- The Washington Times - Friday, January 7, 2005

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — An extremist Islamic group with links to al Qaeda has set up relief operations in Aceh province on Sumatra island, raising concerns that international relief workers will become terrorist targets as in Iraq.

Amid hundreds of aid workers near the airport in Banda Aceh, Laskar Mujahidin posted an English-language sign that reads “Islamic Law Enforcement.”

The group, known for hunting down and killing Christians during a long-running sectarian conflict in another part of Indonesia, said yesterday it is collecting corpses, distributing food and spreading Islamic teachings among refugees.

U.S., Australian and South Korean government officials said they were aware of security threats in the region and were taking precautions. One major aid agency said its staff had been ordered not to fly in U.S. helicopters.

Even if Islamic militants forgo attacking foreigners for the time being, analysts warned that they will try to stoke anti-Western sentiment and bide their time for a chance to strike.

A U.S. official in Aceh, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said American forces were aware of Laskar Mujahidin’s presence and that it was a cause for worry.

“You’ve got to be on your toes,” the official said. “We’re watching them. Something can happen.”

Lt. Cmdr. John Daniel, a spokesman for the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group, said the Indonesian military — which has long fought separatist rebels in Aceh — was helping with security.

“We feel safe with the Indonesian military there,” Cmdr. Daniel said. “We are cautious, but we’re not doing anything special.”

The South Korean government issued a warning yesterday saying it had “acquired intelligence that our relief groups in Indonesia and some other areas are becoming a possible target of terror attacks.”

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the warning was “not based on verifiable intelligence” and the statement was issued as a “precautionary warning.”

Indonesia is the world’s largest predominantly Islamic nation with more than 200 million Muslims.

Nongovernmental organizations of all kinds — religious, political and others — have rushed to Sumatra to help in the relief effort, many of them ferried in on Indonesian military planes.

Among those brought in on military aircraft were 50 members of Laskar Mujahidin, according to Jundi, a Laskar group member who like many Indonesians goes by a single name.

Jundi said Laskar Mujahidin has set up four posts in Aceh, and sent more than 200 members to the provincial capital, Banda Aceh, where they have joined other aid organizations at a camp near the military airport.

The militant group was founded in the late 1990s to launch attacks against priests and churches in the Maluku islands in eastern Indonesia, where large pockets of Christians live; some 9,000 people died in sectarian violence in the Malukus from 1999 to 2001.

The guerrillas operated in small bands, were often described as Ninjas, and reportedly wore masks when fighting. The organization’s fighters numbered about 500 at its height in mid-2000.

Laskar Mujahidin was once headed by Abu Bakar Bashir, an Islamic cleric now on trial as a suspected leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, which has close links to al Qaeda. Some Jemaah Islamiyah members helped the September 11 hijackers.

The group has been accused of having links to terrorist groups outside Indonesia, including al Qaeda, according to a report by Sidney Jones, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

It also reportedly accepted aid offered by an emissary of Osama bin Laden, Miss Jones wrote in a recent report.

In a speech in Singapore yesterday, Miss Jones said Laskar Mujahidin’s motives on Sumatra may have to do with fears that the foreign humanitarian effort was an attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Jundi, the Laskar Mujahidin member, said the group would not interfere with foreign troops — as long as they kept strictly to humanitarian operations.

“We are here to help our Muslim brothers,” he said. “As long as they are here to help, we will have no problem with them.”

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