Through a series of intelligence breaks over the past month, investigators in Asia and the US have extended and deepened the known links between Southeast Asia's Islamic militants and Al Qaeda. Their findings? That just three key Al Qaeda operatives provided the connective tissue between the group's headquarters in Afghanistan and eager regional militants.
Two of these men are now in custody: Agus Dwikarna, an Indonesian businessman convicted on explosive charges in the Philippines this summer, and the Kuwaiti Omar al-Faruq, arrested in Indonesia in June and currently in United States custody.
But the third, and most crucial in the opinion of Southeast Asian investigators, is Riduan Isamuddin, a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union. The 37-year-old Indonesian, better known as Hambali, remains at large a key reason US officials worry that Al Qaeda retains the capacity to strike in the region.
As Southeast Asian and US investigators have dug into the contacts between regional radicals and Al Qaeda, they've uncovered an intriguing, and somewhat alarming, fact: Co-opting radicals in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines, was a cheap and easy proposition. Local militants were convinced that their interests a desire to bring Islamic law to their home governments could dovetail with the global agenda of Al Qaeda, presented as the protection of Islam against the aggression of the US.
"Al Qaeda has been operating in this manner all over the world,'' says Rohan Kumar Gunaratna, an expert on Al Qaeda who is a visiting fellow at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "They work through a few key individuals and are very good at winning local groups to their cause."
In the case of Southeast Asia, Al Qaeda sought to win over loose networks of activists for Islamic law whose leaders are predominantly Indonesian. Key among them was the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an organization that investigators in Singapore and Malaysia say was created in the early 1990s by a tight-knit group of Indonesian radicals who dreamed of a pan-Islamic Southeast Asia.
The group's current leader, according to the US and regional governments, is Abu Bakar Bashir, a white-bearded cleric who runs an Islamic boarding school in Central Java. Mr. Bashir, who says he deeply admires Osama bin Laden, denies any links to terrorism while also acknowledging a friendship with Hambali when the two were living in Malaysia in the 1990s.
But Hambali, investigators say, was the principal Al Qaeda contact for JI, with Bashir aware of its objectives and methods but not involved in planning or executing operations. Officials in Singapore allege Hambali was a key figure in the planning of a failed effort to truck-bomb the US Embassy and other targets in Singapore last year. Officials in the Philippines say he was the controlling figure behind a bomb attack that killed 22 people in Manila on New Year's Eve 2000, while the Indonesian police say he led a series of synchronized church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000.
Regional investigators say he was also recruited into Al Qaeda by Mr. bin Laden's lieutenant Mohammad Atef while in Afghanistan, and was in regular contact with another key bin Laden aide, Abu Zubaydah, until his capture in Pakistan in March. Mr. Atef died in a US strike in Afghanistan.
"He's the linchpin,'' says a regional intelligence official. "If I could interrogate only one guy, Hambali would be the one I'd pick."
That Hambali is currently at large was one of the reasons the US was so alarmed when Mr. Faruq told US interrogators in early September that cells in Southeast Asia were planning a series of coordinated truck-bomb attacks on or around the Sept. 11 anniversary.
That claim led to the closure of the US embassies in Indonesia, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia for a few days. At the same time, Singapore arrested 19 men they described as terrorist "footsoldiers." Faruq's interrogation also led to the arrest of another alleged Al Qaeda operative in Indonesia a German national named Seyam Reyda, who was living in one of Jakarta's southern suburbs.
Found in Mr. Reyda's home, according to Indonesian national police spokesman Saleh Saaf, was a videotape of local Islamic radicals receiving weapons training in eastern Indonesia, where a Jihad has been fought against local Christians for the past three years.
The mounting body of evidence has nudged Indonesia from public denial to a more proactive and frank approach to the presence of terrorist operatives inside the country, and a growing willingness to work with neighbors on the problem.
Until now, the secular nationalist government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has been reluctant to move against Bashir, citing a lack of hard evidence tying him to terrorism. But elements within the Indonesian security apparatus, led by Armed Forces Chief Endriartono Sutarto, are now admitting that Al Qaeda has been active in Indonesia.
That has been a relief to the US, which has wanted to name JI to its international terrorist list, but has worried that to do so would leave Megawati in a tight spot: Appearing to cave in to US pressure and exposing herself to domestic political attack, on the one hand; or, openly defying the US and facing sanctions, on the other.
Hambali, Faruq, and Dwikarna served very different functions, investigators say. Hambali's role like that of a franchise owner: His task was to nudge the members of JI toward creating operational cells in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore and then to use those cells to strike at US targets.
Investigators in Singapore, where about 30 alleged members of the group are in custody, say that beginning in 1999, Hambali urged local leaders to recruit more young men willing to go on operations, and toward that end told them to set up Koran reading sessions and youth camps "to covertly talent-spot and recruit future JI members from among the participants and their families,'' according to a Singapore government statement.
As recently as December 2001 after many of his followers had been arrested in Singapore and Malaysia Hambali was spotted in the Malaysian city of Johor Baru, just over the causeway that connects Singapore to the Malay Peninsula, regional intelligence officials say. He led a meeting with JI members and urged them to strike out at targets in Singapore in retaliation for the arrests.
Faruq, was more of a liaison officer, according to investigators. His job was to make contact with Indonesian militant groups, arrange for the transfer of aid raised locally to Al Qaeda, and arrange for the travel of foreign members visiting Indonesia. His principal contact was with Mr. Zubaydah. One regional intelligence agency alleges that Faruq arranged a June 2000 visit to Aceh for Al Qaeda leaders to scout it as a possible location for Al Qaeda base a plan that was eventually rejected.
Dwikarna, the intelligence agency says, was also on that trip, though he is a less internationally significant figure than the other two men.
He was a leader of the Laskar Jundullah, a Muslim militia group that has been active in the area of Poso on Sulawesi Island for the past two years.
To his fellow students at Malaysia's International Islamic University, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal looked nothing like the wild-haired young man in the picture the US attorney general's office passed out last week when John Ashcroft announced he was a member of a "suspected terrorist cell" in Oregon. Instead, he kept his hair and beard neatly trimmed and went quietly about his Koranic studies at the modern campus in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr. Bilal turned himself in to Malaysian authorities Monday, following the arrest of four other suspects, three in Oregon and one in Michigan. Tuesday, a Malaysian judge granted a stay order allowing Bilal to fight extradition to the US. A hearing was scheduled for today.
In an indictment filed five days ago, the US alleges that, rather than coming straight to school from Portland, Ore., Bilal spent the last few months of 2001 with five other coconspirators seeking to enter Afghanistan and help the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Before their trip, the men practiced shooting in rural Washington.
The four had little luck after flying to Hong Kong in late October with a plan to make their way into Afghanistan through China. By the end of November, Bilal gave up on his attempts to make it to Afghanistan, court records show. Instead, he flew to Indonesia in late November, and arranged his schooling in Malaysia.
An administrator at the university said he was carrying a 4.0 grade point average.