report from a western nation confirms Jabarah attended that meeting along with another man, Riduan Isamuddin

.

Also known as Hambali, Riduan Isamuddin is the operations chief for Jemaah Islamiya (JI), al Qaeda's network in the region. Intelligence sources tell CNN Hambali sits on al Qaeda's leadership council.

Westerners targeted

Indonesian authorities have detained and arrested several alleged JI members, some in connection to the October 12 Bali blasts, others for alleged roles in other terrorist attacks in the region. (Alleged terror suspect held)

They say investigations are unraveling the web that is JI's network in the region, its links to al Qaeda, and possible clues in the hunt for the group's leaders.

An FBI document obtained by CNN says it was in Thailand that Hambali announced a "plan to conduct small bombings in bars, cafes or nightclubs frequented by Westerners in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia."

A CIA document obtained by CNN confirms that "Hambali was located in Thailand and commented that he had one ton of explosives in Indonesia."

Al Qaeda operatives, regional intelligence officials tell CNN, are working with local members in Thailand.

Denial

Thailand says it is keeping a close eye on several people in the country with suspected links to Islamic terrorists
Thailand says it is keeping a close eye on several people in the country with suspected links to Islamic terrorists

However, Thailand denies the presence of al Qaeda within its borders.

"We have no such evidence that Thailand is the place where they have, they plan terrorism or they have any relation to terrorism," Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told CNN.

Philippine intelligence reports obtained by CNN show numerous links between armed Muslim groups in Thailand and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest Muslim separatist group in the Philippines.

The MILF ran three al Qaeda training camps, intelligence officials tell CNN, and when the Philippine military captured one of those camps, soldiers found Thai passports.

Recently, Thailand's Supreme Military Commander, Gen. Surayud Chulanont, said he is aware Muslim extremists fled to Thailand following the crackdowns in neighboring nations, but denied they had any links to the Bali bombings.

Yet, according to CNN's investigation, one of the militant groups he named, the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia from Malaysia has been co-opted by al Qaeda and linked to the Bali blasts.

The problem with denial, intelligence officials say, is that -- like in Indonesia -- at worst, it allows the network to flourish.

At best, denial gives al Qaeda a safe haven.



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