An extremist Islamic group with alleged links to al-Qaida has set up a relief camp in the tsunami-stricken Aceh province on Sumatra island, raising concerns its fiercely anti-American members could stir up sentiment against U.S. and Australian troops helping to distribute aid.
The group, Laskar Mujahidin, posted an English-language sign at the camp that reads, “Islamic Law Enforcement.” Its members said Thursday they have been collecting corpses, distributing food and spreading Islamic teachings among refugees.
The presence of the group, known for killing Christians during a long-running sectarian conflict in another part of Indonesia, generated fears that U.S. military personnel and others involved in relief work could become a terror target.
It also underscores the fine line that foreigners, especially the American military, must tread between being welcomed as Samaritans or viewed as invaders in a country where suspicion of outsiders runs deep.
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.
Analysts said that Islamic terrorists known to operate in Indonesia would be foolish to try to attack anyone helping the hundreds of thousands of tsunami victims because it could result in aid groups pulling out and sour the militants’ chances of building popular support.
But they warned that radical groups entering the disaster zone to help in the relief effort would also try to stoke anti-Western sentiment, and wait for an opportunity to attack if public support for outside help wanes.
Ship-based U.S. Navy and Marine helicopter crews have flown scores of missions to coastal villages in recent days, delivering food and water and sometimes bringing injured survivors to the Banda Aceh airport. The Americans have been welcomed with gratitude.
A U.S. official in Aceh, speaking on 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.”
No special precautions
Lt. Cmdr. John Daniel, a spokesman for the USS Abraham Lincoln battle group, said helicopter crews were not taking special security precautions and that the Indonesian military — which has long fought separatist rebels in Aceh — was helping with security.
“We feel safe with the Indonesian military there,” Daniel said. “We are cautious, but we’re not doing anything special.”
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told The Associated Press his government had examined the potential threat from terrorists and there was no cause for alarm. “We monitored this but we have no evidence of it being a problem,” Downer said.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, is predominantly moderate but hosts dozens of radical Islamic groups. Non-governmental 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.
Group founded to attack churches
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 organization’s fighters numbered about 500 at its height in mid-2000.
Laskar Mujahidin has been accused of having links to terrorist groups outside Indonesia, including al-Qaida, according to a report by Sidney Jones, an expert on Indonesia’s Islamic radical organizations. It also reportedly accepted aid offered by an emissary of Osama bin Laden, Jones wrote.
In a speech Thursday in Singapore, Jones said Laskar Mujahidin’s motives on Sumatra may have to do with fears that the foreign humanitarian effort was a veiled attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity.
'Here to help our Muslim brothers'
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.”
But their presence highlighted the persistent danger of terrorism in Indonesia, and the murky and overlapping links of militant groups.
Laskar Mujahidin was once headed by Abu Bakar Bashir, an Islamic cleric now on trial as an alleged leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, which has close links to al-Qaida. Some Jemaah Islamiyah members helped the Sept. 11 hijackers.
Jemaah Islamiyah is blamed for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, a 2003 blast at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 and a suicide car bomb outside the Australian Embassy two months ago that killed 10. Bashir denies being a terrorist and says Jemaah Islamiyah does not exist. During a court hearing last week, he offered prayers for the victims of the tsunami.
Indonesia says threat exaggerated
Indonesian police said the threat was being exaggerated — a position that Indonesian officials frequently took about Islamic terror groups before the Bali attack.
“This group is here for humanitarian reasons,” said Indonesia’s chief detective, Lt. Gen. Suyitno Landung. “We should not be prejudiced against them. I’m worried the media is exaggerating the threat of this group.”
European governments and aid groups said they received no special terror warnings.
But Michel Brugiere, director of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, said that “given the context of the area where we are operating, we have very strict security measures in place.”
“Our teams are told that they should not fly in American army helicopters, since we’re concerned that they could be a particular target,” Brugiere said.