FOR the last 13 years, al-Qaeda’s most powerful leader in South-East Asia, Indonesian Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, has been held in Guantanamo Bay prison, out of public sight but still very much in the minds of militants and security agencies across the region.
Such is the potent reputation of Hambali, the man known as the Osama bin Laden of South-East Asia, alleged mastermind of Bali’s devastating 2002 bombings that killed 202, Indonesia’s Christmas Eve multi-city church bombings of 2000, and Jakarta Marriott Hotel car bombing of 2003.
Hambali, 52, has pronounced “he just wants to move on with his life and be peaceful, that he bore no ill feelings towards the United States,” during his plea for freedom before Guantanamo’s Periodic Review Board last August.
The board rejected his request last Tuesday, saying he continues to be a “significant threat to the security of the United States.”
His younger brother, Kankan Abdul Qodir, 38, resigned himself to the decision upon hearing the news.
“What can we do if the US thinks he (Hambali) is a threat to them? There is nothing we can do. We just have to accept the decision,” Kankan tells Sunday Star in a phone interview from Cianjur, West Java, Indonesia.
“Of course as his family, we hoped that he will be released. But whatever happens, it is the will of God,” says Kankan.
US President Barack Obama had promised to shut down Guantanamo and the review board was created to winnow down the prison population as part of a broader effort to close the detention centre.
There are 60 high value prisoners left at Guantanamo, including 20 cleared for release.
Malaysian and Indonesian security officials warn that a free Hambali will revive a weakened Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the group blamed for the Bali bombings.
Kankan describes his brother as “just an ordinary person,” when asked to comment on his alleged terror activities.
“My brother has never been brought to trial in court to prove all these allegations. He is just an ordinary person who behaved just like anyone else when he was with us,” says Kankan, before adding, “Whatever his activities outside, we do not know. Only God knows the truth.”
The US accused Hambali of meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1987 when he went to fight against the Russian occupation and established close ties with the terror group.
Later, he was appointed operational chief for JI, which is known to be al-Qaeda’s South-East Asian off-shoot.
Hambali is the second child in a family of 12 children; Kankan is the ninth.
They were born in Cianjur, which once waged a religious rebellion in the 1940s and 1950s known as Darul Islam which was only put down by government troops in the 1960s.
“Hambali is much older than me and I did not see much of him as he left for Malaysia sometime in 1983. The last time I saw him was in 1999,” says Kankan.
Hambali went to Malaysia in search of work, eventually settling down in Sungai Manggis, Banting, Selangor selling kebab and medicine.
Kankan grew up to become a teacher at a madrasah (religious boarding school) and also sells insurance for a living.
Kankan, who is married with three children, says his mother was shocked when Hambali’s name was first linked to terror activities.
“My mother has come to accept the situation now. We believe in God and that has helped us to be patient and to carry on with our lives,” adds Kankan.
Despite his brother’s reputation as a global extremist, Kankan says his neighbours have been sympathetic and are very supportive.
“Our neighbours and the community around us have given us moral support all this while,” says Kankan.
Hambali was captured in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in 2003 in a joint US-Thai operation and eventually sent to Guantanamo.
His family gets to speak with him once every three months via Skype in meetings arranged by the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC).
“These meeting lasts for 30 minutes. Alhamdulilah he looks well and healthy. The last meeting was in August and the next one should be in November,” tells Kankan.
Hambali has expressed hopes to “remarry” and raise children.
Hambali’s Malaysian wife, Noralwizah Lee Abdullah, is a Malaysian ethnic Chinese who converted to Islam. She divorced him in 2014.
“It has been a long time since he was gone. They have no children,” Kankan explains.
Hambali’s other younger brother, Rusman Gunawan, also known as Gun Gun, was also a member of JI.
He was jailed by a Jakarta court for four years in 2004 for “aiding and abetting in terrorism” in the 2003 Jakarta Mariott Hotel attack.
His detention was cut short for good behaviour and he was released in 2006.
US authorities alleged Gun Gun has since become part of the Islamic State’s (IS) Indonesian network, a charge which Kankan strenuously denies.
“These are negative accusations against my brother. Gun Gun has never taken part in any organisation following his release. He now owns a shop which sells electronic goods in Bengkulu, Sumatera and he is doing well,” says Kankan.
Datuk Ayub Khan Mydin Pitchay, principal assistant director of Special Branch’s counter-terrorism division says Malaysia will not accept Hambali as he only holds permanent residency and not citizenship.
If he were to return, Malaysia faces a huge problem – it no longer has the legal tools to detain Hambali for his alleged militant activities as the Internal Security Act (ISA) has been abolished and replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA).
“SOSMA cannot be used to hold him as Hambali’s wrongdoings were committed from 1985 to 2003. SOSMA cannot be applied retroactively,” says Ayub.
Ayub warns that Hambali would roam South-East Asia” and become “active again in terrorist activities,” if he is freed.
“Hambali has a great capacity to recruit people ... he is charismatic, has many contacts with top al-Qaeda leaders, and is very capable in organising large terrorist attacks against US interests in Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia,” Ayub says in an interview.
“Many of JI’s right hand men were nurtured by Hambali and (Malaysian) Yazid Sufaat,” notes Ayub.
Yazid is a jailed militant who hosted two of the 9/11 hijackers in his apartment in Kuala Lumpur in 2000.
Indonesian counter-terrorism officials warn a free Hambali “would be a disaster” for the country.
“It will be a disaster for Indonesia if Hambali returns as he is very dangerous,” a senior Indonesian security official says.
“He will become a hero in Indonesia and I expect all radical groups to rally round him.
“His reputation as a global extremist has earned him greater acknowledgement amongst radicals. He will revive JI,” says the official.