• Thu
  • Jul 10, 2014
  • Updated: 10:59pm

Shadowy figure dubbed the Osama bin Laden of Asia

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 August, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 August, 2003, 12:00am

Zealot who wanted a pan-Islamic state was a suspect in every regional bombing


The shadowy figure of Riduan Isamuddin is allegedly behind every terrorist attack in Southeast Asia in the past three years. Intelligence experts have linked him to key operations by al-Qaeda, including the attack on September 11, 2001, in the United States.


Little wonder the US' Central Intelligence Agency referred to the man, better known as Hambali, as the Osama bin Laden of Asia.


The similarities to bin Laden and his network are not restricted to just style, experts claim. Hambali is said to have founded the Southeast Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI) with al-Qaeda's structure, operations and aims in mind.


With such a pedigree, he became the immediate suspect for every bombing in the region and sought by Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines. His disappearance from intelligence radars after the September 11 attacks added to the mystique and built his stature among the increasing number of fundamentalist Muslims.


Hambali, who is 39, was one of 13 children born to an Indonesian peasant family in West Java. His Islamic fervour evolved in religious schools under the religiously repressive Suharto regime. To nourish his beliefs, he went into self-exile in Malaysia.


There, he was recruited to join the mujahedeen to fight the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan. JI expert Zachary Abuza said Hambali was one of about 1,000 Southeast Asians to fight the Soviets.


'He went because he had a real desire to create a pan-Islamic state,' Dr Abuza said. 'He and those who went with him were frustrated that they couldn't take on their countries' secular regimes.'


Hambali reportedly joined al-Qaeda shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. Dr Abuza said the arrested terrorism suspect had not been a fighter while in the South Asian country.


'He was doing similar things to bin Laden,' he said. 'He was taking care of Southeast Asian jihadis, getting them assigned to different units and taking care of their housing and transport.'


He returned to Malaysia in 1990 and married a Chinese woman. Experts believe he was joined by close friend Abu Bakar Bashir and founded a religious school in Johore state. Between 1992 and 1994, they began building JI.


Dr Abuza said Hambali lived humbly and was an organiser and talent scout, travelling from southern Thailand to the Philippines and Malaysia to build a network. The recruited were trained at religious schools set up in Malaysia and grounded in the shared al-Qaeda ideal of a region-wide Islamic state.


In January 2000, he reportedly set up a meeting of al-Qaeda members in Kuala Lumpur at which the September 11 attacks and the bombing later that year of the USS Cole in Yemen were discussed. Two of the hijackers who flew planes into New York's World Trade Centre were allegedly present.


The first attack police blamed on JI was on the Philippine ambassador's residence in Jakarta in August 2000. He was also involved in unrest between Muslims and Christians in Indonesia's Maluku islands which left 5,000 people dead between 1999 and 2001, Dr Abuza said.


'People I've interviewed who knew him said he absolutely threw himself into the Malukus conflict. He firmly believed it was important to the Jemaah Islamiah cause.'


On October 12 last year, 202 people were killed by a bomb attack in Bali. Last week, 12 people were killed by a suicide car bomber at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta.


Police believe Hambali was behind both - and that he was planning a strike on an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum meeting in Bangkok in October.


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