Man 'most wanted' in Indonesia
First in a series on three Muslim clerics promoting jihad in Southeast Asia.
Jakarta, Indonesia Just after 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2000, Riduan Isamuddin's coming-out party started with a bang. And another, and another. The explosions were placed and timed for maximum effect: just as thousands of Indonesians arrived for church services.Skip to next paragraph
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Bombs ripped into Jakarta's Catholic cathedral, which is across the street from Southeast Asia's largest mosque, and in more humble churches on Java, Sumatra, and Lombok. By 9:30 p.m., 18 people were dead, 50 injured. It was the most widespread terrorist assault in Indonesia's history.
That it targeted churches in famously tolerant Indonesia was even more alarming.
Within a month, Indonesian investigators had uncovered leads pointing to the same thoughtful and deliberate Indonesian cleric: Mr. Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.
One suspect after another told interrogators that the young Afghan-war veteran had put them up to it. "He was the intellectual actor behind these bombings,'' says Brig.
Gen. Saleh Saaf, Indonesia's national police spokesman.
But these well-planned, audacious, and deadly attacks required expertise that Indonesian militants had never before displayed. Where, police wondered, did this sophistication come from? Law enforcement officials outside Indonesia now say they've found the answer: the Al Qaeda network.
Investigators in Malaysia and Singapore say Hambali was the operations head for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror group that acts as Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian wing and retains the ability to mount attacks in the region. Philippines police say explosions in General Santos city that killed 14 in mid-April could have ties to the group.
If Singapore, the Philippines, and Malaysia are right, an Al Qaeda-trained operative with a track record of success and an ability to operate undetected in Southeast Asia remains at large. But there is a deeper worry: Indonesia says its neighbors' concerns over Al Qaeda are wholly unsubstantiated. This worries the neighbors, and the US, about Indonesia's commitment to pursuing the group.
Singaporean and Malaysian officials say they've shared with their counterparts in Indonesia surveillance tapes and interrogation transcripts that show Hambali was a key link in a terrorist network leading back to Afghanistan and Al Qaeda.
A Singapore government spokesman says that Hambali arranged for a courier to take a surveillance videotape to Al Qaeda in Afghanistan proposing a bomb attack on Americans. A Philippines police official says Hambali was "the financial conduit" to a convicted terrorist who killed 22 people in Manila. Malaysian officials say he provided assistance to some of the Sept. 11 hijackers.
While General Saaf calls Hambali Indonesia's "most wanted man," neither he nor his superiors in President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government see a broader conspiracy.
"Indonesia rejects any unsubstantiated speculation or allegation regarding the supposed presence of the Al Qaeda network in the country," the foreign ministry said in a statement.
That denial, combined with a laissez-faire attitude toward a rise in militant Islam, add up to what the Bush administration sees as a weak link in its "war on terror."
"The Indonesians acknowledge that there were attacks here, and they acknowledge that men with close ties to Al Qaeda were involved. Yet they continue to say that there are definitely no Al Qaeda operatives in the country," says a Western diplomat.
US officials say they have no evidence that Al Qaeda members are hiding out here. But what bothers them is Indonesia's insistence that it's not even in the realm of possibility.