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SE Asia Terror Mastermind Reported Caught

August 15, 2003 GMT

JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ He reportedly set up a meeting between al-Qaida and two of the Sept. 11 hijackers. Intelligence reports say he planned a second wave of attacks foiled at the last minute. The Bali bombings that killed 202 people were purportedly carried out under his watch.

He is Riduan Isamuddin, a 39-year-old Indonesian cleric better known as Hambali _ once one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists who created the southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah in al-Qaida’s image and recruited eager young Muslims and sent them to al-Qaida training camps in Afghanistan.

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On Thursday, the United States announced he was captured at last.

Hambali, whose whereabouts had been unknown since he disappeared after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, seems to be linked to nearly every major al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah plot since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon _ and several before that.

``This is going to lop off the most important head of the hydra that is Jemaah Islamiyah,″ said Ken Conboy, a Jakarta-based expert on religious extremism in Indonesia, the world’s most-populous Muslim nation. ``But on the other hand, it is going to potentially invite reprisals against the United States.″

A Thai newspaper, the Nation, reported that he was arrested in the central Thai town of Ayutthaya earlier this week, and a cache of explosives was found with him. He is reportedly being held in a secret location by Thai authorities and the FBI.

The Nation quoted sources as saying that Hambali allegedly confessed that the explosives were to be used in an attack on the Oct. 20-21 summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which President Bush planned to attend along with 20 other world leaders.

Maj. Gen. Rungroj Phenganan, the commander of Ayutthaya province, told The Associated Press that a suspect was arrested over the weekend in the province’s Pranakorn district.

``That’s all I know. But I cannot confirm whether he is really Hambali or not,″ the commander said.

Hambali is considered to be the link between al-Qaida and Jemaah Islamiyah, and he’s been described as Osama bin Laden’s pointman in Southeast Asia.

After his arrest was announced, a senior Bush administration official described Hambali as ``one of the world’s most lethal terrorists.″

A terrorism expert in Singapore, Rohan Gunaratna, said Hambali had a hand in all major Jemaah Islamiyah operations in Southeast Asia. ``He was the point man with al-Qaida. He transformed the organization into one that resembled al-Qaida,″ said Gunaratna, author of a book on bin Laden’s terrorist network.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Hambali’s arrest will help authorities in their fight against terrorism in Asia and slow the flow of terrorist funds in the region.

``Clearly Hambali will shed light over time on planning and activities in Southeast Asia particularly,″ Armitage told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

Armitage, who was in Australia for talks on terrorism and regional security, was cautious in giving details surrounding Hambali’s capture because it could be a chance ``to wrap up more of his comrades and we’d love the opportunity to do so.″

Hambali was born in Indonesia’s West Java province, a hotbed of Islamic militancy in the 1940s and 50s, and the home of a religious rebellion called Darul Islam, which was finally crushed by government troops in the early 1960s.

In the 1980s, Hambali linked up with another fundamentalist cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir. Along with other militants, they fled a crackdown by Indonesia’s then-dictator Suharto and escaped to Malaysia in 1988.

There, Hambali and Bashir taught at a school in Johor spreading al-Qaida’s radical brand of Islam and setting up Jemaah Islamiyah _ a militant network with cells in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and other nations in Southeast Asia. He was described as one of the school’s most charismatic instructors.

Indonesian intelligence says he spent time in Afghanistan and sent especially promising recruits on to training camps there.

One of his most significant finds may have been Yazid Sufaat, a Malaysian who allegedly loaned his condominium for a January 2000 meeting between two of the Sept. 11 hijackers and other al-Qaida figures. Yazid also signed an employment letter for Zacarias Moussaoui, indicted in the United States in connection with the attacks on Washington and New York.

Discussing Hambali’s arrest Thursday, President Bush said he was a close associate of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks. Philippine intelligence suggests that though he went into hiding after Sept. 11, he was plotting to blow up four Western embassies in Singapore.

``After the United States began its military campaign in Afghanistan, authorities in Singapore said Hambali (al-Qaida’s chief in the region) approved plans for another al-Qaida attack,″ the report said.

The plan called for operatives ``to drive trucks packed with powerful fertilizer bombs into the embassies of the United States, Britain, Israel and Australia,″ the report said.

And the list goes on, investigators say: He arranged meetings between al-Qaida and the mastermind of the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. He was a close associate of Ramzi Yousef, now imprisoned in the United States for his involvement in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. He was accused of planning a series of bombings in the Philippines that killed 22 people in December 2000. He also is a leading suspect in the bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta this month.