Search Asia Times

Advanced Search

Southeast Asia

Hambali: The driven man
By Baradan Kuppusamy

KUALA LUMPUR - Last week's capture of Hambali, 38, who real name is Riduan Issamuddin, has in effect ended the career of a successful and dedicated Islamic militant who was fired by zeal at the age of 20 to leave his Indonesian village and go off to defeat the "enemies of Islam".

He never returned.

When arrested in Thailand, Hambali, who hails from the village of Sukamanah in Cianjur, West Java, was the most wanted terrorist suspect in Southeast Asia. Intelligence agencies and police from Indonesia, Malaysia and the United States, as well as testimony by those arrested for the October 12 bombings in Bali, put Hambali as the mastermind of those blasts and the one who handled US$36,000 to finance the operation.

Captured operatives have called him the operational head of the Jemaah Islamiya group, which seeks to create a pan-Islamic state in the region, and the Southeast Asian leader of the al-Qaeda network.

After Hambali's arrest, US President George W Bush called him "one of the world's most lethal terrorists", and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, whose country lost 80 people in the Bali blasts, dubbed him "the main link between al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya".

But for all his notoriety and fame, Hambali was for many years relatively unknown - outside of a select group of Indonesian exiles living in Malaysia and visiting senior al-Qaeda operatives - until last October's bomb blasts in Bali. Those blasts that killed 202 people, in addition to past incidents elsewhere in the region, made him a wanted man in at least four countries - Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and the United States.

In the long intervening years between leaving Sukamanah village and the Bali attacks, Hambali fought Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the Philippine army in Mindanao, and Christians in Ambon, Poso and Maluku in Indonesia.

Living in exile in Malaysia in the 1990s, Hambali - who Thai officials say is how being interrogated, although his location remains unclear - also spent time preaching.

"When Hambali talked about jihad, you wanted to take up arms and help oppressed Muslims in the world," Mohamad Sobri, who often attended his usrahs or small discussion groups, said in an interview.

US intelligence officials say Hambali helped plan the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States and then took on Western interests across Southeast Asia.

Security officials in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines add that "Hambali", a nom de guerre taken from Imam Hambali, a famous 8th-century Islamic saint, is also linked to attacks in the region that started with the Christmas bombings of churches in Indonesia in December 2000 and the subsequent bombings in the Philippines.

Indonesia's national detective chief, Commander-General Ermin Mappaseng, said on Thursday that Hambali is linked to the JW Marriott Hotel blast in Jakarta on August 5, which killed 12 people.

"It is an extraordinary career - from village boy to world-class terrorist," said a senior Malaysian police official who was part of a team tracking Hambali's regional trail since the 2000 Christmas bombings. "He put the region in the world terrorism map."

Hambali is said to be the only non-Arab in al-Qaeda's military committee. But who really is Hambali? What are the origins of his militancy? How did he have a 13-year successful run with apparent ease?

Law-enforcement officers can only piece together his story. There are large gaps. "We hope with his arrest and interrogation we can finally get the full picture," said Malaysian police chief Norian Mai, who disclosed on Friday that they also helped in Hambali's capture in Ayutthaya, Thailand.

What is known about Hambali is that between the fighting, he spent long years in obscurity and hardship as an exile.

Like him, dozens of Indonesians had fled the anti-Islamic pogroms periodically unleashed by Indonesian strongman Suharto, whose policies are now widely blamed for radicalizing Muslims who otherwise would just have been devout followers of the faith.

Hambali was the eldest of 12 siblings in a deeply religious family and first studied Islam at the sekolah pondok or village religious school founded by his grandfather in Sukamanah village. Later, he studied in other Islamic schools in West Java but found the atmosphere stifling.

It was difficult and often dangerous to espouse any form of Islam except the mildest version approved by Suharto, under whose rule any gathering of more than three worshippers need permission from the local military commander, former Indonesian exiles here said in various interviews.

Religious teachers and worshippers were regularly arrested and interrogated, said Ahmad Mustakim, an Indonesian migrant who is now a permanent resident here.

According to Hambali's mother Eni Mariani, her son was a devout youth who keenly felt this oppression. "He was very quiet, aloof and reserved," she told Indonesian media after the Bali blasts.

Malaysia, with its intimate cultural affinities with Indonesia, proximity and easy access across the Straits of Malacca and relatively unrestrained about Islam, was a magnet for people like Hambali.

In 1985, at 20, Hambali crossed over to Malaysia hoping to get a scholarship to study Islam at a local university, but his intended path diverged dramatically.

It is still not clear how, from Malaysia, he ended up as a young fighter in Afghanistan, where the mujahideen were fighting Soviet occupiers. As with others, Afghanistan transformed Hambali into a fiery advocate of militant Islam and armed struggle.

Later, while preaching in Malaysia, Hambali would often refer to the time he spent fighting the Soviets and boast of his exploits against the Soviets and his meetings with Osama bin Laden.

The sudden end of the Soviet occupation 1989 found Hambali penniless and rudderless, unable to return home for fear of arrest and incarceration.

Like other Indonesian exiles, Hambali made for Sungei Manggis village, near Banting town about 60 kilometers west of Kuala Lumpur, where the founders of the Jemaah Islamiya (JI) movement - Abdullah Sungkar, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and Fikiruddin alias Muhammad Iqbal - were living in exile after fleeing Indonesia in 1987.

They lived in poverty, studied the Koran but dreamed of Darul Islam (Islamic Indonesia) and preached their version of jihad.

According to Sungkar, the exiles' leader, the path to Darul Islam is first through the creation of a Jemaah Islamiya, or Islamic family, followed by unrelenting jihad until success.

"When Hambali came here with his wife in early 1991 he was penniless," villager Mohammed Yuhana, who rented wooden huts to Indonesian exiles, said in an interview. "He told me Suharto was after him."

For much of the next 11 years, the Afghan war veteran and his wife lived in the hut. Conditions were primitive - a hole in the ground for a toilet, zinc roof, a single bulb for light, a standpipe for water and no furniture.

Yuhana said that like other exiles, Hambali struggled to make ends meet, first as a roadside kebab seller and later slaughtering chickens at a town market. Later, Hambali peddled Arabic medicines and worked as a itinerant preacher.

But while he lived in poverty, he also worked hard to re-establish his links with al-Qaeda leaders and developed a regional network of operatives.

Hambali spent a lot of years preaching, recruiting, raising funds and sending operatives for arms training, a senior Malaysian official told Inter Press Service. He used usrah to spot potential recruits.

The recruits first ended up in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan but later many headed for the training camps of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) separatist rebels in Mindanao, southern Philippines. By 1999, these recruits were ending up in Jemaah Islamiya camps in Maluku, the province hit hardest by Muslim-Christian riots in Indonesia.

US intelligence officials have linked Hambali to such figures as Ramzi Yousef, now in jail in the United States for the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, and information from Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, a key al-Qaeda leader arrested in March, is said to support this.

Hambali also organized an al-Qaeda meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000, in which two September 11 hijackers, Khalid Al Mihdhar and Nawaf Al Hazmi, took part. Photographs of this meeting have been released.

Researchers said the fall of Suharto in 1998 and the chaotic conditions that followed were the signal for JI to head back to Indonesia - where its members were no longer unwelcome but courted as figures who had opposed Suharto.

They could preach and organize freely and the communal riots in 1998 formed the background for them to come into their own as defenders of Islam.

Jemaah Islamiya leaders Ba'asyir and Sungkar relocated to Indonesia in mid-1999. Sungkar died with weeks after arriving in Indonesia and Ba'asyir took over Jemaah Islamiya. Hambali vanished.

(Inter Press Service)
Aug 19, 2003

Jemaah Islamiya: Down but not out

Terrorists regroup in southern Thailand

Terror arrest: Cause for caution
(Aug 16, '03)

Indonesia's would-be martyrs
(Aug 13, '03)

The Bali bombers' real crime
(Jun 7, '03)

Islands of conflict
(Oct 26, '02)

The prodigal sons return
(Oct 15, '02)

The simmering threat of Indonesian radicalism
(Sep 12, '02)
Click here to be one)


No material from Asia Times Online may be republished in any form without written permission.
Copyright 2003, Asia Times Online, 4305 Far East Finance Centre, 16 Harcourt Rd, Central, Hong Kong