Two-year hunt tracked al-Qa'ida 'branch manager' to Thailand

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The Independent Online

A two-year manhunt across South-east Asia ended in the back streets of the ancient Thai city of Ayutthaya, where Riduan Isamuddin, one of the linchpins of al-Qa'ida's terrorist network, was arrested at a block of flats with a cache of weapons and explosives.

Isamuddin, alias Hambali, a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden, was being questioned by US investigators at a secret location yesterday and his capture was hailed as a massive coup in the fight against terrorism.

On the run since late 2001, Hambali, 37, was the most senior al-Qa'ida figure in South-east Asia and a former operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, the regional extremist group. He is believed to have organised a planning meeting for the 11 September attacks and ordered the switch to "soft" targets that led to the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali last October.

The charismatic Indonesian preacher looked nothing like his widely circulated photographs when he was picked up by American and Thai officials, having shaved off his beard and undergone plastic surgery to alter his features. Hambali is believed to have entered Thailand from Laos last week, using a false Spanish passport. He headed for Ayutthaya, a city 50 miles north of Bangkok that is famous for its temple ruins, hoping to evade notice by mingling with the large Muslim community. He was arrested with his Malaysian wife, in a raid organised by the CIA on Monday but not announced until three days later.

According to Thailand's The Nation newspaper, Hambali was planning an attack on an Asia-Pacific summit to be held in Bangkok in October and attended by world leaders including George Bush. He is suspected of involvement in recent strikes, including the suicide car bomb that killed 12 people at the Marriott hotel in central Jakarta on 5 August.

His current whereabouts are a mystery. Thai military officials said he had been flown to Indonesia on Wednesday, but Indonesian ministers denied it. The head of Bali police, General I Made Pastika, said he was "in US custody" but did not specify where. In the past, terrorist suspects have been taken to US bases in Afghanistan or Cuba. Indonesia said it would seek Hambali's extradition to face trial over the Bali atrocity, which killed 202 people including 26 Britons, and other attacks such as a string of church bombings in December 2000. He is also wanted for plotting or carrying out attacks in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

While his arrest represents a psychological blow to al-Qa'ida, terrorism experts are divided over how easily he can be replaced. Rodolfo Mendoza, a former Philippine police intelligence officer who tracked his movements in the mid-1990s, said: "There are second-liners who can replace him immediately." Other experts compared al-Qa'ida to a hydra that grew new heads whenever one was chopped off.

The son of Javanese peasant farmers, Hambali taught at a radical Islamic boarding school in Malaysia in the 1980s with Abu Bakar Bashir, a fellow Indonesian cleric who was later a Jemaah Islamiyah leader. He helped set up the terror group, which grew into a network with cells across the region, and trained in Afghanistan, fighting against Soviet forces.

Described by Mr Bush as "one of the world's most lethal terrorists", Hambali - the only non-Arab in Bin Laden's inner circle - returned to Indonesia after the fall of the dictator, Suharto, and became the link man between al-Qa'ida and Jemaah Islamiyah. His group, which was sometimes referred to as a "branch office" of the parent group al-Qa'ida, is believed to have regularly received funds, training and weapons from al-Qa'ida.

According to US officials, Sheikh Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the 11 September mastermind arrested in Pakistan in March, told interrogators he had given Hambali "a huge amount of money to do something really big". Another al-Qa'ida detainee reportedly said Hambali had tried to recruit pilots for more terrorist hijackings in the future. He is suspected of organising a strategic meeting in Malaysia in January 2000 where al-Qa'ida operatives planned the suicide attack on the destroyer USS Cole in Yemen. Two participants, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, who subsequently enrolled in an Arizona flight school, were aboard the hijacked plane that crashed into the Pentagon.

In late 2001, he laid audacious plans to attack Western embassies in Singapore. The plot was foiled and a furious Hambali swore revenge, pledging to hunt down "white meat" - by which he meant Westerners.

At a meeting in Thailand in February last year, he and fellow Jemaah Islamiyah leaders decided to change strategy. The order was given to go after soft targets: bars, cafés and nightclubs. The meeting was attended by Mukhlas, also known as Ali Gufron, a senior Jemaah operative who is believed to have recruited the team for the Bali bombing.

Hambali, a close associate of Sheikh Mohammed, was already on the run by then, and - according to The Nation - returned to Thailand twice, on one occasion evading police by a whisker. He was also spotted in neighbouring Cambodia, but managed to remain one step ahead of his pursuers.

According to one report, he recently fled Malaysia, travelled by boat to Burma and then made his way overland into Thailand again. It was there that his luck finally ran out and he was tracked down and arrested - although the full details are unclear. As his former landlord in Malaysia said yesterday, quoting a Malay proverb: "However good a squirrel is at jumping, it will eventually fall to the ground."

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