- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 9, 2003

HONOLULU — Fighting the Indonesia-based al Qaeda-linked terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah has become a top priority for U.S. forces in Asia, a top U.S. military official said.

As the United States pieces together intelligence on the Islamist extremist group that operates in Indonesia, which is a moderate Muslim country, the group is emerging as much more significant than first believed.

While specialists had said that Jemaah Islamiyah involved only some 300 active members, the United States now believes that number could be as high as 750.

Although the United States has captured the group’s leader, Hambali, who has been linked to the September 11 terror attacks, and Jakarta has arrested several Jemaah Islamiyah operatives, the fear is that a new generation of terrorist leaders is being groomed for action.

“While we’ve had considerable success in taking JI leaders out of the picture, we believe very strongly the organization is quite a large and quite a capable organization and clearly has other leaders ready to step in,” the official said.

“Like the weeds in my yard, you can pull a few but there are more out there,” he told a small group of reporters Wednesday.

The terrorist group has been behind a string of attacks in the region, including the bombings that killed more than 200 people in Bali in October 2002 and another explosion that left 12 dead in the capital in August.

A senior diplomat added that the United States was also concerned that the organization was expanding and cooperating with global organizations such as al Qaeda and regional terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines.

“There is concern about JI in the south of Thailand where it meets Malaysia,” the diplomat said, adding that the terror group’s links with other organizations were ethnic as well as based on clan and family ties.

The United States has been working with intelligence agencies across the region to track down Jemaah Islamiyah operatives and gain further information about the organization.

U.S. special forces for the Pacific region, whose role is key in the war on terrorism, are expected to double in the near future from 75 to about 150 personnel.

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