Head north out of Phnom Penh, and within a few miles the cacophonous traffic of Cambodia's capital gives way to herds of oxen and water buffalo, their shoulder blades rolling underneath their hides. As you travel, the riverside restaurants -- frequented by well-off Khmers and thick with neon lights and the sound of karaoke -- grow fewer and farther. Soon there is nothing but rice fields, the great brown swath of the Mekong River; and then, rising out of the flat landscape with surprising suddenness, an onion-shaped dome.
The dome crowns the al-Mukara Islamic School, home to more than 500 Cambodian Muslim students before a police raid in May 2003 sent the children streaming out of the gates with their hastily packed luggage. Three foreign-born men affiliated with the school and the Saudi charity that ran the institution were arrested; a Cambodian teacher at another Islamic school was detained a few weeks later. All were charged with “international terrorism with links to Jemaah Islamiyah,” the Southeast Asian arm of al-Qaeda that was behind the October 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia, which killed more than 200. Shortly after the raid, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen told the public that the arrests were “like taking a bomb out of our house. [Jemaah Islamiyah] are too dangerous.”
The case has put an uncomfortable spotlight on the predominantly Buddhist country's Cham community, which makes up about 6 percent of Cambodia's population and has its own language and culture, plus a religion -- Islam -- distinct from the rest of Cambodia. Many Cham dispute the claim that the school had links to international terrorism. “The Cambodian government wanted to have credit with Americans, that they are fighting terrorists,” said Ahmed Yahya, a parliamentarian and one of the country's most senior Muslim politicians. “The whole thing became very dark. … It made the people here very unhappy.”
Nonetheless, there may be reasons to believe that the raid on the school was more than pandering to America. There is a significant flow of aid from the Persian Gulf states and Malaysia to Cambodia's Muslim population. U.S. and Cambodian officials have alleged that some of the aid -- ostensibly designed to help fellow Muslims recover from the decimation of the Khmer Rouge years in the 1970s -- is accompanied by radical proselytizing and recruiting drives that have brought unsuspecting Cambodians to training camps in Afghanistan. Officials and scholars have also expressed alarm at an influx of alleged international terrorists posing as aid workers who are eager to exploit the country as a back office for their operations. According to Zachary Abuza, professor of international politics at Simmons College, with its porous borders, a thriving money-laundering and drug trade, and poor law enforcement, Cambodia would make an ideal place to set up terrorist shop.
How did poverty-stricken Cambodia and its Muslim population of 700,000 find itself enmeshed in the international war on terrorism? Some scholars point back to the Khmer Rouge years, which left the devastated country reliant on outside aid, Islamic and otherwise.
In 1975, dictator Pol Pot's ultra-Maoist movement seized control of the country and attempted to transform it into an agrarian utopia. Some 1.7 million Cambodians died from disease, overwork, starvation, and execution during the regime's rule -- among them at least half of the country's Cham population. Some historians have argued that the Cham faced especially harsh policies because their strong religious and ethnic affiliations were threatening to the regime and because they had staged several bloody rebellions against the movement. According to some accounts, the regime had deliberate plans to exterminate the Cham. The Khmer Rouge cadres desecrated mosques by turning them into pigsties or prisons, forced Chams to eat pork, and forbade prayer and the use of the Cham language. Historical documents were destroyed, and elders and religious figures killed. Ysa Osman, the Cham author of Oukoubah, a book about the treatment of Cambodian Muslims during the Khmer Rouge years, learned the fate of his village's older and infirm inhabitants only after he and other survivors returned in 1979 and looked in the well. “It was full of bones,” said Ysa. Among them were the remains of Ysa's grandparents. “It is hard to tell you what I lost,” he says. “Everything that I had before, I lost.”
Shortly after the Khmer Rouge was deposed in 1979, some Cham began to make connections with the outside Islamic community. The largest influx of aid began during the United Nations' nation-building efforts in 1992 and 1993. A number of those peacekeepers and aid workers were from Muslim countries, and after Cambodia held its first elections in 1993, money from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Malaysia began flowing into Cham communities to sponsor pilgrimages to Mecca, build mosques and Islamic schools, and provide other religious and social services. According to Bjørn Blengsli, a Norwegian anthropologist who specializes in Cham issues, Cambodia had 122 mosques and 300 Islamic schools in 1970. After the Khmer Rouge period, the number of mosques dropped to five. Now the country is home to at least 269 mosques and 400 Koranic schools.
This Islamic giving wasn't unique to Cambodia. Oil revenues had given the Persian Gulf states the means to fund projects around the world. Saudi Arabia gave particularly generously, seeking to counterbalance the success of Iran's Shia revolution, according to experts at the conservative Center for Security Policy. Between 1975 and 2002, Saudi Arabia spent $70 billion in overseas aid, building 1,500 mosques, 210 Islamic centers, 202 colleges, and almost 2,000 schools in non-Islamic countries.
While the majority of that aid goes toward providing legitimate, no-strings-attached social services, experts say that a number of Saudi Arabia's quasi-state-run charities bring in clerics that preach Wahhabism, Saudi Arabia's austere, fundamentalist form of Islam. Even more disturbing, some of the projects serve as support networks and cash conduits for global terrorist jihadist movements. In 1994, Saudi nationals gave some $150 million to Islamic charities in Bosnia, many of which were implicated in terrorism, according to a cia document; in September 2002, Canadian intelligence indicated that Saudi charities were still supplying al-Qaeda with between $1 million and $2 million a month. U.S. Department of Treasury general counsel David Aufhauser later testified before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Terrorism, Technology and Homeland Security that Saudi Arabia is “in many cases … the epicenter” of terrorist financing.
Among the Saudi charities was one that showed up in Cambodia: the al-Haramain Islamic Foundation, which allegedly has laundered money to al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia and whose offices in at least 11 countries have been designated by the U.S. Treasury and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as supporters of terrorism. According to a former U.S. official who spoke under the condition of anonymity, al-Haramain operated in Cambodia under a “dual agenda” -- along with financial aid and humanitarian services, the organization brought in “personnel who did not seem to have connections to established humanitarian organizations, but who were instead linked to political Islam … associated with terrorist or political activities.” U.S. and Cambodian intelligence found that some of the aid workers had spent time in Afghan training camps or had been affiliated with extremist movements in Arab countries, according to the official. In 2000, the U.S. Embassy detected some surveillance of the compound by several of the individuals and found that staff of the Saudi-based Om al-Qura Foundation, which headed the now-shuttered al-Mukara Islamic School, had begun recruiting Cambodians. These Cambodians were told that they were being sent on pilgrimages to Mecca or to schools in Pakistan or Egypt, “but once they left Cambodia, they were put into training camps,” the official said.
The alleged terrorists may also have been drawn to the country as an attractive theater of logistical operations, according to the official and other scholars. One of the poorest countries in the world, Cambodia serves as a transit nation for amphetamines and heroin, has a cash-based, heavily dollarized economy, and “suffers from widespread corruption, including among officials at the highest levels of government,” as the State Department's International Narcotics Control Strategy Report 2003 notes. Cambodia also runs a brisk trade in small arms left over from the Khmer Rouge period, sending them to international conflict zones including Sri Lanka. These conditions make Cambodia a convenient base from which to launder money, buy arms, forge documents, and perform any number of other tasks crucial to the smooth running of illegal activities, be they drug trafficking or planning terrorist attacks.
In addition, Cambodia's erratic control over its land and sea borders benefits potential terrorists who have used the country as a possible hideout. The porous borders also mean that Cambodian Muslims can easily be drawn into their neighbors' ongoing battles with Islamic insurgency and fundamentalism. This year, southern Thailand erupted with attacks on government schools and army outposts, allegedly led by Muslim separatists; in late April, more than 100 suspected Islamic insurgents died in bloody shootouts with Thai forces. The Thai media have implied that Cambodian students at Thai madrassas may have been involved in the attacks; other analysts connect the uprisings to Malaysian militants, who have a strong connection to the rising numbers of Cambodian adherents to Dakwah, an Islamic fundamentalist evangelical movement started in Malaysia.
But the most dangerous thing to pass through those porous borders may be fundamentalist ideology. As the U.S. official noted, al-Haramain and other “aid personnel” came to spread their own “very extreme and anti-modern form of Islam.” That is particularly threatening to the Cham community, whose Islamic practices have traditionally been moderate and syncretic, reflecting their origins in the ancient, Hindu-influenced kingdom of Champa, located in what is now central Vietnam. Today, as the Cham struggle to rebuild their communities, fundamentalists and jihadists may have found a ripe target: an impoverished minority population in need of aid and a reconnection to Islam.
And the Islamists are not afraid to use their copious money as leverage. The Kuwaiti Committee of Association of Development of Islamic Culture in Southeast Asia operates with a clear “religious agenda” and is “particularly zealous in rooting out … beliefs and practices which are regarded as non-Islamic,” notes anthropologist William Collins in a report for the Phnom Penh–based Center for Advanced Study. He says it “will only give aid to communities, which, in its view, have achieved an acceptable level of religious punctiliousness.”
The foreign clerics have clashed most often with members of the Jahed, a minority traditionalist Cham sect, whose faith reflects Shia and Sufi influences from early contact with Persians and Indians and who base more of their identity in preserving traditional Cham language, culture, and history than the majority of Chams. Their community is among the poorest of the Cham, at least in part because, in resisting Islamist pressures, they make themselves ineligible for much of the foreign aid coming in from the Muslim world. One Jahed leader named Ongman told Collins that he was denied aid to rebuild a community mosque by a Kuwaiti Arab worker in Orussei because of his supposedly incorrect Jahedi beliefs; Ongman was also told by “Malaysian police” that Jahedis should pray five times each day, instead of only on Friday, as is their custom. “They are trying to get us to buy someone else's history, and they take ours. That is buying a person,” Ongman told Collins. “It is not in accord with the law of the Prophet. If we abandon our history for money, it is not right, and to do so shows a lack of self-worth.”
Still, not everyone is resisting. According to Blengsli, the majority of Chams belong to the Shafi'iyah branch of Sunni Islam, but Wahhabi is now the next largest and most rapidly growing sect, comprising about 20 percent of the Cham population. Dakwah, a fundamentalist Islamic movement, has also made significant inroads in Cambodia. Blengsli estimates that a little less than 20 percent of the country's Muslims have converted to the orthodox Malaysian sect. Also known as al-Arqam, the evangelizing group was banned from Malaysia in 1994, where it was a key supporter of the Parti Islam SeMalayasia, an Islamic party that wants to institute Sharia law there. According to Muslim officials, nearly 80 Cham students a year study in Pakistani and Middle Eastern madrassas and approximately 400 a year go to Islamic schools in Malaysia. These students return home “filled with fire,” Cham respondents told Blengsli.
There is one other element that may help push the Cham toward their fundamentalist brethren: the very government crackdown that was intended to protect them from terrorist infiltration. Back at the al-Mukara school, more than a year after the raid, villagers are still upset. Many find the government's claims against the school hard to believe. They point to the fact that the four suspects have been detained for longer than the six months allowed under Cambodia's constitution, and the fact that the government is now calling for assistance from U.S. intelligence to help make a case against the men. According to Hassan Kasem, a Cambodian Cham who immigrated to the United States, these local disturbances and the news of ongoing bloodshed in Iraq have raised doubts among Muslims in Cambodia about whether the war on terrorism is being fought justly in Cambodia and abroad.
The government account of the arrests goes like this: For more than a year beforehand, the Cambodian government had been working with the FBI on tracking the Cambodian office of the Saudi-based Om al-Qura Foundation, which headed the school, according to General Sok Phal, chief of Cambodia's intelligence and security agencies. Sok argues that the evidence was irrefutable: Money sent from Saudi Arabia to sustain the school was being used to conduct Jemaah Islamiyah support activities, like buying false passports and documents for suspected terrorists. Other intelligence sources indicated that the money was being disbursed to Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda through Om al-Qura channels -- $10,000 wire transfers would appear in the school's Cambodian bank account on a monthly basis, only to disappear shortly thereafter.
Acting on this information, on May 28, 2003, Cambodian forces arrested an Egyptian and two Thai Muslims affiliated with al-Mukara. They then deported 28 al-Mukara teachers -- from countries including Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan, Thailand, Yemen, and Egypt -- along with their 22 dependents. On June 12, authorities apprehended a Cambodian, Sman Ismael, who had studied for three years at an Islamic school in southern Thailand, where he allegedly fell under the sway of the Dakwah sect. A fifth suspect remained at large, but was added to the list to be tried in absentia. They were accused of shuttling money from a Saudi-based foundation to Jemaah Islamiyah, procuring $50,000 to launch strikes against U.S. interests in Cambodia, and planning a major offensive in advance of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in June 2003, when 23 heads of state, including Colin Powell, gathered in Phnom Penh.
What happened next seemed to confirm the Cambodian government's suspicions, according to Sok. Information gleaned from detainees' interrogation sessions led to the August 11 arrest of Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, Osama bin Laden's chief operative in Southeast Asia. Hambali had lived in Cambodia from September 2002 to March 2003, and after his arrest in Thailand, he revealed Jemaah Islamiyah's intention to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh along with other Western targets throughout Southeast Asia, according to Sok. Also damning was the discovery that Sman Ismael had arranged for his sister to marry a man named Ibrahim, identified as one of Hambali's steadfast companions during Hambali's time in Cambodia. This move is in keeping with Jemaah Islamiyah tactics, according to an International Crisis Group report titled “Jemaah Islamiyah in Southeast Asia,” which argues that educational systems and strategic marriages have become key tools in bolstering the group's membership and transmitting its jihadist ideology.
Still, Ahmed Yahya scoffs at the allegations. “They are 100-percent innocent,” the opposition-party politician declares over the phone. The only thing they were guilty of was running an influential organization that drew the envy of the prime minister's party, Yahya says, and their carefully timed pre–ASEAN arrests were nothing more than politically expedient gestures of goodwill toward the U.S. war on terrorism. Yahya claims that only one of the detainees, a staff member at the al-Mukara school, ever knew of Hambali's terrorist intentions in Cambodia -- and only accidentally. He says Hambali asked the al-Mukara staff member, named Azi, to hold on to a bag for him. When the Jemaah Islamiyah chief later asked Azi, a Thai, to send him money from the bag, Azi opened the luggage to discover several thousand dollars in cash along with three computer disks, one of which was labeled “Thai football.” An avid sports fan, Azi ran the program on his computer and discovered that the disk contained diagrams and plans for explosives. Some time later, Hambali had a courier pick up the bag; Azi maintained his silence, says Yahya, out of fear.
Adding fuel to the Chams' doubts are international human-rights activists' concerns about the case's “irregularities,” says Amnesty International's Daniel Alberman. “It's not clear that the Cambodian judiciary had done their homework and found out that there were charges to be laid against these people.” In August, Bunna Oun, a Phnom Penh municipal judge, admitted, “We are lacking a lot of evidence. We are requesting the Cambodian authorities and the U.S. to provide us with further documents on the motives that this group has a terrorist network in Cambodia.” And the longer they sit in jail untried, the more agitated the local population is likely to become. “If these people are left to linger in detention, it effectively undermines the whole case,” says David Wright-Neville, an Australian expert on Southeast Asian terrorism and a former Australian intelligence officer. “It raises doubts, quite legitimately, if [the arrests] are simply politically or religiously motivated.”
The fact that a much-needed resource was closed down in the process doesn't help, either. “They shouldn't have shut down the whole school,” Kob Saleh, the chief of the Muslim Chrouy Metrey village across the street from al-Mukara, told me when I visited the school in October 2003. “There's a lack of human resources in Cambodia, and that hurt a lot of children.”
Playing into the anger, too, is ongoing distrust of Prime Minister Hun Sen's controversial government. “Cambodia is a place where surveillance groups are involved in doing the regime's bidding,” says Wright-Neville. Rumors flew around Chruoy Metrey, the Muslim village across the street from the school, and among other Chams that the prime minister's party had only shut down the school in order to gain control over it later, or to seize the school's valuable land. The United States and Hun Sen, remarked a number of Cham interviewees, perhaps amount to just one strongman helping another.
The U.S. Embassy has embarked upon projects to counterbalance these perceptions. In 2003, it worked with Cham nonprofits to extend educational campaigns on “democracy and human rights” to Muslim communities, according to an embassy spokeswoman. The United States Agency for International Development also started programs to increase community participation in shaping local education systems, which will hopefully give Chams and other minorities a greater voice in shaping curricula and schools to suit their needs.
While the assistance has been met with enthusiasm among Cham communities, there is still a long way to go to convince Muslims of the righteousness of the war on terrorism. “In the last 10 or 20 years, the embassy ignored our people. But now they want to help us,” says Yahya, wryly. “A war to win the hearts and minds.”
In a way, the Americans are in a footrace with internationalist Islamist groups, and officials wonder how long Cham communities can resist fundamentalist advances. “I can guarantee 100 percent that Cambodian Chams are not involved in terrorism now,” Yahya told me by phone. But can he guarantee that Chams won't be drawn into fundamentalism in the future, with the temptations of aid and a worldwide brotherhood of Islam after years of isolation? Yahya pauses for a long time before answering. “No,” he says finally. “I cannot.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent. She reported this article while on a Pew International Journalism Fellowship.
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