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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 11, 2010
Malaysia's forgotten, forgiven 9/11 history
By Derek Henry Flood

KUALA LUMPUR - It would have been nearly impossible for terrorists Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi not to have seen the twin towers as they arrived in this capital city. Soaring towards the heavens with their post-modern Islamic symmetry, Malaysia's Petronas towers were completed in just over six years from 1993-1999.

The towers were commissioned by Malaysia's state oil and gas company Petronas to symbolize the country's aspirant transition from the post-colonial developing world to the pro-capitalist developed. The debut of the twin towers of the East achieved their intended effect of making Petronas' mark as a serious player in world energy markets, as well as creating a lasting symbol aimed at accelerating the country's tourism sector.

Embedded in the twin towers' superstructure is a hint of the schism in Malaysia's modern identity. Forged by its long-serving

 

former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad, Malaysia's fourth and arguably most influential leader, the country rides the divide between a forward thinking capitalist, secular state and Islamic Malay nationalism characterized by a unique legal hybrid of sharia law and an enforced Muslim identity for its ethnic-Malay citizenry and civil law for its large minority groups.

With its Muslim Malay majority governing and policing Indian and Chinese minorities, Malaysian political leaders have shaped their own version of globalization by reaching out to the wider Islamic world to consolidate their own Islamic bona fides and forge ethnic Malay political primacy at home. The leadership of Malaysia's outwardly religious moral majority thus seeks to have one foot in the largely dysfunctional politics of the Muslim world, while boasting its status as an Asian economic tiger among its competitors in East and Southeast Asia.

Some of these factors coalesced in Malaysia becoming a quiet but essential logistical hub for Islamic terrorists, from those with global designs like al-Qaeda to regional groups with more local ambitions like Jemaah Islamiyah. On January 4 and 5, 2000, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi arrived at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and headed directly to Cheras, a suburb of the capital city in neighboring Selangor state.

Terror summit
Intelligence records show that they were hosted by Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian microbiologist and former army captain educated at California State University-Sacramento in the 1980s, in a gated community of clustered red brick condominium towers. There they were joined by at least nine other terrorists for what was later to be dubbed the "Kuala Lumpur Summit".

The meeting was a planning operation for the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole warship in Aden, Yemen, headed by an operative known as Khallad, as well as the 9/11 attacks before al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi traveled to Los Angeles en route to San Diego via Bangkok. Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi, both Saudi nationals and then future hijackers of the American Airlines Flight 77 that smashed into the Pentagon, were able to enter Malaysia visa-free as citizens of signatory states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Their meeting was secretly monitored by Malaysia's Special Branch intelligence unit, which had closely tracked the movements of Al-Mihdhar, al-Hazmi, Khallad and other participants as they shuttled back and forth from Sufaat's condo. Malaysian agents were acting on a tip from the US Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) dedicated Osama bin Laden tracking unit, known as Alec Station.

The CIA had been alerted to al-Mindhar's travels by United Arab Emirates (UAE) authorities after he passed through Dubai's international airport en route to Malaysia. In the UAE, US agents were able to covertly photograph his passport whereupon they discovered his US visa issued by the American consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia and anticipated that some type of plan was afoot, though precisely what they apparently did not know at the time.

Malaysian Special Branch agents videotaped and photographed the future hijackers and logisticians around Chera's Bandar Sungai Long golf-centered development as they popped in and out of Internet cafes and eateries. They also documented them making phone calls to a safe house in Aden from a grubby pay phone across the road from the condominium complex.

One of the meeting's key participants, the man known simply as Khallad, is believed to be a Saudi national of Yemeni origin named Tawfiq bin Attash (also known as Walid bin Attash). He arrived in Malaysia allegedly to receive a prosthetic leg from an English manufacturer called Endolite with a rehabilitation clinic in a campus on a quiet middle class cul-de-sac in another Selangor State suburb, Petaling Jaya.

According to the 9/11 Commission Report, al-Qaeda leader bin Laden specifically recommended the tranquil rehab campus in Petaling Jaya to wounded Arab fighters in Afghanistan, including Khallad, as a place they could safely travel and receive treatment without questioning about the origin of their amputation injuries. Kuala Lumpur's suburbs functioned as both rehab and rest and recreation locales, as well as places to plan future terror operations.

When the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) later announced that Malaysia was "a primary operational launch pad for the September 11 attacks", the statement offended then serving prime minister Mahathir. FBI director Robert Mueller, apparently looking to salvage cooperation with Malaysian law enforcement agents in the nascent "war on terror", attempted to diffuse tensions by saying in March 2002, "There are a number of countries where the terrorists have met and planned, and to use the word 'launch pad' is certainly inaccurate" in Malaysia's case.

Modern outlook, ancient appeal
As another 9/11 anniversary approaches, the fundamentals of al-Qaeda's flawed, idiosyncratic and hypocritical ideology remain greatly misunderstood by much of the American public, which has been asked for the last nine years to part with blood and treasure in the name of fighting the shadowy radical movement. In the immediate aftermath of the most devastating terrorist attacks in US history, many grappled with the media explanations that bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri were anti-modernists who sought to strike a blow against rampant globalization and return the world to a seventh century era of the Prophet Mohammed and his sahaba (companions).

In fact, bin Laden and his ideological allies are purely modernists, albeit an eastern Islamist interpretation of modernity shaped by the early thinkers of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood. Bin Laden and his epigones in Malaysia who met over 10-and-half years ago were and are quintessential globalists. Their attacks on the US, launched in part from Malaysia (a fact not widely publicized within Malaysia), ushered in a new phase of globalization where technology, competing politco-religious ideologies, and warfare have intersected at the dawn of the 21st century.

Kuala Lumpur, much like Dubai, occupies a rare space in the jihadi sphere as a modern logistical hub for aspirant Middle Eastern and African terrorists who viewed the city as a safe haven exempt from attack. At the same time, the modern society fostered under Mahathir for over decades is also a multi-cultural, hetero-religious one, whose mosque-laden cityscapes are dotted with Hindu Tamil mandirs, Punjabi Sikh gurdwaras, Chinese Buddhist temples and Christian congregations of every stripe. Kuala Lumpur was no place for seventh century minded men a decade ago, and is even less so today.

On October 30, 2009, six men from multiple, unspecified Gulf states were arrested and deported after Malaysian authorities monitored them meeting at a five star hotel in Kuala Lumpur, according to a report in The Malaysian Star. In January this year, nine more foreign men from Nigeria, Yemen and the Levant, as well as one Malaysian, were detained here under the Internal Security Act. Authorities claimed they arrived in Malaysia to recruit either Malaysian nationals or expatriate Muslims residing in Malaysia for al-Qaeda or Jemaah Islamiyah operations. Reports said they were possibly linked to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the failed Christmas Day bomber who attempted to blow up a Northwest Airlines flight en route from Amsterdam to Detroit on December 25, 2009.

United States politicians and pundits lashed out in the months and years following 9/11 at what they posited as the anti-American motivations of the 19 men who carried out the airplane-delivered attacks. "They hate us for our freedom," Americans were told repeatedly. The public was informed that these bitter, brainwashed young men loathed Western notions of diversity, the egotistical concept of American exceptionalism, and inter-religious tolerance. They often overlooked the notion that the attacks were the blowback from decades of violent US military and clandestine interventionism in the Muslim world and Washington's unshakeable strategic bond with Israel and its influential lobbyists on Capitol Hill.

Proud, free and forgiven
Nine years after 9/11, Kuala Lumpur's twin towers still stand proudly in the Malaysian capital, serving as a modern magnet for global business and tourism. Across the globe, New York's World Trade Center site now buzzes with the low roar of a few cranes and unionized construction crews, where the slow pace of reconstruction is hampered by internecine local politics. New York's mayor, Michael Bloomberg, is not likely over his 12 years in office to preside over a new incarnation of the World Trade Center, while somewhat ironically an arm of his private media empire occupies office space on the 62nd floor of Petronas Tower 2.

Meanwhile, Yazid Sufaat is a free man in Malaysia, leading a supposedly closely monitored quiet domestic existence. He was imprisoned for seven years after returning to Malaysia from the Afghanistan-Pakistan war theater in December 2001. He was released in December 2008 after he was deemed a non-threat to Malaysian society, regardless of his alleged knowledge of germ warfare.

Across the Indian Ocean, USS Cole bomb plotter Fahd Mohammed Ahmed al-Quso, another critical attendee of the long meetings at Sufaat's condominium, was inexplicably released from a Yemen prison in 2007 and now continues to threaten US interests as a vocal member of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Khallad was captured in Pakistan in 2003. Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, JI's military leader and another 9/11 operative, was nabbed in Ayutthaya, Thailand, that same year with his Malaysian wife, whom he met while living in Malaysia's Johor state.

Khallad, Khalid, Hambali and another supposed "Kuala Lumpur Summit" attendee, Ramzi bin al-Shibh, remain in US detention in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, out of reach of journalists and other non-government inquisitors. The operational terrorists of the 9/11 attacks were turned to dust of their own accord. Bin Laden and al-Zawahiri are perpetually out of reach, apparently still hiding in caves along the rugged and remote Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

But the majority of the men in attendance at the "Kuala Lumpur summit", with their intricate knowledge of both the USS Cole bombing and 9/11 attacks, as well as a host of other aborted or unsuccessful terrorist plots, are all alive and well, living in obscurity and hidden behind walls of still opaque circumstances.

Derek Henry Flood is a freelance journalist specializing in the Middle East and South and Central Asia and is the editor of the Jamestown Foundation's Militant Leadership Monitor. He blogs at the-war-diaries.com.

(Copyright 2010 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)


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