KUALA LUMPUR: As the United States marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the most devastating terrorist attack on its soil, a Malaysian police chief who was then with the anti-terrorism unit says that intelligence-sharing among international agencies can be further improved and speeded up.
The Bukit Aman Special Branch Department, especially its Counter-Terrorism Unit, has been instrumental in combating terrorism, both locally and regionally.
Comm Datuk Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay, who was attached with the unit when the four coordinated attacks by al-Qaeda were unleashed on Sept 11, 2001, recalled how a senior operative of the terrorist group, Khalid Al Mihdhar, had entered Malaysia on Jan 4, 2000.
“US intelligence agencies had relayed information on Khalid arriving in Malaysia.
“I, along with several officers, monitored Khalid’s movement at KLIA. Watching him, I never would have expected that Khalid would later be involved in hijacking and ramming an aircraft at the Pentagon on that fateful day,” he said in an interview.
Surveillance on Khalid in Bukit Bintang here and Bandar Sungai Long in Kajang led the team to track down three other al-Qaeda operatives who had entered Malaysia earlier.
Khalid and the trio – Nawaf al-Hazmi, Salah Saed@Khallad Attash and Ramzi Al-Shibh – were in Malaysia until Jan 8, 2000.
“They seemed to be seasoned operatives as they never used phones at their hotel rooms; they used only public phones and Internet cafes in Bukit Bintang,” said Comm Ayob Khan.
He said Special Branch obtained recordings of the calls they had made using public phones and these were relayed to the US authorities.
“Many international numbers were called, including to a few Arab countries. One of these countries hosted an al-Qaeda cell involved in the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen on Aug 12, 2000,” he said.
Comm Ayob Khan, who went on to head the unit before his current posting as the Johor police chief, said all information including flight details, passports and phone calls were relayed to the US intelligence agency when Khalid, Khallad and Nawaf flew to Bangkok on Jan 9, 2000.
“However, the US intelligence agency did not share the information with the FBI until close to September 2001.
“The weakness in information sharing between the agency and the FBI was clearly stated in the 9/11 Commission Report,” he said.
The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is the US law enforcement agency.
The 9/11 attacks killed close to 3,000 people and 19 al-Qaeda terrorists, and left tens of thousands injured.
Comm Ayob Khan said cooperation among local and foreign agencies at regional and global levels should be improved in battling the common enemy of terrorism.
Intelligence and information obtained from interrogation and investigation, he said, should be shared for the benefit of other countries.
“In the context of PDRM (Royal Malaysia Police), intelligence obtained should be developed to identify connections between terrorist groups and local individuals.
“Preventive and proactive measures should be taken to curb terrorist attacks,” he added.
Comm Ayob Khan, who was with the Counter-Terrorism Unit from 1994 until 2020, said he was also the case officer assigned to investigate Wali Khan Amin Shah, who was an associate of Ramzi Ahmad Yousef, the mastermind behind the first attack on the New York World Trade Center on Feb 26, 1993.
“Wali Khan had escaped to the Philippines with fellow al-Qaeda member Ramzi before he made his way to Malaysia.
“We discovered that he received assistance from Riduan Hisamudin, also known as Hambali, to start a company, which operated from Kampung Attap in KL,” he said.
Hambali was a prominent representative of al-Qaeda in South-East Asia.
The police managed to photograph Wali Khan when they were tracking his movements in KL and Selangor, he added.
“We discovered that he had an injury on his right hand due to bomb experiments in Afghanistan. The photos were shared with the FBI, who verified his identity.
“Wali Khan later opened a restaurant in Kuah, Langkawi, in 1995.
“With sufficient evidence, Special Branch arrested him in Kuah on Dec 11 that year,” he said.
While investigating 9/11 operatives, Comm Ayob Khan said the Counter-Terrorism Unit decided to monitor local man Yazid Sufaat, who had provided lodging for Khalid and the other operatives at his condominium unit in Kajang.
“Through careful monitoring, we learnt that Yazid had frequently gone to Pakistan and Afghanistan since 2000.
“On his way back to Malaysia on his last trip, Yazid tried to evade the authorities by going through Bangkok but we managed to nab him at Bukit Kayu Hitam (Kedah) under the Internal Security Act on Dec 11, 2001, due to diligent surveillance,” he explained.
Through the interrogation of Yazid, the Special Branch uncovered the existence of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror group, Comm Ayob Khan noted.
“In fact, we were the first intelligence agency to uncover JI in South-East Asia and Australia.
“While Yazid only revealed the nicknames of JI operatives in Malaysia, investigators managed to detain them due to intelligence from other agencies,” he said.
Comm Ayob Khan recalled that in January 2001, the police received intelligence from their Indonesian counterparts about an Indonesian suspect who held Malaysian permanent resident status and was staying in Banting, Selangor.
He turned out to be Hambali and was involved in a series of attacks on churches in Bandung, Indonesia.
“Special Branch managed to identify him and 22 others including Yazid in the terror network.
“We developed the intelligence further and it enabled us to detain JI operatives in the country, especially in KL, Selangor, Johor, Perak, Sabah and Negri Sembilan in 2001.”
Hambali as well as Malaysians Mohd Farik Amin and Nazir Lep are currently being held in Guantanamo Bay for their roles in the Bali bombing.
This worst terror attack in Indonesia on Oct 12, 2002, left more than 200 people, including 88 Australians, dead.