Asia's Own Osama

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Authorities in Southeast Asia suspect Hambali of involvement in eight years of terror attacks

One day in March, 1991, a burly, round-faced man with a thick, black beard appeared at the door of Mohammed Yuhana bin Hamidun's house in the village of Sungei Manggis, an hour's drive northeast of Kuala Lumpur. The stranger was dressed in a long Pakistani-style shirt, travel-stained trousers and opened-toed rubber sandals. Perched on his head was a black songkok, the distinctive Indonesian pillbox hat. He was carrying a plastic bag full of used clothes. Beside him stood a woman in a full Arabian-style black burka; only her eyes were visible behind thick glasses.

The man "stood outside my house and said, 'Assalammu'alaikum (the peace of Allah be with you,)' in a soft and pleasant voice. He looked so unassuming," says Mohammed of his first encounter with Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, the 36-year-old cleric now wanted by the U.S. and four Southeast Asian countries as the terrorist mastermind of the Asian operations of Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network and the guiding force for the past decade of most of the major acts of Asian terrorism.

Hambali had come to Sungei Manggis to rent one of a dozen wooden shacks that Mohammed built behind his own house and still lets out to Indonesian migrant workers for about $25 per month. The woman with him was his wife, Noralwizah Lee, a Chinese Malaysian from Sabah who converted to Islam. There were no protracted negotiations; the landlord wasn't picky about his tenants. "He said (former President) Suharto was after him for being an Islamic preacher," Mohammed recalls. "I told him, 'No arms, no havoc in my place. Pay the rent, you stay. I don't want to know anything more about you or other Indonesian migrants.'" He got his wish. For the next 10 years, Hambali kept a polite but firm distance from Mohammed and his family. Despite the steaming heat and suffocating lack of wind, the preacher and his wife rarely ventured out of the wooden shack; their door was always closed.

There was much to keep secret. Police in several countries and former associates say that grimy shack, with its constant swarms of mosquitoes, rough concrete floors and hole-in-the-ground toilet, was the center of operations from which Hambali plotted a breathtaking campaign of international terror. He has been linked to bank robberies and a political assassination in Malaysia and bombings that killed scores in Indonesia and the Philippines; authorities say he also raised funds, bought arms and recruited fighters for a jihad against Indonesian and Filipino Christians. Then there were the campaigns that failed to materialize, but sometimes came frighteningly close—like an abortive 1995 scheme to plant bombs on 12 U.S. airliners, or the plan to detonate seven huge car-bombs in Singapore earlier this year. And amidst all this, also, Hambali was the chief Southeast Asian representative and logistical coordinator for al-Qaeda. Police say he organized travel itineraries, accommodation and welcome dinners for two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and a suspect in the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, and met with Zacarias Moussaoui, the so-called 20th hijacker now in a Virginia jail.

Unless he is captured and decides to speak out, it may never be possible to isolate exactly what combination of character and circumstance drove a man like Hambali, the son of a respectable Sundanese family of farmers and Islamic scholars, to dedicate his every waking moment for most of the past decade to a bloody struggle against those he sees as the enemies of Islam. But a close examination of his life yields vivid insight into how he accomplished so much—and what he might yet attempt. In a wide range of interviews conducted by TIME with police and government officials, relatives and former associates, Hambali emerges as a formidable figure, a meticulous, patient plotter, capable, when necessary, of taking massive risks when brewing commensurately destructive schemes. Hambali was also highly secretive, using his pious peasant demeanor as a cloak of invisibility. But that public timidity hid a personal magnetism the preacher deployed in private with devastating effect to manipulate followers. At Hambali's core was a calculating ruthlessness that allowed him to regularly dispatch those disciples on missions that would result not only in scores of victims but also in their own deaths.

Given Hambali's character traits, police and security officials around the region suspect he may have set in motion elaborate, and as yet undiscovered, terror plots before disappearing in January of 2001, apparently headed for Pakistan. As police investigations continue, each passing week uncovers more of what is now clearly an elaborate umbrella organization for al-Qaeda linked terrorist activity in Southeast Asia headed by Hambali and known as Jemaah Islamiah (JI). After a wave of earlier arrests, the organization's presence in Malaysia and Singapore is now well documented, while the arrest last week of three alleged Indonesian members of JI in the Philippines has confirmed it is still active in both countries (see following story). Though much remains murky about the extent and nature of its activities, it is clear that JI is an organization that devotes much to long-term planning. The attempted bombings in Singapore, for example, were only thwarted late last year by the arrests of 13 key operatives who police say were in the process of assembling the 21 tons of explosives the project required.

That Hambali is somewhere out there planning further havoc is a chilling prospect; four tons of bombmaking material ordered at his direct command in Malaysia and the Philippines are still unaccounted for. "We are just learning how clever he is," says Indonesian Police Inspector General Engkesman Hillep, who heads a team investigating Hambali. A senior U.S. official in the region puts it more bluntly: "We worry about him all the time. It's what keeps us awake at night."

The roots of the fervent faith that underlie Hambali's every action are apparent one recent afternoon in his home village of Sukamanah in West Java. His aunt's voice is reverberating from a loudspeaker through the still, hot air, calling the women of the village to a Koran reading session. Slowly, a group dressed in colorful batik dresses, their heads and necks covered with scarves, stroll through the streets, passing mosques and religious schools every few hundred yards; this is, and for living memory always has been, a devout community. The women converge on the school where the prayer meeting will be held, the same school that Hambali's great-grandfather founded and where he studied.

But this kind of easy assembly to worship is relatively recent for the villagers of Sukamanah. While Hambali was growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s, points out Ridwan a former classmate and current head of the village's oldest religious school, it was difficult and often dangerous to espouse anything but the mildest form of Islam. During the heyday of the long Suharto dictatorship, anyone wishing to preach or even hold an assembly of more than three worshippers had to get permission from the local military commander. "At that time it was very common for our Koran readings or prayer meetings to be suspended because our teachers had been arrested or interrogated," says an old friend from high school who doesn't want to be named.

As a particularly devout youth, Hambali deeply felt this oppression. "He was very religious," says his mother, 60-year-old Eni Mariani, "but also very quiet, aloof and reserved." At first, Eni says, Hambali thought he could continue his Islamic studies in Malaysia, where Islamic activities were relatively unrestrained. But he didn't get a scholarship and, besides, as the eldest male among 12 siblings, Hambali was expected to provide for his family. "We didn't have any money to support him," his mother says, "but he told us that Allah would provide what he needed." In 1985, aged 20, he decided to go to Malaysia anyway, promising his mother that he would find work and send money. It's a path taken by many Indonesian migrants in search of economic opportunity. But in Hambali's case, there would be a major detour. Within a few years of his arrival in Malaysia, he left for Afghanistan.

Hambali's friends and family know little of why he decided to go to Afghanistan and what he did there. Hambali himself was much less reserved about his exploits during a three-year stint as a mujahedin: while preaching in Malaysia in the 1990s he often referred to the time he spent fighting the Soviets, boasting to his congregation of his meetings with Osama bin Laden, providing the exact dates and places. As for so many other Islamic radicals of his generation, Afghanistan was the crucible that transformed Hambali into a fiery advocate of Osama's Wahhabi brand of Islam that espouses armed struggle as the only way to bring back the pure, unsullied faith originally practiced by the Prophet Muhammad. When he returned to Malaysia in the late 1980s, says fellow preacher and alleged terrorist Abubakar Ba'asyir, Hambali brought with him a burning belief in a new way of seeing Islam: the way of holy war. "Hambali, just like me, encouraged people to carry out jihad, which at that time was not known in Malaysia."

Abubakar, who now lives and teaches in the central Java town of Solo, is also wanted by police in Malaysia and Singapore—they believe he and Hambali were joint founders of JI, and the brains behind the foiled plan to explode bombs outside the U.S. embassy and other diplomatic and commercial sites in Singapore. Abubakar was questioned and released by Indonesian police in February, and flatly rejects those allegations. But he does boast that he and Hambali were active recruiters and fund-raisers for the Muslim militia battling Christians in Indonesia's Maluku Islands, where communal violence has killed more than 5,000 in the past four years. "He was very active in collecting money," says the white-bearded 64-year-old Abubakar of his friend. "He also brought together people who wanted to perform jihad in Ambon," the city that has been Maluku's chief battleground.

Police in Malaysia and Singapore allege that both men were also pursuing a larger aim: the establishment of a unified Islamic state in Southeast Asia that would be governed by strict Islamic law. "Daulah Islamiah Raya" would include all of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, the Sultanate of Brunei and parts of the southernmost areas of the Philippines, Thailand and even Cambodia. The dream of an Islamic super-state has historically been a largely Indonesian preoccupation, arising in part out of a diaspora of fundamentalist Muslims like Hambali and Abubakar who fled repression under the Suharto regime and resettled all over Southeast Asia. "Being outside Indonesia, they realize that they may be left out if an Islamic state of Indonesia is ever established. That's why they decided to strive for a Daulah Islamiah instead," says Al Chaidar, a long-time member of the movement, who is himself living in exile in Thailand.

When he arrived in Sungei Manggis in 1991, Hambali had more practical matters on his mind. Virtually penniless and owning little more than the plastic bag of clothes he arrived with, for several years Hambali struggled just to feed himself and his family. Mohammed, his onetime landlord, and other villagers say he initially tried to make a living by hawking Arabic and Indonesian patent medicines. Later he turned to selling kebabs from a pushcart outside the main mosque in nearby Banting town. But even when Hambali was struggling just to earn enough for his family to eat, he retained a tranquil confidence that set him apart. "People liked him very much. They trusted him implicitly," says Mohammed. It was a quality that Hambali would deploy with great effect in later years to bind disciples to his vision of jihad.

In 1994, the quiet preacher's fortunes seemed to turn. He began to receive frequent "Middle Eastern" type visitors at his small house, Mohammed recalls: "Some looked Arab and others white." They usually arrived at night and departed the next morning. "It was difficult to engage them in a conversation but they were all polite." And generous. By 1994, Hambali was driving a new red hatchback and carrying several mobile phones. Flush with newfound cash, Hambali now set up as a contractor and began to do small construction jobs, hiring the men to whom he had once peddled patent medicines. In March 1995, Mohammed says, Hambali threw his first grand feast for several hundred guests to mark the Muslim holiday of Idul Adha. This would become an annual event: guests, mostly Indonesians, would gather in the compound outside Hambali's house, pray and slaughter goats which they then roasted. That same year, Hambali began to return home to Indonesia for the Idul Fitri celebration, the most important event on the Islamic calendar.

Those same crucial years saw Hambali's first brush with the big leagues of terrorism, a near-disastrous experience that appears to have reinforced his natural caution and secretiveness. In June 1994, the newly prosperous Hambali co-founded a company called Konsojaya, ostensibly to export palm oil from Malaysia to Afghanistan. His business partner in the venture was Wali Khan Amin Shah, a Pakistani later jailed in the U.S. for the bombing of a Philippine Airlines plane in December 1994 that killed a Japanese businessman. Prosecutors in the U.S. say the bombing was a dry run for much more ambitious scheme to detonate bombs on no fewer than 12 U.S. airliners over the Pacific. In the first clear indication of Hambali's direct links to Osama bin Laden, Philippine police phone taps showed that frequent calls were made from the Konsojaya offices in Malaysia to the Manila offices of Mohammed Khalifa, bin Laden's brother-in-law, who headed a charitable organization which was allegedly a conduit for al-Qaeda funds.

Wali Khan and another man, Ramzi Yousef—who was later convicted of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center—along with a third accomplice were convicted in 1996 by a New York court of responsibility for the plan to bomb the 12 airliners. After Wali Khan escaped from custody in Manila in early 1995, he fled to Malaysia, where Philippine investigators say Hambali was instrumental supplying cash and a cover as a restaurateur on the resort island of Langkawi, where he used the name Osama Turkestani. Wali Khan was arrested in December 1995 and handed over to U.S. officials after an alert Malaysian police officer noticed his chief distinguishing mark: three missing fingers on his left hand.

Philippine investigators say that, through Konsojaya, Hambali was a prime mover in the plot, which was code-named Bojinka, after the Serbo-Croatian word for explosion. "During that time Hambali was already performing a very significant role as far as the spread of militant Islam in the region is concerned," says Rodolfo Mendoza, the former head of the Philippine counterterrorism unit that conducted the Bojinka investigation.

Hambali's role in the Bojinka plot and his links to Osama's brother-in-law went unnoticed until earlier this year. But he learned important lessons from that failure, lying low for several years following Wali Khan's arrest. Hambali went back to the basics, preaching and fund raising, forging close links with Abubakar and Mohammed Iqbal, or Jibril, another Islamic scholar and preacher who moved into the Sungei Manggis compound. Malaysian police say that by the late 1990s, this triumvirate was at the heart of terrorist activity by Islamic radicals—in Malaysia and elsewhere in the region. (Jibril was arrested in Malaysia in June 2001 and accused of seeking the violent overthrow of the government to set up an Islamic republic. He is now in indefinite Malaysian police custody.) The three men preached to small groups across the country, gathering a core of about 30 disciples ranging from petty traders, artisans and factory workers to professionals, a district engineer, businessmen and university lecturers. Abubakar and Jibril took turns leading the sermons, focusing on the spiritual side of Islam. Hambali was often silent in the larger meetings, participants say, preferring to preach to smaller, hand-picked groups of disciples. Abubakar, who lived in one of those shacks in Sungei Manggis just a few yards away from Hambali's house, says his friend was no fiery orator, relying mostly on close personal contact in small groups. "It was only among his own group he was considered as a syekh," or great teacher, Abubakar says.

One member of that group was Mohammed Sobri, a former soldier in the Malaysian army who allowed his house just outside Kuala Lumpur to be used by Hambali, Bashir and Jibril as a frequent meeting place for prayers and discussion. Now 38, Sobri was greatly impressed by Hambali. "This may be because he had fought in Afghanistan and had met Osama. He talked about Palestine and Chechnya and Bosnia with a real firsthand information."

Those three years in Afghanistan were beginning to pay off for Hambali: he was able to use his experiences to captivate his audience. "When Hambali talked about jihad, you wanted to take part, to help oppressed Muslims all over the world," Sobri says. Some members, he adds, were sufficiently inspired to join the fighting in the Malukus. Hambali didn't talk much about the U.S. or pick out Western leaders for vilification, Sobri says, focusing instead on areas where Muslims were dying violently such as Palestine and Chechnya. But he reserved most of his passion for appeals to help the jihad in Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

Hambali taught that holy war was waged on two principles. "First, we either win or we die; second, death really means everlasting life. Only the body dies, but as martyrs we live forever." The preacher also dealt with more temporal matters. He had advice on what to do if captured by the police (remain silent as long as possible), and he warned again and again that secrecy was paramount, even prohibiting his followers from referring to their organizations by any special name. Hambali was last seen in Sobri's house in March or April 2000. "He gave a final lecture about jihad, this time ending with an exhortation to be strong and not to reveal all if caught by police. We all learned later that he had returned to Indonesia," said Sobri.

He had indeed, and with deadly intent. Bringing his brand of jihad to his homeland, Hambali put plans in place for a string of at least 30 carefully coordinated church bombings in 10 cities that killed 22 people and wounded 96 on Dec. 30, 2000. A glimpse of the preacher as a hands-on field commander capable of sending men to their deaths comes from another of Hambali's one-time disciples, Iqballuzaman, now serving a 20-year sentence near the city of Bandung for his role in the bombings. Iqballuzaman, 46, says Hambali arrived in Bandung with detailed plans, plenty of cash and two of his own bombmakers. All he needed were foot soldiers—like Iqballuzaman. (The two men had met four times before and Iqballuzaman says he had been impressed by Hambali's "modest" demeanor and his commitment to jihad.) The toll on Hambali's recruits was high: nine of the 12 men Iqballuzaman persuaded to take part in the bombings are in prison with him, and two others were killed when the bomb they were assembling exploded. But the ever-meticulous Hambali had ensured his own safety: he disappeared a few days before the bombings.

Indonesian police say he returned to Malaysia where Achmad Sajuli, an Indonesian now being held by the Malaysian authorities, says that in January 2001 he arranged for a forged passport and a visa that would allow Hambali to travel to Pakistan. Last week, Indonesia dispatched a team of investigators to Pakistan to look for Hambali, but many Western and regional officials believe the trail there has long gone cold and that he probably slipped back into Indonesia sometime in the past year.

Back in Kuala Lumpur, former disciple Mohammed Sobri's personal moment of truth arrived in April 2001. His friends in the core group led by Hambali's right-hand man and personal driver Zulkifli asked him whether he was finally ready for jihad—for some "explosive events" that would shake the country. Sobri thought hard and finally told Zulkifli that he needed more time to "mature" as a real soldier for Islam. "They were disappointed," Sobri says, "after that they avoided me." On April 18 Zulkifli and the core group of about five marched into the Southern bank branch in the Petaling Jaya suburb of Kuala Lumpur armed with pistols. But the robbery went horribly wrong. A bank guard shot dead one of the would-be robbers and seriously injured another. While questioning the injured robber, Malaysian police officers slowly began to realize that they had stumbled onto an elaborate terrorist network. A week later Sobri and others were brought in, beginning a wave of arrests that would ultimately see almost 50 suspects detained. After 73 days in detention, Sobri was released in early August, one of only two to be freed.

Unnerved by his detention, Sobri is going back to his roots, selling his house outside Kuala Lumpur and moving back to his village in Sungei Petani in the far north of the country. It is a testament to Hambali's magnetism that despite everything, Sobri still reveres the preacher, reverently referring to him as Uztadz, or religious teacher: "Whatever happens, I can never forget him. For me, he opened a window into the world of Muslim sufferings." For the various authorities who are trying to bring his master to justice, Sobri has this grim message: "Uztadz Hambali will continue his jihad right to the end ... until death catches up with him. Then he will become a martyr and live forever."