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By RAYMOND BONNER
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, Feb. 2 — The biography of Riduan Isamuddin,
36, is not unlike that of hundreds of other men his age in this region. He
attended an Islamic boarding school in his home country of Indonesia, left
when the government cracked down on his brand of Islam, went off to fight
the Russians in Afghanistan, then became an itinerant preacher here,
espousing a Muslim state from here to the Philippines.
But now as the investigation into the activities of Al Qaeda advances, a
darker portrait is emerging of the round-faced, bearded and bespectacled Mr.
Isamuddin, widely known as Hambali.
"The picture we are getting, which is becoming clearer and clearer, is that
Hambali was the point man for Al Qaeda in this region," a senior Malaysian
official said this evening.
An American official agreed: "All signs point to his being a major figure."
One of Mr. Isamuddin's recruits and lieutenants was Yazid Sufaat, an
American-educated biochemist who has been in jail here since December on
Among other things, officials said, Mr. Isamuddin arranged for two of the
Sept. 11 hijackers to visit here and stay in Mr. Sufaat's apartment. He also
had Mr. Sufaat play host to Zacarias Moussaoui, who has been charged in
the United States in connection with the attacks. Moreover, Mr. Isamuddin
had Mr. Sufaat use his company to purchase four tons of explosives for a
planned attack after Sept. 11 on the United States Embassy in Singapore,
The senior Malaysian official described Mr. Isamuddin as the travel agent for
Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia and Mr. Sufaat as the equivalent of the person
who goes to the airport with a card carrying the name of the passenger he is
This week, the F.B.I. said Malaysia was a staging area for the Sept. 11
attacks and an Al Qaeda base.
Malaysian officials have strongly rejected that. The senior official said that it
was unfair to describe Malaysia as anything more than a "transit point" for Al
An easy transit point, it might be said. Although the government of Prime
Minister Mahathir Mohamad does not brook much internal dissent, it has had
a liberal policy toward residents of other Muslim countries: they are not
required to have visas to enter the country.
In an interview here, the Malaysian official provided details from an
interrogation of Mr. Sufaat, who was arrested here in a roundup of men with
suspected links to Jemaah Islamiah, or the Islamic Group.
Acting on orders from Mr. Isamuddin, the Malaysian official said, Mr. Sufaat
used his clinical pathology company, Green Laboratory Medicine, to
purchase four tons of explosives that were to be detonated in front of the
American, Australian, British and Israeli Embassies in Singapore. The plot
was apparently thwarted by Singapore officials when they arrested 13 men in
Mr. Sufaat went to Afghanistan last June and was there on Sept. 11. He was
arrested trying to return to Malaysia.
The Bush administration would like to extradite him, but has not made a
formal request. The Malaysians have shared the information from his
interrogation with the United States, the official said, but the F.B.I. has not
Mr. Sufaat lived in Sacramento in the 1980's, according to public records,
and attended California State University there, the official said.
His wife also attended college in the United States, the official said, but he
said he did not know the name of the school.
After Mr. Sufaat returned to Malaysia in 1987, his in-laws urged him to
practice his religion more diligently, saying he had neglected it while abroad,
he told investigators, and it was then that he came into Mr. Isamuddin's
Two of the suspected Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq
Alhazmi, stayed in Mr. Sufaat's apartment for three days in January 2000;
Mr. Isamuddin had a key to the apartment, the Malaysian official said.
While here, Mr. Midhar and Mr. Alhazmi were followed by Malaysian
intelligence agents and were videotaped shopping, making a call from a
public phone and surfing Arabic-language Web sites at an Internet cafe, the
The official said the tapes were given to American intelligence officials, but
the men were not arrested because there was no evidence they had
committed any crime.
Again acting on orders from Mr. Isamuddin, Mr. Sufaat played host to Mr.
Moussaoui when he came in 2000. Mr. Moussaoui inquired about flight
schools here and discovered that there was one, but he decided against
attending because it was more than two hours from the capital and did not
provide training on jumbo jets, Mr. Sufaat told investigators.
Mr. Sufaat provided Mr. Moussaoui with the letter that he used to enroll in a
flight school in the United States. Mr. Moussaoui has pleaded not guilty to
charges that he was part of the Sept. 11 conspiracy.
Mr. Sufaat's wife has denied that her husband had any connections with Al
Qaeda or any terrorist organization. She has called the charges "baseless,
wrong and outrageous."
Malaysian and Singaporean officials say that Mr. Isamuddin ran the
operations for the Islamic Group. The group's spiritual leader, they say, is
another Indonesian cleric, Abu Bakar Baasyir. The organization had cells in
Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia, according to the Singaporean
Mr. Isamuddin arranged for men to go to Afghanistan for training, according
to a statement from the Singaporean government. He gave them false
documents saying they were going to school in Pakistan, which gave the
recruits the cover they needed to explain why they would be away from home
for six months.
Mr. Isamuddin has not been seen since Sept. 11 and is believed to be hiding
in Indonesia, Malaysian and Singaporean authorities said.
They have asked the Indonesian government to search for him and say they
are not satisfied that the Indonesians are looking very hard.
The Alliance for a Secular and Democratic South Asia was formed in 1993 to combat rising religious intolerance in South Asia and to campaign for peace and justice in the region. We are committed to working towards a just, non-violent resolution of the crisis we are currently living through. If you are interested in joining us in this work, please call 617-983-3934 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
20 May 2006
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