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? BYKAY JOHNSON Garden Grove
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.
A REBEL GROUP'S RAP SHEET
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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