Baltimore Sun

Top Southeast Asian al-Qaida figure caught

WASHINGTON -- Al-Qaida's top terror operative in Southeast Asia has been arrested and is in U.S. custody, according to White House and intelligence officials, who hailed the capture of the militant Muslim cleric as a major blow against Osama bin Laden's deadly global network.

Officials said Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, was apprehended in central Thailand in the last two days in a joint operation involving the CIA and Thai authorities. Several lower-ranking al-Qaida operatives were also held, officials said.

President Bush, taking a break from his monthlong vacation at his ranch in Texas to speak to U.S. troops at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, called the Indonesian-born Hambali a "known killer" and "one of the world's most lethal terrorists."

Hambali, 37, has a lengthy terrorist rap sheet, from his role financing a failed 1995 plot to blow up 12 U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific to his status as chief suspect in this month's car-bomb explosion outside the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia.

U.S. officials also said the fiery orator was linked to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, helped organize a failed plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other civilian targets in Singapore, sponsored dozens of attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia, and was the chief instigator of the nightclub bombings that killed 202 people on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in October.

In addition, a U.S. intelligence official said that a senior al-Qaida figure now in custody recently alleged that Hambali was ordered "shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to recruit pilots to conduct additional suicide attacks" within the United States.

It was not clear if that effort was related to frantic warnings by U.S. officials in the fall of 2001 about a possible "second wave" of airborne attacks. Nor was it known if Hambali successfully recruited any additional pilots, the official said.

The official also said that earlier this year, Hambali was paid "a large sum of money" by an al-Qaida leader in Pakistan to conduct "a major attack." He said the nature of that plot was still unclear.

As the operations chief of a regional terrorist network called Jemaah Islamiah, Hambali is considered the chief link between al-Qaida and radical Muslim militants in half a dozen nations in Southeast Asia.

Hambali's group claimed to be seeking a unified Islamic state in Southeast Asia that would include all or parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.

Hambali is said to have arranged for the training of Jemaah Islamiah recruits at al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan, to have used al-Qaida money to finance his group's attacks, and to have imported al-Qaida experts to help organize regional bombings over the last four years.

Jemaah Islamiah is believed to operate independently of bin Laden's operations, however. U.S. and Asian authorities hope that Hambali's arrest will disrupt contacts between the two networks and derail terrorism plans.

"He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom, and neither are nearly two-thirds of known senior al-Qaida leaders, operational managers, and key facilitators who have been captured or have been killed," Bush told the U.S. Marines and their families.

"Now, al-Qaida is still active, and they're still recruiting, and they're still a threat because we won't cower," Bush added. "Its leaders and foot soldiers continue to plot against the American people. But every terrorist can be certain of this: Wherever they are, we will hunt them down one by one until they are no longer a threat to the people who live in the United States of America."

White House officials, under fire for the government's failure to capture bin Laden or deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, broke the news to reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew from Waco, Texas, to Southern California. One official said the White House made the announcement because "this is a significant victory in the war on terror."

The official said Bush was informed of Hambali's capture Wednesday morning during a videoconference with CIA Director George J. Tenet as a part of the president's daily intelligence briefing.

U.S. intelligence officials said they intend to interrogate Hambali about past al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiah operations, as well as current terrorist plots against Western interests throughout Southeast Asia.

U.S. intelligence considered Hambali a "close associate" of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some terrorism experts believe that Hambali in effect had replaced Mohammed as al-Qaida's top field operative after Mohammed was captured in March in Pakistan.

"They worked together," said another U.S. intelligence official. "They were of similar rank at the end. Hambali is a big fish, a very big fish. Next to KSM, he's probably the most senior guy we've captured."

Some authorities believe Hambali knew of the Sept. 11 attacks in advance. In January 2000, he ordered a deputy to hold a meeting of al-Qaida operatives at a condominium outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Among those attending were Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, two of the eventual hijackers.

The CIA obtained photographs of the Malaysian meeting and both men's passports. A joint inquiry report by congressional intelligence committees sharply criticized the CIA for failing to warn the FBI or immigration authorities until August 2001 that the two al-Qaida operatives had U.S. visas and had entered the United States shortly after the Malaysia meeting.

The CIA obtained information about Hambali's movements within the last several weeks and ultimately helped pin down his location, according to another U.S. intelligence official. He said Thai authorities had asked the U.S. government not to identify their country or give details of the capture.

"The info was ours, but the take-down was theirs," the intelligence official said. "We don't want to look like we're taking more credit than due."

He said no shootout was involved, and he specifically denied a report in the Nation, an English-language newspaper in Bangkok, the Thai capital, that Hambali had confessed to a plot to bomb the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum there in October.

The annual APEC meeting brings together prime ministers, presidents and chief executives from 21 Asia-Pacific economies. Bush is scheduled to attend this year's summit.

The U.S. official also denied reports that Thai authorities had confiscated a cache of high explosives and numerous weapons. He said that Hambali is in U.S. custody at an undisclosed location, and that he has refused so far to cooperate during interrogation.

Hambali and his followers have not staged attacks in Thailand, using it instead as a haven to plot terrorist acts in neighboring countries, including the Oct. 12 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, authorities said.

The Thai government has attempted to play down the terrorism threat, but in December officials acknowledged that they had missed arresting Hambali "by a whisker."

On Monday, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that he had issued emergency decrees giving the police wide-ranging authority to arrest suspected terrorists. It is unclear if police used the new law to arrest Hambali.

"If we do not act, our country will become a terrorists' paradise," Thaksin said. "The absence of legislation would lead to terrorists coming here to hide."

In recent days, the U.S. and Australian governments have issued strongly worded warnings of imminent terror attacks in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. The warnings suggest fears that Hambali's followers may attempt to retaliate for his capture.

Hambali, one of 12 children, was born Encep Nurjaman in the West Java town of Cianjur. He was described as a pious boy who wanted to study Islam in Malaysia but could not get a scholarship.

With the Suharto regime cracking down on militant Muslims in Indonesia, he moved to Malaysia in 1985 to find work. Two years later, he traveled to Afghanistan, where he joined the moujahedeen to fight Soviet troops and repeatedly met with bin Laden.

During the 1990s, he lived in Malaysia, initially supporting himself by selling kebabs from a pushcart. Later, he found a new source of money and began traveling extensively.

Among radical Muslims in Malaysia, he was known as an inspirational orator who rallied recruits to the cause of jihad and the defense of Islam. By 1994, he was in regular contact with bin Laden's brother-in-law, Mohammed Khalifa, who was helping to finance a Muslim insurgency in the Philippines.

Hambali was on the board of a Malaysian company, Konsojaya. It funneled money to extremists in the Philippines -- including Ramzi Yousef, the leader of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center -- to finance a plot to blow up 12 airplanes and kill Pope John Paul II in 1995. Among those also involved was Mohammed, later the chief Sept. 11 planner.

In December 2000, Hambali allegedly organized bombing campaigns in Indonesia and the Philippines. Co-conspirators who have been arrested say he met with many of the bombers in both countries and inspected targets before the attacks.

On Christmas Eve that year, about 30 bombs exploded at churches across Indonesia, killing 19 people. Six days later, a series of blasts hit a transit station and other targets in Manila, killing 22.

Authorities say Hambali also was the driving force behind a plot to bring in suicide bombers and use truck bombs to blow up the U.S. Embassy and six other targets in Singapore. The plan was foiled in late 2001, and dozens of Jemaah Islamiah members were arrested. In retaliation, authorities say, Hambali ordered followers to bomb "soft targets" in Indonesia, which led to the Oct. 12 bombings of the two Bali nightclubs.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard told reporters that "there should be universal relief and pleasure" over Hambali's arrest.

Many of the Bali victims were Australian tourists.

Drogin reported from Washington and Paddock from Jakarta. Times staff writers Mark Fineman and Vicki Kemper in Washington, Terry McDermott in Los Angeles and Edwin Chen in San Diego contributed to this report.