|Hambali: The driven
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".
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
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
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.
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.
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
"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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.