Concern over extremists in most populous Muslim country

Only a handful of killers is needed to sow death and misery on a massive scale. Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic country, and nearly all its Muslims are liberal and tolerant, and have nothing in common with the fanatics of al-Qa'ida.

Only a handful of killers is needed to sow death and misery on a massive scale. Indonesia is the world's most populous Islamic country, and nearly all its Muslims are liberal and tolerant, and have nothing in common with the fanatics of al-Qa'ida.

Extremists willing to resort to indiscriminate violence are thought to be few. But well before the attacks in Bali, their activities in the region were enough to generate deep concern in America among the commanders of the so-called "war on terror", and among Indonesia's regional neighbours. If the attack on Saturday proves to be an al-Qa'ida operation, those concerns will have been justified.

The worries and warnings had been accumulating for weeks. Leaks from US intelligence to the American media alleged scores of al-Qa'ida operatives had found a haven in the archipelago, which – with 17,000 islands and 34,000 miles of coastline – is almost impossible to insulate from infiltration. The government's control over the far-flung islands is minimal.

Matters, in the eyes of the US, were not helped by the Indonesian government's reluctance to tackle extremist elements, not least because President Megawati Sukarnoputri is dependent on the support of Islamic religious parties to keep her coalition intact. She will now be under great internal and external pressure, both economic and political, to take a far harder line, which will mean risking a backlash.

The Americans had been deeply uneasy in the aftermath of their assault on Afghanistan about the activity of al-Qa'ida-linked groups in south-east Asia. In Indonesia, the US fretted over the risk that Islamist groups with al-Qa'ida links were exploiting a long-standing Muslim-Christian sectarian war in the Maluku provinces – where thousands have died in the past three years – to establish themselves.

In June, the US deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage, spelt out his fears to Congress, saying that Indonesia is an "open, very hospitable country and a Muslim country" where "we fear that al-Qa'ida could operate fairly freely". These worries increased with the arrest in June of Omar al-Faruq, 31, a Kuwaiti and a senior al-Qa'ida operative who allegedly confessed to the existence of plans to attack local targets.

He reportedly slipped into Indonesia in the late 1990s to become al-Qa'ida's chief in south-east Asia, working closely with the outspoken, publicity-seeking Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, 65. America has been pressing for Mr Ba'asyir's detention, on the ground that he is the head of Jamaah Islamiya (JI), a violent militant group believed to be linked to al-Qa'ida and with the Abu Sayaff group in the Philippines.

The preacher fervently denies the charge, and has issued writs for defamation against the CIA and Time magazine for suggesting that he is involved in terrorism.

¿ Osama bin Laden is alive and will appear on a videotape soon, a man who identified himself as a senior al-Qa'ida member has told an Arabic weekly.

"Sheik Osama is alive and in good health. He has gained more weight due to security precautions and his inability to move a lot as you will notice in his next appearance," Abdel Rahman al-Rashed told the London-based Arabic-language magazine Al Majalla.

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