OCTOBER 29, 2001, VOL.158 NO.17

Terror Made in the U.S.A.
Washington says it's at war with terrorists—and the countries that harbor them. But what about groups that plan violence from America's own shores?

Ask Nguyen Huu Chanh about bombs and, for a second, a smile flickers across his face. In fact, bombings are one of the favorite topics—and hobbies—of this self-styled commander in chief of the Government of Free Vietnam. He readily describes the bombs his supporters threw at the Vietnamese embassies in Bangkok and Phnom Penh, and the one they claim to have planted in Hanoi's airport. Chanh's favorite subject, however, is the destruction yet to come. The next attack will be "a very important target" inside Vietnam itself, he says. "Our bombs use an electronic system, a new design," he boasts. "And I control the code."

Government of Free Vietnam Cambodian Freedom Fighters
LED BY: Green-card holder Nguyen Huu Chanh, 51
HEADQUARTERS: Garden Grove, California
FORMED: 1995
MEMBERS: Group claims to have trained up to 100,000 supporters at secret bases along Vietnam's border
AIMS: To topple Vietnam's ruling Communist Party
LED BY: Cambodian- American accountant Chhun Yasith, 45
HEADQUARTERS: Long Beach, California
FORMED: 1998
MEMBERS: Group claims to have 500 in America and up to 20,000 supporters in Cambodia
AIMS: To overthrow Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, whom it calls a dictator

Chanh, 51, is Vietnam's most-wanted terrorist, a globe-trotting rabble-rouser sought by police in his homeland and in the Philippines, where three of his associates were recently arrested with bombmaking materials. He may not be in the same league as Osama bin Laden, but his Free Vietnam movement, which has waged a low-level three-year war against the communist government of Vietnam, is suspected in half a dozen attacks on Vietnamese targets in Europe and Asia. What's most striking about Chanh is where he operates: from a suburban office complex in Garden Grove, California. Chanh immigrated to the U.S. in 1982 and, despite George W. Bush's war on terrorism, he feels no need to hide in his adopted country.

But Chanh's California dreaming and Free-Vietnam scheming haven't gone completely unnoticed. Earlier this month, U.S. federal agents arrested Free Vietnam operative Vo Van Duc, 41, for involvement in a failed June attempt to blow up the Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok with two fertilizer bombs. Duc was charged in Los Angeles last week with conspiring to use a weapon of mass destruction abroad and he could face life in prison. He could also be extradited to Thailand, where three of his accused accomplices in the attack are already in custody. Chanh says Duc was acting on his own. But in August, he openly bragged to TIME of having planned several past incidents, including one foiled in 1999, when authorities in southern Vietnam arrested 38 people with explosives and plans to blow up national monuments.

The Free Vietnam organization has admitted to or been blamed for several attacks:

1999 Vietnamese police arrest 38 members and seize 37 kg of explosives in connection with plot to bomb statues of communist hero Ho Chi Minh and disrupt national festivals

AUGUST 2000 Free Vietnam believed to be behind fire in Vietnameseembassy compound in London

APRIL 2001 Homemade bomb explodes at Vietnamese embassy in Phnom Penh, injuring a guard. Free Vietnam says it was behind attack

JUNE 2001 Three members arrested for allegedly planting two bombs at Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok

SEPTEMBER 2001 Philippine police charge three suspected members for allegedly plotting to bomb Vietnamese embassy in Manila

Hanoi officially welcomed Duc's arrest, but said it's not enough. Vietnam wants the U.S. to go a step further and shut down Chanh's group as part of its declared war on international terrorism. "The U.S. and all governments should have a consistent attitude to terrorist activities," Vietnam's Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Phan Thuy Thanh says pointedly.

As TIME reported earlier this year, Free Vietnam isn't the only group of exiles accused of exporting terror from U.S. shores. In Long Beach, California, a storefront accountancy office doubles as the headquarters of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, where Cambodian-born Chhun Yasith is busy plotting to overthrow his home country's government. On the walls are maps with arrows and circles marking battle plans, and they're not just pipe dreams. Eight people were killed last November when CFF forces armed with B-40 rockets attacked Phnom Penh. Government forces repelled the attack. In June, 30 alleged rebels, including two Cambodian-born U.S. citizens, were given prison sentences ranging from three years to life for that assault. Last week 28 more went on trial. Yet, Yasith isn't discouraged and says his next coup attempt is coming soon. "We're going to take the whole country this time," he insists. A naturalized U.S. citizen, Yasith seems an unlikely guerrilla: he wears gold rings and, when not planning coups, he prepares neighbors' tax returns. Yet Cambodia takes the CFF very seriously and is demanding that U.S. authorities arrest Yasith—or at least make him stop. "The U.S. asks for help from everyone regarding terrorism," complains Cambodian government spokesman Khieu Kanharith. "But so far it has a two-track policy."

Why has the U.S. tolerated these groups for so long? The federal Neutrality Act forbids conspiring to overthrow a friendly government, and Washington has diplomatic relations with both Vietnam and Cambodia; Chanh and Yasith could face three years in prison. But diplomats say that Vietnam and Cambodia haven't offered Washington proof that they are involved in terror acts. Their own admissions could be dismissed as mere boasting.

The cold war may be over for most people, but the exiles say they still have "advisers" within the U.S. government. Yasith even claims to have had meetings inside the Pentagon. The State Department hotly denies that claim—and any link with the exile groups. U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia Kent Wiedemann describes Yasith as "delusional" and says the FBI is actively gathering evidence against the CFF.

So far, though, neither of the troublesome exiles say they're feeling heat. Yasith spends his nights making calls to Thailand and Cambodia, marshaling his "secret army," confident that U.S. authorities are winking and looking the other way. "They've never given me a red light," Yasith says. "That means there's a green light." But everyone's world changed on Sept. 11—and the trouble with green lights is they can always turn red.

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