Thursday, February 26, 2004

Key Player in Nuclear Trade Ring Found
Hospitable Base in Malaysia

By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service

KUALA LUMPUR -- When Sri Lankan businessman Buhary Syed Abu Tahir was scouting around three years ago for a country where he could manufacture parts for making nuclear weapons, he initially planned to set up shop in Turkey.
But Tahir, who helped Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan build a secret international network for supplying nuclear material and equipment, changed his mind, according to police in Kuala Lumpur. He decided instead to locate a crucial element of the operation in another developing Muslim country: Malaysia.
Tahir's choice was no surprise, say Malaysian and Western analysts, because Malaysia was a stable, relatively industrialized country that had been aggressively promoting business with the rest of the Muslim world. Its liberal visa policy, modern communications and welcoming environment for practicing Muslims had long made it a crossroads for political activists, militants and deal makers from the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia.
But the same attributes that have made Malaysia's economy one of the most successful in the Muslim world -- the country leads the 56-member Organization of the Islamic Conference in the production of non-oil goods and services -- have also attracted people considered undesirable by Western and Asian security officials.
"It's easy, quick, efficient. Do your business and disappear fast, in and out," said Karim Raslan, a Malaysian columnist and social commentator. "Countries that open their borders do become natural crossing points. They're a much easier place to do business. They're a much easier place to hatch dastardly plans."
Kuala Lumpur, for instance, was the place where two hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States met in January 2000 and probably discussed preparations for the operation, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. Those two Saudi men, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, traveled to Malaysia and stayed in the Kuala Lumpur condominium of a former Malaysian army captain, Yazid Sufaat, later identified by intelligence officials as a key participant in al Qaeda's efforts to develop biological weapons.
Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen facing federal charges in an Alexandria court of involvement in the Sept. 11 attacks, stayed at the same condominium later that year. Malaysian officials say they believe he planned to attend flight school in Kuala Lumpur but could not find one.
The founders of the Southeast Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiah built their movement from a base in Malaysia. Activists from the Lebanese militant movement Hezbollah and radical Palestinian groups met periodically here in the 1990s, according to a Western analyst.
After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Malaysia cracked down on suspected Muslim militants. About 70 suspects are now being held under the country's Internal Security Act, which permits detention indefinitely without trial.
Mahathir Mohamad, who stepped down as prime minister last October after 22 years in office, had promoted closer ties among developing countries in part as a counterweight to the influence of the United States and Western nations.
Abdul Razak Baginda, executive director of the Malaysian Strategic Research Center, said Tahir took advantage of Malaysia's interest in pursuing economic ties with the Middle East.
"He found it relatively easy to get this thing going in Malaysia. We wanted to get business, and he was in a position to do that. He probably felt Malaysia was sympathetic to exports to a Muslim country, and he exploited that," Baginda said.
Tahir, 44, who gained residency in Malaysia when he married the daughter of a mid-level Malaysian diplomat in 1998, has not been charged with any crime by Malaysian police.
His business proposal -- to manufacture advanced machine components -- was especially attractive to Malaysia, Baginda said, because the country has been seeking to promote itself through economic incentives, infrastructure and marketing as an international center for advanced engineering. "It really fits into Malaysia's policy," he explained. "It fits nicely into our niche area we are trying to build."
With Malaysia pushing hard to attract foreign investment, local officials apparently did not press Tahir about the ultimate use of the components, Baginda said.
Malaysian and Western officials said authorities here -- and even employees of the company he had invested in, Scomi Precision Engineering -- were unaware that the components being manufactured in the company's plant at Shah Alam, outside Kuala Lumpur, were meant for building centrifuges, used in producing weapons-grade uranium and ultimately bound for Libya's nuclear program.
One of the main investors in Scomi Precision Engineering is Kamaluddin Abdullah, the son of Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. Kamaluddin and a school classmate, Shah Hakim Zain, are controlling shareholders in two investment companies that own the majority of stock in Scomi Group.
After arriving in Malaysia in the mid-1990s, Tahir came to know Kamaluddin and befriended several influential members of Malaysian society. He moved into an upper-middle-class suburb of the capital and earned a reputation among local businessmen for driving flashy cars.
Tahir became a shareholder in one of the investment companies along with Kamaluddin. Later, Tahir's wife took his place, becoming a major shareholder. After Malaysian authorities began their investigation into Tahir's role in the international nuclear network, company officials asked her to sell her shares.
U.S. and other Western officials said the government has been actively investigating the role of the company since components it had made were discovered aboard a German ship intercepted in Italy last October. The parts had initially been shipped to the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, where Tahir ran a family computer business and continues to spend most of his time, police said.
Tahir left the Scomi staff "with the impression" that the parts were meant for the oil and gas industry, according to Malaysian investigators. Though the components were also usable in the nuclear industry, Malaysia does not ban the export of so-called dual-use products, making it even more appealing to Tahir as a manufacturing site, Western diplomats said.
Malaysian officials have balked at adopting the kind of restrictions that the United States and other developed countries place on dual-use items.

Parent site: "Focus on Malaysia"