Leaderless, terror group still potent
Arrests of Hambali and hotel bombing suspects weaken Jemaah Islamiyah.
JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The arrest last week of Southeast Asia's most-wanted terrorist was hailed as a major victory in the war on terrorism. But US analysts warn that radical Indonesian cleric Hambali has left behind a horrifying legacy: the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terror network closely aligned with Al Qaeda.
US and regional intelligence agents say Hambali - who is suspected of masterminding last year's Bali bombings and helping some of the Sept. 11 hijackers - spent nearly a decade traversing this region, inspiring and training hundreds of militants to carry out attacks.
The moon-faced Indonesian cleric is considered Southeast Asia's most senior member of Al Qaeda, and has been linked to some 300 murders. But more significant, investigators say, is the increasingly radical movement he leaves behind, which has recently added suicide bombings to its repertoire.
"The JI was really Hambali's baby," says Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and the author of a forthcoming book on the group. "His arrest is significant - this is the guy who put the network together - but he leaves behind a formidable organization with a lot of its members still on the loose."
Hambali's capture was the result of an intense regional manhunt and cooperation among at least four national intelligence agencies, including the CIA. The key break was the arrest of an associate, Mohammed Zubair, in southern Thailand.
Thai officials say Hambali is currently in US custody, though the US refused to say where upon announcing his arrest last Thursday. Regional analysts speculate he's either at the US interrogation facility at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at the US base on Diego Garcia.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, in an interview on Australia's Channel Nine over the weekend, said it would be "foolish" to believe the threat has evaporated with Hambali's arrest. "We have a top planner; we do not have all the members of Al Qaeda in our possession, or JI in this case."
Thai officials said Hambali - who is also known as Riduan Isamuddin - was looking to add Thailand to his list of terrorist successes. "Hambali was here to seek refuge, as well as to command and coordinate [an] operation, and arrange payment for the perpetrators," Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters on Sunday.
Mr. Thaksin said Hambali was planning to attack the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum scheduled for Bangkok this October. Twenty world leaders, including President Bush, are expected to attend, and Thaksin hinted that Bush may have been the target. "The US was at the center of this," Thaksin said.
When Hambali was finally caught, in a spare $60-a-month apartment in the Thai temple city of Ayutthaya, the man alleged to be at the hub of an interlocking web of terrorists and Islamic militants was with only his Malaysian wife. Most of his close friends and associates were already in detention in Guantánamo Bay, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore after a string of antiterror successes across the globe.
Those friends have been consistently building a picture of Hambali as the region's most important terror coordinator since shortly after Christmas 2000, when bombs exploded nearly simultaneously in 17 Indonesian churches. Operatives in that attack described him as the operation's chief moneyman and recruiter.
Just a few days later, bombs exploded in Manila train stations, killing more than 30 people. The leader of that assault, Fathur Rahman Al Ghozi, was later arrested and convicted, and he told Filipino investigators that Hambali had also coordinated those attacks.
To date, Hambali's biggest attack was the bombing of two Bali nightclubs last October, which killed more than 200 people. It followed a directive he gave to senior Jemaah Islamiyah leaders at a meeting in Bangkok in February 2002. [Editor's note: The original version of this article gave the wrong date for a meeting between Hambali and senior Jemaah Islamiyah leaders in Bangkok.]
Mukhlas, the field coordinator for the Bali attack, attended that meeting and is now in Indonesian custody. He has told interrogators that Hambali called for the group to strike out at soft targets where Westerners were known to gather, in part because of his frustration over failed attempts to bomb the US Embassy in Singapore and also in anger over the US invasion of Afghanistan, where many of his friends were coming to grief.
Indonesian police say the suicide car-bombing of Jakarta's Marriott Hotel earlier this month, which killed 12, was another result of Hambali's directive to hit soft, Western targets, even though all but one of the dead were Indonesian.
Indonesian National Police Chief Da'i Bachtiar told reporters that four suspects in the Marriott attack have been captured in the past week, and that a number of men are being sought in the attack. "We won't announce anything about them now, because it will help them escape," he said.
Though Hambali is out of circulation, many of the men who attended that Bangkok meeting remain at large, perhaps chief among them being Azahari Husin, a former professor from the Malaysian Technological University who was been on the run since early 2001.
Mr. Azahari, who has a degree in statistical modeling from England's Reading University, has been described by captured militants as one of the JI's principal technical experts. Indonesian investigators say Azahari wrote a bombmaking manual for the group, and also helped build the car-bomb the group used in Bali.
"We believe he's a likely future leader of JI," says a regional intelligence official.
To be sure, experts on the organization say it will be difficult for any one JI member to fill his shoes.
"They have people who have some of his skills, but no one with all of them," says Mr. Abuza of Simmons College. "I can't think of anybody who will have his kind of charisma and command the respect that he did."
Hambali's respect among militants stems from his jihadi odyssey, which began nearly 20 years ago when he left the lush hills of West Java, his home province, for Afghanistan. When he left, he discarded his given name - Encep Nurjaman. Though he was determined to fight in the jihad, his true calling appeared to organizing and financing other would-be fighters.
Regional intelligence analysts say he came to serve as a coordinator for the Southeast Asian militants pouring through Peshawar, Pakistan, to join what was universally seen in the Islamic world as a just war.
In that respect his career paralleled, albeit in a lesser way, that of Osama bin Laden, who was then working with Saudi, US, and Pakistani intelligence to help Middle Eastern fighters join the war.
Indeed, Hambali and Mr. bin Laden became friendly in the 1980s, and when Al Qaeda was recast in the early 1990s, Hambali seems to have been assigned the key role of expanding its reach into his homeland.
To many investigators he served as a sort of "baby bin Laden," providing the organization skills and inspiration, while encouraging Al Qaeda "franchises" to plan and execute attacks ontheirown.