Authorities seek details of terrorist recruitment from al-Qaida detainee

Friday, August 15th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Authorities say a senior al-Qaida operative tried to recruit new pilots for suicide attacks in the United States. Now that he has been captured, they hope to find out how successful he was.

The CIA and an unidentified foreign government arrested the operative, known as Hambali, in a joint operation this week, the White House said Thursday. Foreign newspapers said Hambali was detained in Thailand.

Hambali, an Indonesian whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, has been taken to an undisclosed location overseas for interrogation by American officials.

He is believed to be the operational head of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist network in Southeast Asia that is affiliated with al-Qaida.

``Hambali was al-Qaida's point man in Southeast Asia and the most hunted terrorist in the region,'' said Rohan Gunaratna, head of terrorism research at the Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore.

A top al-Qaida detainee first told of Hambali's assignment to find more suicide hijackers not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a senior Bush administration official said. Other sources confirmed his efforts. Hambali also received money this year from an al-Qaida operative in Pakistan, the official said.

A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is unclear how successful his recruiting drive was, but that he will be interrogated on the matter.

President Bush described Hambali as a killer.

``He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom,'' Bush said during a speech to troops at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. ``And neither are nearly two-thirds of known senior al-Qaida leaders, operational managers and key facilitators who have been captured or have been killed.''

Hambali, 39, is suspected of ties to several recent attacks, including the Aug. 5 bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, that killed 12 people and injured 150.

He also is suspected of playing an organizing role in the Oct. 12, 2002, bombing of a nightclub in Bali that killed about 200 people, many of the Australians.

Jemaah Islamiyah is also believed to be behind a foiled plot to bomb Western targets in Singapore in late 2001, and a series of church bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines in December 2000.

Authorities also say Hambali is connected to the Sept. 11 plot, although whether he played a direct role is unclear.

In January 2000, Hambali had one of his deputies host meetings between two eventual Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, and a high-ranking al-Qaida figure who organized the bombing of the USS Cole, at his apartment in Malaysia in January 2000.

Bush said Hambali was close to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Counterterrorism officials said Hambali is the highest-ranking operative from the al-Qaida captured since Mohammed was taken in Pakistan on March 1.

Hambali was one of two key leaders the CIA had identified as leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah. The other, the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, founded the group in 1989 and served as its spiritual leader, U.S. officials said. Bashir lived openly and was detained in October 2002. He denies any links to Jemaah Islamiyah.

Outside of Indonesia, the group operates in Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines, Myanmar and Thailand.

Hambali's capture comes after an increase in violence connected to Islamic militants across Asia:

_In Afghanistan, suspected remnants of Taliban forces and their al-Qaida allies engaged in battles and bombings around the country on Tuesday, leaving 64 dead.

_In Saudi Arabia, authorities continued their crackdown on militants in terrorist leader Osama bin Laden's home country. More than 200 suspects have been arrested and more than a dozen killed in a series of high-profile police raids. British Airways, concerned about a threat to its airliners, canceled flights to the kingdom on Wednesday.

_In Iraq, U.S. and British troops face attacks from multiple quarters, including from foreign Islamic militants who have entered the country to fight those forces. Bin Laden has called for attacks on U.S. troops occupying Iraq.