dam nak loung village, Kampot province – Sman Khor Ti Yah seems in many ways a typical young rural villager, smiling demurely in the shade of the tiny roadside stand where she and her mother sell snacks and cigarettes in Kampot district.
But although she thinks of herself as Khmer and was, like people across the country on April 2, rubbing at the ink that had stained her finger at the previous day’s commune elections, her identity is perhaps more complicated.
The 25-year-old Cham Muslim, who was wearing a bright floral skirt and a pastel headscarf, is also an unassuming reminder of the nation’s brush with international terrorism in 2003.
Since authorities broke up what was reportedly an emerging terrorism cell—allegedly linking Sman Khor Ti Yah’s husband and brother to Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian man better known as Hambali who was believed to be al-Qaida’s top operative in the region—she has only seen her brother in prison, and her Malaysian husband not at all.
Shortly before the October 2002 bombings on the Indonesian island of Bali, Hambali came to Cambodia and stayed until March the following year, according to witnesses and intelligence reports. Believed to be operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah, which was blamed for the Bali bombings, Hambali was probably in Cambodia when that attack killed 202 people.
Hambali’s foreign associates here—two Thais and an Egyptian, all schoolteachers—were arrested in May 2003, while he was apprehended in Bangkok in August that year. Sman Khor Ti Yah’s brother Sman Esma El and the two Thais, Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, were sentenced to life in prison by Phnom Penh Municipal Court in December 2004 for plotting to bomb the US and British embassies in Phnom Penh, while the Egyptian, Esam Mohamid Khadr Ali, was released due to a lack of evidence.
Hambali and Ibrahim, Smar Khor Ti Yah’s husband, also believed to be a Jemaah Islamiyah operative, were both convicted in absentia. Hambali is believed today to be in US custody, while Ibrahim’s whereabouts are unknown.
“The silver lining of the whole Hambali incident was that it…woke up the Cambodian government and our own that there was a potential risk here,” US Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said in an interview Tuesday.
Sman Esma El’s family proclaims his ignorance of any plot and innocence of any wrongdoing, and rights workers say he was convicted without any substantial evidence being made public.
The star witness at the trial was a motorbike taxi driver who testified that he had understood an English-language conversation between Hambali and Ibrahim about their plans, though he did not speak English himself.
Mussomeli said there was adequate evidence linking Sman Esma El to the embassy bomb plot, despite the lack of public disclosure.
“I think ‘made public’ is the operative term,” Mussomeli said of the evidence. “I think he was well aware [of the planned attacks].”
Like the other suspects, Sman Esma El was interrogated by the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Naly Pilorge, director of local rights group Licadho, said that because so little was known of the evidence in the case against the men convicted by the municipal court, she could provide little insight.
“The only comment we could make is that no credible evidence was provided or shown during the trial to warrant the conviction and resulting life sentence of these individuals,” she wrote by e-mail.
The embassy bomb plot allegations against Hambali and the other men remain virtually undocumented in the public record.
“We’re convinced that the plan was credible,” Mussomeli said, though he would not go into further details.
Cham Muslims are well integrated in Cambodia, which minimizes the potential for homegrown terrorism, Deputy National Police Commissioner Lieutenant General Sok Phal wrote in an e-mail.
Cham and majority Buddhist Khmers “are so respectful and thoughtful to each other, therefore they have no potential role in terrorism network[s],” he wrote.
He added, however, that the government is paying close attention to minority groups and Islamic associations to prevent terrorists from co-opting them.
Mot Diet, leader of the Nou Rol Ies San mosque in Prey Thang village, down the road from Sman Khor Ti Yah’s house, said an increasing number of Chams in the community are going overseas to learn about Islam.
“We have sent some children from here to Thailand, Malaysia and Kuwait,” the 67-year-old said.
“The change started since the government opened for Muslims to study the Koran well in other countries, and when they come back, they teach other people about how to practice [Islam],” he said.
The Chams did not convert to Islam until the 17th century and have for centuries incorporated magic, traditional medicine and ancestor worship.
But Mot Diet said he believes unorthodox Cham traditions should no longer be allowed.
“My belief we should only follow the Koran, and believing in magic is sinful and will be punished by God,” he said.
Mussomeli worries that the influence of foreign ideas could now make the younger generation of Chams more vulnerable to extreme forms of Islam.
“There should be more learning about the Koran,” Mussomeli said. “But that’s not what they’re getting…. They’re getting a very distorted version [of Islam].”
Sman Esma El studied at an Islamic school in southern Thailand before he returned to Cambodia.
“My brother did not seem any different when he came back from Thailand. He didn’t say anything to us about Islam,” Sman Khor Ti Yah said.
“I think my brother is innocent,” she added. “But the problem is that I don’t know about my husband. My brother met him in Thailand and introduced us, but I don’t think my brother [fully] knew about him either.”
She added that she married Ibrahim in the hopes that he could help support her family.
“I used to go to Phnom Penh to meet my husband, but he never took me around or even to where he was staying. We only stayed at a guest house,” she recalled. “I don’t speak Malay, and he only spoke Khmer word by word, like to ask for food.”
Sman Khor Ti Yah said that she hadn’t heard a word from Ibrahim in years, so she now considers their marriage dissolved.
She and her mother now have to support themselves and provide for Sman Esma El in Phnom Penh’s PJ prison.
“We can only go one time every three to five months, because we have no money,” she said.
Poverty is often cited as a situation rife for exploitation by terrorists, and financial aid from Muslim countries is on the rise. Much of the large-scale aid is likely well intentioned: Last year alone Kuwait pledged to build 40 mosques at a cost of $750,000; the Islamic Development Bank to build schools worth $400,000; and Saudi Arabia to dig 500 wells.
But a lack of transparency and enforcement in Cambodia’s financial sector has made it easier for money to pour in from less legitimate sources in the past.
Cambodia’s current law on terrorism is a one-page document that was written in 1992 with the Khmer Rouge in mind, but a new draft anti-terrorism law addresses issues such as financial networks, port protection and nuclear proliferation.
Mussomeli said the US, along with other foreign governments, is supporting Cham NGOs and educational initiatives as well as the government’s antiterrorism efforts.
“We would be hard put to find a country or a government that cooperates more with us on counter-terrorism. We surely have closer allies, but [Cambodia] rival[s] our closest allies on this issue,” Mussomeli said. “They lack the capacity, but the dedication is terrific.”
Sok Phal said that international cooperation on counter-terrorism had also included officials attending training and workshops in Russia, Australia, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia, China, the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as local workshops supported by foreign embassies.
Naly Pilorge, however, sees potential dangers in the government’s anti-terrorism activities and legislation.
“The government uses to an increasing degree the ‘threat of terrorism’ to justify the inclusion of restrictive provisions in legislation that is per se unrelated to terrorist threats and thereby limits civil freedoms,” she wrote by e-mail, adding that terrorism has been cited by officials as a reason to limit laws on freedom of assembly.
Licadho has concerns that the government may use the judiciary to target members of opposition parties and accuse them of terrorism, she added.
But government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said the government is in compliance with international standards in combating terrorism, adding that critics were just trying “to make noise.”
In 2000, the US-based Cambodian Freedom Fighters, which the US State Department views as a terrorist group, attacked government installations in Phnom Penh. The attack was carried out by dozens of lightly armed men who appeared to be drunk.
Kong Srim, a prosecutor at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, has acknowledged that some of the men convicted for the attack had been somehow tricked into participating, though he said they were nonetheless guilty of causing “disaster to the nation.”
Licadho has concerns about the way that some of the CFF cases were handled.
“Information led us to believe that some of the people charged and convicted of terrorism during several trial proceedings of CFF were not involved in terrorism,” Naly Pilorge wrote.
The term “terrorism” has also been applied to the reported plan to bomb November’s water festival, over which six people were arrested and remain in pre-trial detention.
Local rights group Adhoc said at the time that it doubted the six men implicated were involved in a bomb plot. And the SRP has criticized the government for failing to make public any evidence in the case.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the six suspects should not be considered terrorists, calling them “anarchists” instead, though he did not elaborate.
Sman Esma El now lives alongside the two Thais convicted in connection with Jemaah Islamiyah’s activities at PJ prison, where he remains devoted, praying five times per day, Sman Khor Ti Yah said.
“He told us that it was difficult in prison for him in the beginning because people ate together and had pork. So he has to cook simple food for himself,” his sister added. “He said nobody treats him badly. The problem is that they are living [together] in a cell.”
Whether he was a naive student caught up in something he didn’t understand, a hardened terrorist or possibly something in between, Sman Esma El is now surely no threat.
Asked what future terrorist threats Mussomeli is most concerned about in Cambodia, he was reticent to cite anything specific.
“The problem with threats,” Mussomeli said, “is that you never really know, do you?”