Saturday, August 29, 2009

Terrorist Hambali legacy proves a challenge

THE US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) now claims that information from Indonesian terrorist leader Riduan Isamuddin led to the crackdown on a previously unknown Karachi-based Al-Qaeda cell whose members were designated as pilots for an aircraft attack in the United States. But with censors blacking out large slabs, it is difficult to determine from a recently released CIA document just what else interrogators were able to prise out of Hambali following his capture in Thailand in August 2003.

Instead, readers are left to ponder this paragraph: 'Agency senior managers believe that lives were saved as a result of the capture and interrogation of terrorists who were planning attacks, in particular Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaydah, Hambali and Al-Nashiri.'

The 110-page document was released on Monday in response to a Justice Department report that raised questions about the legality and effectiveness of the CIA's harsh interrogation methods, including water-boarding, mock executions and so-called 'hard take-downs'. According to the document, the best informant was probably 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed, who was subjected to the near-drowning technique 183 times during the course of interrogation. That is said to have led to the arrests of Sayfullah Paracha and his son, Uzair - businessmen tasked with smuggling explosives into the US; New York-based sleeper agent Saleh Almari; and Majid Khan, an operative with easy access to the US.

So also former Osama bin Laden lieutenant Abu Zubaydah, who identified Jose Padilla and Binyam Muhammed, two operatives subsequently charged with planning to detonate a uranium-tipped dirty bomb in either Washington, DC, or New York City. While there is no mention of the methods employed, it seems clear from the context that Hambali underwent the same harsh treatment, most likely during his initial detention on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia or later at a secret prison in Jordan.

It was only in 2007 that he was transferred to Guantanamo Bay, where he is currently listed as one of 14 high-value detainees the Bush administration wanted to keep in US custody. The Americans resisted efforts by the Indonesian authorities to gain access to Hambali until last February, when a police colonel from the US-trained Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit and agents from the National Intelligence Agency were permitted to see him. The meeting transpired near the time of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's first official visit to Jakarta and came soon after President Barack Obama decided to close the Guantanamo facility within a year.
Counter-terrorism sources claim Hambali, the key link man between Al-Qaeda and the Jemaah Islamiah regional terror network, made several admissions during that meeting about his role in the 2000 Christmas bombings, the 2002 Bali bombings, and the 2003 attack on Jakarta's JW Marriott Hotel.

A summary of evidence for a combatant status review tribunal says Hambali took refuge in Pakistan from February 2001, where he is also alleged to have supervised plans to bomb the US, Australian and British embassies and a mass transit station in Singapore.

Publicly, the Indonesian government must show it is trying to extradite the West Java-born native, who would probably not like anything better than a show trial in Jakarta with an uncertain outcome. But Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda has said only that the authorities will 'try their best' and another senior official has indicated the issue is complicated by the fact that Hambali was carrying a Spanish passport when he was captured.

In fact, the Indonesians have privately informed the Americans they would prefer the US to build a case of its own against him, using conspiracy laws and intelligence information that is not available to Indonesian prosecutors. That will almost certainly centre on the fact that seven Americans were among the 202 victims of the Bali bombing, and that another two were wounded in the Marriott attack that killed 12.

The first Marriott bombing was financed with US$50,000 (S$72,000), supplied at Hambali's request by Ammar Al- Baluchi, an Al-Qaeda operative who had also arranged the transfer of US$120,000 through two Dubai bank accounts to stage the 9/11 attacks.

Muhammed Farik bin Amin, another of Guantanamo's Top 14, personally couriered the money to Bangkok, where he and Malaysian militants Majid Khan and Mohammed Nazir bin Lap arranged for its transfer to Indonesia to pay for safe-houses and explosives. Much of this information was given to the police by Rusman Gunawan, Hambali's younger brother and leader of a Karachi-based student cell, who was arrested in Pakistan in 2004 and subsequently returned to Jakarta for trial.

The 2003 Marriott blast was the last operation known to have been financed by Al-Qaeda, but evidence is growing that it may well have provided the funds to Noordin Top for the latest bombings of the Marriott Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Hotel. It looks increasingly likely that Noordin sought and received Middle Eastern funding. Any operational link to Al-Qaeda would make the problem even more difficult.

While Hambali's arrest appeared to sever the formal relationship between Al- Qaeda and past members of Jemaah Islamiah, little is known about the informal linkages that could have been sustained in many different ways.

Equally disturbing is the apparent size and sophistication of the Noordin network and the relative ease at which it has managed to continue bringing in new recruits with no past ties to terrorism. Most Indonesians are outraged by terrorist attacks on civilians but the ideology that legitimises those attacks is hard to eradicate. One individual with the right contacts can create a security cordon for Noordin that extends to several different towns and villages.

Hambali's legacy lives on.

John McBeth, Senior Writer The Straits Times (Singapore)

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