IT has taken more than 18 years but finally Indonesian terrorist Riduan Isamuddin @ Hambali and his two Malaysian lieutenants – Mohammed Farik Amin and Mohammed Nazir Lep – will be formally charged for their terror acts.
Farik and Nazir will become the first Malaysians to be charged with terrorist activities in a US court.
The Star first reported in 2009 of the plan by the United States to charge the three, regarded as “highly dangerous” by international intelligence agencies.
Farik and Nazir were members of the outlawed radical Jemaah Islamiyah, which wanted to set up a pan-Islamic region spanning Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Brunei through violent means, and the al-Qaeda terror network.
All three (Hambali, Farik and Nazir) were implicated in the nightclub bombings in Bali in 2002, in which 202 people were killed, and the 2003 bomb attack at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta which killed 12 people.
The Malaysians have also been implicated in a planned al-Qaeda plot to crash a hijacked plane into the 73-storey Library Tower/US Bank Tower in Los Angeles.
Farik and Nazir had the dubious distinction of being listed among 14 key terror suspects by the United States.
They were held in Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, by the United States.
Both men, who had received arms training in Afghanistan, were arrested in 2003 in Bangkok in a special joint operation involving the Thai national police and the US Central Intelligence Agency.
Their arrests led to the capture of Hambali, a key man for Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network in South-East Asia.
When the three appear in court, it will be the first time the world will see how they look like now.
Even when Hambali was actively involved in terrorism activities, he was a man who kept changing his facial and physical appearances – but the image of the chubby-faced person which most media use till today – is likely to have turned frail and thin.
The activities of Hambali and the other terrorists had always been a topic that The Star has tracked.
Since 2003, this media group has written extensively about their activities by speaking to former terrorists, intelligence agencies and groups which studied their movements, both local and foreign.
My former colleague Datuk Lourdes Charles and I have a special interest in the latest developments on the three terrorists because we worked on this from day one.
The last known picture was published by Mstar – the Bahasa Malaysia news portal of The Star. It was a world exclusive.
My Sabah colleagues, Datuk Muguntan Vanar and PK Katharason who has since retired, tracked Hambali’s wife, Noralwiza Lee Abdullah, 39, a Malaysian from Sandakan, Sabah.
She was also detained under the Internal Security Act in 2003 but was released in 2007.
The Star team obtained from her the picture as she was allowed to exchange correspondence with her husband with the International Red Cross Society’s assistance. There were also Hari Raya cards sent from Hambali to her.
Since news of the formal charges against Hambali and the two Malaysians broke on Thursday, we have tried to locate Noralwiza but with no success yet.
There is talk that she may have moved to Cianjur, West Java in Indonesia, to be with Hambali’s family, including his siblings.
It is understood that at the high security block at Guantanamo Bay, the US naval base, they were probably being kept in one of the seven detention camps at Camp Delta.
These are maximum security camps that can house up to 800 detainees, including those in solitary confinement.
For Farik from Selangor and Nazir, a Johorean, they would have probably been held at the maximum security Camp Three when they first arrived.
“The 2m by 2.4m cells only have a squatting toilet, metal sink and sleeping berth fixed to the walls. They would probably be allowed out of their cells three times a week, but they cannot exercise with the other inmates, ” said a source.
They have to wear orange uniforms and items such as toilet paper and shampoo will only be available on request. Cell lights are turned on 24 hours a day.
Intelligence sources said the two were arrested in a joint operation involving the CIA and Thai police in Bangkok in 2003.
Several days later, their mentor – Hambali – was arrested.
In covering the network of the terrorism groups, Charles, now a businessman, obtained very in-depth information from Indonesian sources on their terror ambitions.
They included meetings in South Sulawesi, Indonesia, which had a reputation of being a hotbed of radicalism.
It had attracted the attention of militants such as Abubakar Ba’asyir and Agus Dwikarna.
Abubakar, 82, who headed the Jemaah Islamiyah with links to al-Qaeda, was released on Jan 8 this year after being sentenced to 15 years in 2011 for supporting militant training in conservative Aceh province.
But the term was later cut due to sentence reductions. Officials reportedly said he had “served his punishment well”.
Dwikarna, who led the militant Laskar Jundullah (Army of Allah), is serving a 17-year jail term in the Philippines for illegal possession of explosives and suspected involvement in bombings in Manila and Jakarta.
Laskar Jundullah achieved notoriety when its 50,000 members forcibly raided hotels for American tourists in 2002.
In December 2020, Dwikarna reportedly said he was mulling an appeal of the court’s verdict that handed him a prison term of 10 to 17 years for illegal possession of explosives.
Dwikarna expressed his intention to appeal his conviction at a meeting with a 13-member Indonesian delegation that visited him in jail at Camp Crame in Manila.
In carrying out our investigations, Charles also scored major news exclusives by getting jailed terrorists like Dwikarna and others to speak to him while in prison.
They included Taufik Abdul Halim aka Dani, the Malaysian who was sentenced to death by the Indonesian authorities for his involvement in terrorist activities, including the bombing of churches in the republic in 2001, but had the sentence commuted to life imprisonment.
Taufik, a Universiti Institut Teknologi Mara (UiTM) graduate, gained notoriety when he was caught setting off a bomb at the Plaza Atrium in Jakarta on Aug 1 two years ago.
His target was the church worshippers leaving the premises on the third floor of the complex.
Charles also met Abubakar through his contacts at the Cipinang Penitentiary Institution in Jakarta. But Indonesian officials who found out about his surprise visit cut short the meeting and insisted that there would be no interviews while threatening to act against our reporter.
But in carrying out our work, which spanned nearly a decade, we faced numerous threats and had to seek the advice of our Malaysian police, which certainly has one of the best anti-terrorism outfits in the world.
We reported on a meeting of the mujahidin in Yogyakarta in 2002, which was attended by quasi-military groups from all over south Sulawesi.
We named some famous Malaysian political figures who were also present. We did not imply anything but merely stated a fact. But both of us were decreed as “anti-Islam” and “infidels” at a gathering of thousands of people.
We subsequently received death threats and police reports had to be made. The police traced some of these calls but we decided not to pursue the matter even though the culprits were identified.
The Star has had its articles plagiarised by international TV news networks without crediting us.
Interestingly, for this writer, the interest in terrorism began in 2001 when I walked into a bookshop selling religious books in Jalan Masjid India, Kuala Lumpur, where you can meet and interact with all kinds of colourful characters, as well as those one should stay away from.
One book caught my attention – Zainon Ismail had written about his exploits in a book titled Jihad Anak Melayu di Afghanistan – Merintis Jalan Syuhada (Young Malays in Afghanistan – Following the Syahid Route).
The then PAS branch committee member used a pseudonym, C.N. Al Af Ghani, and while giving sketchy details of himself, used pictures of himself dressed up as a mujahid in his book.
The 112-page book also carried pictures of other heavily-armed Malaysians who had decided to fight the Russians who occupied Afghanistan then.
But everyone in PAS and the Special Branch knew the author was Zainon, a farmer who was active in the party’s grassroots operations.
He had made his way to Peshawar, Pakistan, before heading towards Afghanistan to join a group called Harakat Ul Jehad al Islami, headed by commander Khalid Zubir.
The author wrote about his experience using the famed Russian made AK-47 automatic rifle, favoured by terrorists, in his pursuit. In the group was another Malaysian, one Fauzi Ismail.
Upon his return to Malaysia, Zainon was eventually arrested under the ISA and seven others for alleged involvement in Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), a local militant religious group with international links.
The eight, aged between 32 and 45, were picked up in Terengganu, Perak, Kedah and Johor in August 2001.
The party also sacked Zainon due to his big fight with the PAS leadership over the use of funds collected for party members and their widows in the Memali incident.
In the 1985 incident, 18 people including four policemen, were killed in Memali, Baling, during the clash between the police and followers of Ibrahim Libya, a PAS member who believed jihad was the only way to topple the government.
In the case of the KMM members, they were detained under the ISA for alleged links to the murder of Lunas assemblyman Dr Joe Fernandez in 2000.
They were also believed to be responsible for bombing a church and a Hindu temple, and also the attack on the Guar Chempedak police station on Feb 4,2001.
Finally, it is now 2021, and for a world which has been gripped by terrorism, we will finally get to see the faces of the alleged killers.
Interestingly, before Sept 11,2001, no one was interested in the militants.
Malaysia was constantly criticised for using the Internal Security Act to lock up these dangerous people and not filing formal charges.
But the irony is that the United States has kept Hambali, Nazir and Farik for years and only filed formal charges now.
Many others continue to be detained without trial in Guantanamo Bay and other secret locations.