His capture was one of the civilized world’s biggest coups in the War on Terror. The August arrest of Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, removed another al Qaeda killer from global circulation. Hambali was the terror mastermind behind Jemaah Islamiyah (JI, al Qaeda in Southeast Asia). The “brain” who planned the October 2002 mass murder in Bali, he served as both people “connector” and supply conduit for numerous attacks throughout the region.
Like so many other al Qaeda big shots, Hambali put up minimal resistance when the CIA and Thai police nabbed him in Bangkok, Thailand. He wore a T-shirt and shorts. Life on the lam required other sacrifices. He had also shaved his jihadi beard. Now he is chatting up interrogators about JI’s plans for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Bangkok Oct. 20-21, which President George W. Bush will attend. JI targeted two hotels for bomb attacks.
Could Hambali be lying? Sure, but bet what he says dovetails with other intelligence.
There’s another reason he’s talking — in his gut he is a peculiar kind of coward. I am constantly struck by the discrepancy between top-dog terrorists’ fight-to-the-death bombast and their growing record of surrender. The round-faced Hambali went with a sigh, not suicidal grenades. Osama bin Laden-inspired terrorists claim to fight their war to redeem cosmic iniquity. The meek Hambali-in-shorts was almost comic, except the little thug is so heinously soaked in blood there is no humor, only bitter justice.
President Bush announced Hambali’s arrest, but the news was treated as ho-hum by a press corps focused on Iraq. Iraq is the big game. A functioning Iraqi democracy will recast the terror-breeding zone of failure called the Middle East. If the U.S. effort in Iraq succeeds, it will cut the cord of terror cash flowing from wealthy Islamists into vulnerable areas like Southeast Asia.
But the tentacles of the terror war are truly global, and Hambali himself was a dangerous tentacle.
Singaporean police proved in the mid-1990s that Hambali helped JI recruits move from Southeast Asia to al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. He also orchestrated the December 2000 terror bombings in Manila, which killed 22 and injured 100. Those bombs shocked Asia, but at the time received little attention in the United States.
Hambali is also a key figure in Al Qaeda’s Oplan Bojinka. Hatched in 1994, the plan called for hijacking 11 American planes over Asia and the Pacific. The arrest of terrorist Ramzi Yousef stopped that day of infamy. Still, Hambali’s history is that of a man who thinks big and thinks in terms of a long, drawn-out conflict.
Which is why he was bin Laden’s man in Asia.
After the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole, America began to pay more attention to Hambali. The U.S. Navy focused on possible attacks on ships sailing between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and transiting the Straits of Malacca, which separate Malaysia and Indonesia.
One Southeast Asian security agent told me last year in Singapore, “There are other attractive targets [besides Navy ships] from their [JIs] perspective. … We’ve been targets longer than you. I don’t say this to insult. America has joined our war.”
The big target the agent fingered is populous and predominantly Muslim Indonesia. Hambali supposedly helped organize the recent Jakarta bombing that killed 14 and wounded 150. Another target is Singapore, which sits in the middle of the Straits and hosts a U.S. Navy supply facility.
Hambali is linked to a planned attack on the American Embassy in Singapore. Singapore stopped that attack with a series of arrests in December 2001. The police obtained a videotape shot by Hambali’s pals as they “cased” the embassy. The terrorists stand in a bus kiosk near the embassy’s entrance, smiling like punk kids throwing rocks at cars. Of course, they intend to commit mass murder. Moral men in a cosmic war? They’re a suicide cult of thugs brainwashed by an ideology of victimization and propped up by Arab oil cash.
Sharp police work stopped their evil act.
Sharp police work and coordinated intelligence sharing led to Hambali’s arrest. Chalk up a victory for the civilized.
Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.