An Indonesian official declared recently to a Western news service* that the terrorist network led by Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda, has been working with local extremist groups instigating religious conflicts that led to more than 1,000 deaths in 2001.
Al-Qaeda, which the U.S. says operates in more than 60 countries, is involved in the sectarian war in the Poso district of central Sulawesi, said Hendro Priyono, head of national intelligence, after meeting Indonesian President Megawati Soekarnoputri. The Poso conflict "is a result of an international terrorist group working with local radical groups,'' he said. Asked if he meant al-Qaeda, he said, "That's what I am referring to.''
The government deployed troops in December to quell the Sulawesi conflict, after more than 1,000 had died in the northeast province. Militant Muslims, led by the extremist Laskar Jihad, have been fighting local Christians in Poso for the past two years.
Laskar Jihad has focused on areas with a substantial Christian population, starting last year with the province of Maluku, better known as the Spice Islands. Its population was 37 percent Christian and 57 percent Muslim before the group spearheaded attacks there. In Central Sulawesi, about 18 percent are Christian and three-quarters are Muslim. The Christians are centered in the Poso district. In North Sulawesi, which Christians fear will be the next target for Laskar Jihad, Christians and Muslims are evenly matched at 48 percent of the population.