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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.