Hambali, the operations director for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda terrorist movement, is on the run, but for over 10 years he was in Malaysia planning and recruiting like-minded radicals for his campaign of terror to hit Western targets in South-East Asia. Malaysian police have collected new information on Hambali and his involvement in Jemaah Islamiah in their continuing war against terrorism, write WONG CHUN WAI and LOURDES CHARLES.
HAMBALI is Asia’s most wanted terrorist. As the operations director for Osama bin Laden in South-East Asia, he plotted, financed and carried out his campaign of terror in the region.
The bespectacled and soft-spoken Indonesian preacher is also the mastermind behind the fanatical Jemaah Islamiah, an extremist group suspected of being behind the Bali blasts that killed over 190 people.
His credentials of terror are long – he is blamed for 20 deaths on Christmas Eve when 20 bombs went off simultaneously in churches across Indonesia.
He is accused of directing a bomb attack on a train station in Manila in December 2000 that killed 22 people.
He is also linked to suspects accused of bombing the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000 as well as arranging a meeting of two of the Sept 11 hijackers with other al-Qaeda figures in Malaysia in January 2000.
But when he moved to Malaysia in 1985 to escape political persecution in Indonesia, he was hardly noticed by his Malaysian neighbours.
He was hardly the rabble rouser who wanted to kill infidels and to set up a pan-Islamic state, which the villagers were to find out later.
Born in 1964 to a family of 13 children in the village of Sukamanah, West Java, his parents were respected religious teachers. His aunt still teaches the Quran at a school founded by his great grandfather.
Hambali, then 21, decided to move to Malaysia in 1985 to continue his studies but failed to secure a scholarship.
He took on several odd jobs, including slaughtering chicken at the Klang market, selling kebab, religious books, songkoks and carpets.
Hambali managed to secure Malaysian permanent resident status in 1989.
Together with Muhammad Iqbal – who is also on the wanted list – he then rented a wooden house in Kampung Sungai Manggis in Banting, Selangor.
“Hambali, who was then staying in Klang with fellow Indonesian workers, had complained to Muhammad that his fellow countrymen had loose morals.
“His housemates were bringing home their girlfriends and this greatly upset Hambali, who regarded himself as pious,” a source said.
According to villagers, the two kept to themselves and some even suspected the duo of conducting deviant teachings as they did not join the locals at the village mosque.
Those who know him described him as a loner and secretive person who disliked his views to be challenged.
According to Intelligence reports, businessmen who had dealings with Hambali described him to be “honest” and “keeping to his words, even to non-Muslims.”
He also seemed to have a penchant for Pakistani-Bangladeshi style clothings and always had a kopiah (white skull cap) on to maintain his identity as a religious figure.
Police sources said Hambali and Muhammad soon brought other JI leaders like Abubakar Ba'syir, Abu Yusuf and Abu Omar into the village.
Abubakar Ba'syir, who is the head of the JI, is now being detained by Indonesian authorities. He took over the JI leadership following the death of Abdullah Sungkar in Indonesia in November 1999.
Both Abubakar Ba'syir and Abdullah fled to Malaysia in 1985 but returned to Indonesia in 1999 after Suharto’s resignation.
Abdullah was detained briefly in 1977 by Indonesian authorities for urging the people not to vote in national elections, then arrested with Abubakar Ba'syir in 1978 on subversion charges for alleged involvement in Komando Jihad and Darul Islam.
Hambali’s involvement with JI – then known as Pertubuhan Darul Islam (PDI) – started as early as 1985.
The PDI was then headed by Abdullah Sungkar, who was then staying in Kuala Pilah, Negri Sembilan.
In 1987, Hambali left for Sadar Camp in Pakistan for arms training and subsequently fought the Russians in Afghanistan between 1987 and 1999.
Returning to Malaysia in 1990s, he then married a Sabah-born Chinese, Noralwizah Lee, who studied Islam at a religious school in Johor.
They both ran a series of religious classes for children and adults. According to sources, they were encouraged to talk about jihad and to create an uprising in Malaysia.
“Hambali also conducted religious talks and usrah (discussions) at the Kampung Baru flats in Kuala Lumpur,” a source recalled. In 1993, Hambali was giving more talks in Ulu Kelang, Banting and Sepang.
It was at this time that Abdullah Sungkar decided to form JI after a leadership crisis in the PDI with Anjengan Masduki, the PDI leader in Indonesia, over financial matters in Malaysia.
In a report, the International Crisis Group said Abdullah Sungkar regarded JI as an “ideological hybrid” with influence from Egyptian Islamic radicalism.
Between 1997 and 2000, Hambali conducted at least 16 usrah for Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM) members.
He was held in high regard by the KMM members as the charismatic Hambali was an Afghan veteran who also spoke fluent Arabic.
“At these discussions, the KMM and JI members were instilled the spirit of jihad, mati syahid (martyr deaths), to fight infidels and to set up an Islamic state by force, through an armed uprising if necessary,” a source added.
The source said Hambali had accused infidels, including Christians, the United States and Israel, of oppressing Muslims.
“Countries like Malaysia and Indonesia were also kafir because the governments did not administer the countries using Islamic laws.
“Hambali told his listeners of the need to set up a pan-Islamic state comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Cambodia and Thailand,” another source said.
The source said Hambali also drummed into those present that the democratic system processes, such as elections, were the creation of infidels.
JI and KMM members were also encouraged to send their children to the Lukman Hakiem school, located in a lush oil palm estate in Ulu Tiram, Johor.
The school is said to have produced Islamic radicals including Amrozi, the Bali bombing suspect, who was a student.
Its board of directors included six university lecturers wanted for military activities. Nordin Mohd Top, a graduate of Universiti Teknologi Malaysia, who also headed the school, has been implicated in the Bali blasts.
The JI and KMM members were encouraged to take up arms training in Afghanistan where forged documents were made to help them pass immigration checkpoints.
According to reports, eight JI members detained by Singapore authorities received tactical and military training at al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
“They used false documentation and cover stories about their personal life to gain entry into Pakistan, where they were accommodated at an al-Qaeda safe house before being sent to Afghanistan.
“In Afghanistan, they received training in the use of AK-47s, mortars and military tactics,” an Australian source revealed.
Hambali was certainly the key person, sources from various countries agreed, saying his Kampung Manggis house was a meeting point for those travelling to Ambon, Afghanistan and the southern Philippines.
Airline tickets, visas and forged documents were handled by Hambali, who had the authority to decide which mission these ground soldiers should go to.
Malaysian intelligence sources revealed that foreign contacts from West Asia, Algeria and Britain used his house as a meeting point too.
“Located in an isolated area away from the city, it proved to be really useful for Hambali in terms of operations,” another source explained.
Together with Kuwaiti terrorist Wali Khan Amin Shah, now serving jail sentence in the United States for his role in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Centre in New York, Hambali set up Konsojaya Sdn Bhd as a front company for al-Qaeda.
It was supposed to import and export palm oil to Afghanistan but checks by intelligence sources found that a telephone call was made to the company by Mohamad Jamal Khalifah, a brother-in-law of Osama bin Laden.
Mohamad Jamal was then operating the International Islamic Relief Organisation (IRO), a non-governmental organisation said to be financing terrorist groups.
Abubakar Ba'syir has denied involvement in JI while the whereabouts of Hambali is unknown but Thai authorities believe he was in southern Thailand to escape from Malaysian security forces.