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War in Afghanistan halted al-Qaida weapons program

Tuesday, January 27, 2004

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- An al-Qaida program to develop chemical and biological weapons was in the early "conceptual stages" when it was cut short by the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. and Malaysian security officials told the Associated Press.

The information on the state of Osama bin Laden's weapons plan came from interrogations of terrorist suspects captured in Southeast Asia and from clues gathered in the Afghan battlefield, the authorities said.

The project was being developed in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Officials believe the program was being run by Yazid Sufaat, a former Malaysian army captain and U.S.-trained biochemist, under the direction of Riduan Isamuddin, or Hambali, an Indonesian accused of heading al-Qaida's operations in Southeast Asia.

Both men are suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida-linked Islamic extremist group.

Yazid was arrested in December 2001 as he returned to Malaysia from Afghanistan. Hambali was arrested last August in Thailand and is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location.

New vein of information

While clues that al-Qaida was trying to develop chemical and biological weapons were found in Afghanistan after the U.S. military victory in 2001, Hambali's arrest opened a new vein of intelligence.

Interrogators have been trying to match up details of the project gleaned separately from Yazid and Hambali, Malaysian officials told AP.

As the investigation continues, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi is considering whether to renew an order keeping Yazid in prison. The order expires Friday.

Yazid graduated from the University of California at Sacramento in 1987. But after returning to Malaysia, he began attending religious classes run by Hambali, a charismatic preacher, and became one of scores of Malaysians and Indonesians recruited to his radical form of Islam in the mid-1990s.

Yazid, now 40, spent time in an al-Qaida training camp in Afghanistan and became a key Jemaah Islamiyah member in Malaysia. He is accused of allowing top al-Qaida operatives -- including two eventual Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers -- to use an apartment he owned for meetings in Malaysia in January 2000, and gave hijacking suspect Zacarias Moussaoui a letter of employment that helped him enter the United States.

In October 2000, Yazid allegedly bought four tons of ammonium nitrate to be used to make bombs. At the time, Jemaah Islamiyah was plotting to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other Western targets in neighboring Singapore, officials say.

By mid-2001, Yazid was in Kandahar, the southern Afghan city that was the base of al-Qaida's Taliban hosts, and working on a program "to equip al-Qaida with the capability to launch a chemical attack," a Malaysian official said.

Yazid -- who police say is trained in counterinterrogation techniques and is "cooperative only in areas that he chooses to" -- has been evasive about chemical or biological weapons he was working on, an official said.

The Pentagon said in early 2002 that U.S. forces had found traces of anthrax at a suspected al-Qaida biological weapons site in Kandahar, along with some equipment needed to convert the bacteria into a weapon. Other samples found at the site tested positive for the poison ricin.

Yazid has told Malaysian authorities the program was in its "conceptual stages" when it was abandoned when the U.S.-led attack on the Taliban started in October 2001, an official said.

Hambali has given U.S. interrogators some information on the weapons program but not much detail, and Yazid is believed to know more specifics, the official said.

This has led to new U.S. interest in Yazid.

In the past, Malaysia has refused to consider extraditing Yazid to the United States. But FBI agents were allowed to question Yazid in November 2002, nearly a year before Hambali's arrest.

Granting foreign officials access to Yazid is a sensitive issue for Malaysia, which is holding at least 70 Islamic militant suspects under a law allowing indefinite detention without trial.

While Malaysia has been cooperating with U.S. counterterrorism authorities, at home the government plays down the role Malaysians may have played in international terrorism. Islam is a political issue in Malaysia, where a moderate form of the religion is practiced by about two-thirds of the population.

Malaysia strongly opposed the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So far, U.S. officials have made only informal approaches about questioning Yazid again, a Malaysian official said. He said the Americans believe Yazid has more information about al-Qaida, particularly about the group's attempts to obtain chemical weapons.

Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said he was not aware of any request for U.S. officials to question Yazid again.

"But if there is, we are willing to consider it," Syed Hamid told AP. "We are always ready to cooperate with any quarter in helping to combat international terrorism."

The order that has kept Yazid detained expires Friday. Under the security law, Abdullah can renew the order for two more years without any judicial review or public explanation.

Detention orders for more than a dozen other Jemaah Islamiyah suspects are due to expire by late February.

U.S. Embassy officials in Malaysia have said Washington is watching what happens to the jailed Jemaah Islamiyah suspects.


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