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.
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.
In particular, the US and Indonesia's neighbors are unhappy that Indonesia has refused to arrest some of Hambali's alleged coconspirators. While Hambali's whereabouts are unknown, his longtime friend and teacher Abu Bakar Bashir, who Singaporean and Malaysian officials say is the senior leader of the JI, runs an Islamic boarding school here.
In Singapore and Malaysia, more than two dozen alleged members of the group are under arrest, many of them are close friends to both Hambali and Mr. Bashir. A preacher who calls Osama bin Laden "a true Muslim fighter," Bashir says the allegations against them were concocted "to keep Muslims weak."
Malaysian officials say that Hambali was videotaped in Kuala Lumpur in a 2000 meeting with Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi a meeting that only became significant after the two men were involved in the hijacking of the plane that hit the Pentagon on Sept. 11.
Political analysts say the secular President Megawati is resisting pressure to arrest domestic militants because that could cost her coalition government the support of Islamic minority parties. Millions of Indonesians see the US war on terror as a war against Islam, and leading Muslim politicians say there's no evidence of any wrongdoing.
"Indonesia is compromising its long-term national interests for short-term political gain," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at St. Andrews University in Scotland. "Al Qaeda has substantially infiltrated the country, and they don't want to admit it."
There is another political concern: Under Suharto, who fell in 1998, peaceful Islamic political activists were routinely jailed. Many Indonesians, while not supporters of the movement, worry that arrests could be a return to the authoritarian Suharto years.
"We can't, thankfully, persecute people for their beliefs anymore," says Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Nataligawa. "The question of civil liberties and the fight against terrorism is a problem that faces many societies, not just ours."
A serious, almost somber young man, Hambali left his home in the rich, rolling farmland of West Java in the mid-1980s to fight the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, investigators say.
People who knew him as a youth say Hambali became convinced that Muslims, while a majority in Indonesia, would never get a fair shake under secular rule. He committed himself to the ideal of an Islamic state.
His ideological inspiration came from a band of militant clerics who dreamed of uniting the Muslims of Singapore, Malaysia, the southern Philippines, and Indonesia. In the '70s and '80s, many of Hambali's heroes were jailed, and later exiled themselves to Malaysia. Bashir was one of them.
The Afghan war was Hambali's first taste of jihad, and investigators say he seemed to like it. When the war ended, Hambali settled in Malaysia to be with Bashir and other refugees from the Suharto regime.
He grew close to the white-bearded Bashir, and another Indonesian cleric, Abu Jibril Abdurrahman, who also had Afghan experience. Mr. Jibril and Hambali, intelligence officials say, convinced the older man that the skills they developed in the war should not go to waste.
Singaporean and Malaysian officials say that as early as 1992 the three men were using private Koran reading sessions around the region to recruit supporters to their cause.
Bashir acknowledges that he spent time in Singapore and Malaysia in the 1990s teaching about the importance of jihad. But he says that doesn't equal terrorism. "I taught people about the way of Jihad. But that's just teaching," he says.
Officials in Singapore said Hambali and Jibril took the lead in building a network of sleeper cells that proved hard to uncover.
But late last year, a surveillance videotape outlining a plan to bomb US sailors at a Singapore train station was uncovered in the rubble of bin Laden lieutenant Mohammad Atef's home in Afghanistan. The tape was made by Mohammed Khalim bin Jaffar, one of Hambali's subordinates, who is currently under arrest in Singapore. Officials there say Mr. Jaffar told them the tape was a proposal to convince Mr. Atef to fund an attack in Singapore. Singapore Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said the tape "shows a very direct link between the Jemaah Islamiyah group detained here and Al Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan."
Singapore officials say Hambali paid for Jaffar to take the proposal to Afghanistan and also funded the trips for at least seven other operatives to train in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
The fall of Suharto in 1998 made it possible for the exiles to return home. Hambali returned in October 2000 and began recruiting local operatives for the mission, Indonesian police spokesman Saaf says.
Hambali spent time in at least three of the cities that were bombed, according to the testimony of Iqbal Uzzaman, who was arrested after a bomb he was carrying in the West Java city of Bandung prematurely exploded that Christmas. He said he'd been hired by Hambali.
Dedi Setiono, another Indonesian Afghan veteran, who was arrested in 2001, told police that he was approached by Hambali in October 2000. In a meeting in East Jakarta, he said Hambali told him it was his Muslim duty to help carry out the attacks.
That Christmas, 20 bombs exploded within 30 minutes of each other in nine Indonesian cities. Dozens more bombs were either defused or failed to explode.
"Every terrorist group has what is called a signature," says Gunaratna. "If you look at this particular operation, it had the signature of Al Qaeda: Multiple, simultaneous bombings with mass casualties."
Hambali returned to Malaysia shortly before the attacks. Then, six days after the Indonesia bombings, five nearly simultaneous explosions rocked Manila, killing 22.
Philippines police later arrested an Indonesian named Fathur Roman Al-Ghozi, who had studied at Bashir's boarding school. Mr. Al-Ghozi's cellphone records showed he called Hambali immediately before and after the explosions, and he later told interrogators that Hambali had funded the operation. Al-Ghozi was sentenced to 12 years in jail earlier this month.
Hambali's whereabouts remain unknown: Malaysian and Indonesian officials say they believe he fled to Pakistan. Others think he remains in Indonesia. Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines all have him on their wanted lists. "This guy's footprints are almost everywhere we look," says a Philippines investigator.
But Hambali wasn't the only operative to take advantage of the more open climate after the fall of the Suharto regime: Mr. Jibril also came home after Suharto's fall. His agenda? To organize and inspire Muslim fighters in a religious war that was just then bubbling over in Indonesia's Maluku provinces, destroying centuries of peaceful religious coexistence.
Tomorrow, Abu Jibril Abdurrahman.
Part 1 of 3
Indonesia is in the midst of a painful transition. It left the Suharto dictatorship behind four years ago, and is undergoing a transition to democracy.
But destabilizing social forces have reemerged in the more open political climate, and one of them is militant Islam.
Three Indonesian clerics all exiles in the Suharto years are accused of building a terror network with Al Qaeda assistance. Their stories show the challenges that political Islam is posing to the elected government and how complicated the US relationship with Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, has become in the wake of Sept. 11.