Jul 22nd, 2006, in News, by

The mystery of the whereabouts of Hambali, an Indonesian terrorist.

Hambali, dubbed south-east Asia’s Osama bin Laden, was arrested in August 2003. US President George W. Bush described him then as one of the world’s most dangerous terrorists and Prime Minister John Howard said his capture was as a huge blow against terrorism. Born in Indonesia, with the name Riduan Isamuddin, he was allegedly responsible for a string of attacks across Southeast Asia including the Bali bombings.

Since his arrest however his whereabouts have become a closely guarded secret, with, as the Australian newspaper reports, only a few CIA agents knowing where he is being held.

All requests to have Hambali interviewed have been refused by the US Government despite assurances three years ago by former US deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage that Australia, for one, would be given access to the captured terrorist mastermind. Nor will the US even comment about when, or if, he will be brought to trial.

Hambali is not only considered as having been Southeast Asia’s most dangerous terrorist but as the link-man between Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaida until his capture in August 2003. He is also believed to have been involved in planning the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US and the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in October 2000. Earlier this year, Bush named him as one of the figures behind a 2002 plot to fly a plane into California’s tallest building.


Hambali was born in West Java in 1966, one of thirteen children, son of a local imam in Pamokolan. This part of western Java was the heartland of the militant Darul Islam movement fighting for the creation of an Indonesian Islamic state. A devout Muslim, Hambali became deeply involved in religious groups and turned to JI’s founder Abdullah Sungkar and Bashir as role models.

Hambali went to Malaysia in the mid-1980s to work as a labourer before heading to Afghanistan to join the mujahiddin forces fighting the Soviet Union occupation. There he was trained in bomb making and combat, but his real skills were in organisation, management and logistics. It was through his talent in these areas that he came into contact with bin Laden.

When he returned to Malaysia in the ’90s he was involved in recruiting young radical Muslims and became heavily involved with JI. He was responsible for sending JI operatives as sleeper agents to Australia in the late ’90s to set up a terror cell known as Mantiqi 4 (see Sidney Jones on Jemaah Islamiyah).

He has been accused of being involved in a series of bombings on churches in Jakarta that killed 18 people and are known as the Christmas Eve attacks in Indonesia in 2000. These were followed by a series of bomb attacks in Manila that killed another 22 people. He has been charged in absentia with involvement in a plot to smuggle explosives from the Philippines to Singapore with the intention of attacking Western targets.


After the Bali bombings, authorities conducted a regional manhunt and Hambali was captured by the CIA and Thai authorities in the Thai city Ayutthaya in August 2003. Twenty plain-clothes police stormed the apartment building where Hambali had been living with his Malaysian-born wife, Noralwizah. Neighbours say he had done little to disguise his appearance.

Police confiscated weapons and explosives from the apartment during the raid, saying Hambali had intended to use them for terror attacks against the APEC summit due to be held in Bangkok a few months later. The summit was attended by 21 heads of state, including Bush and Howard.

It has since been revealed that authorities used information from the CIA’s monitoring of international money transfers collected by banking co-operative the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications to track Hambali.

At the time Thai officials were reported as saying that Hambali had been captured and sent to Indonesia. But Indonesian authorities denied he had arrived. Subsequent inquiries revealed that Hambali and his wife left Bangkok on a chartered US plane on August 13 at 1pm. Their destination remains unknown.

Since then Hambali has disappeared and is now listed as a “ghost prisoner” by the organisation Human Rights Watch. He and 25 other suspected terrorists are being held in a so-called CIA “black sites” without any legal rights and without access to a lawyer. Human Rights Watch says:

After Hambali’s capture in August 2003 in Thailand, he was handed over to the CIA. He has since been held in an undisclosed location by the U.S. Hambali was originally reported to be held on the U.S. military base on Diego Garcia Island, but subsequent assurances from the U.S. government to the British government that no detainees are being held there have since cast doubt on those reports. The United States has not responded to repeated requests from Human Rights Watch for information on Hambali’s location, legal status, and conditions of detention. 204 The Indonesian government has become increasingly frustrated with U.S. delays in giving it access to Hambali. During an October 2003 stop in Bali, President Bush promised Indonesian President Megawati that the U.S. would give access to Hambali. But U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft told Megawati that “no time frame” has been set for Hambali to be questioned by Indonesia. 205 Although the U.S. has given Indonesia interview transcripts, Indonesia has insisted it cannot use such transcripts in court.

Although Guantanamo Bay detainees, including Australian David Hicks, have just won the protections afforded to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention, it is understood those rights will not extend to the detainees held in the CIA’s secret prisons.

Former Australian spy Warren Reed says the US refusal to allow other nations to access or interview Hambali is probably because he is still undergoing extensive and continuous interrogation. Reed, who trained with MI6 and worked for the federal Government’s secret intelligence service, ASIS, says the interrogators would be trying to build a relationship with the terrorist. And after three years, Reed says, they are probably only about halfway through the interrogation process.

They will be playing endless mind games in a battle of wits and wills with Hambali.

The state of Hambali’s mental and physical health remains unknown. However, terrorist experts predict that, if his interrogators are using the trust-reward method, he would be in reasonable shape.

Terrorism law expert Greg Pemberton, from Macquarie University’s Centre for Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, says Hambali may not face trial because, unlike high-profile prisoners such as Saddam Hussein who is likely to be convicted of his crimes, there may not be enough evidence against him.

Maybe they are not going to trial because there is a real fear that if there is not enough evidence for a court of law to convict, it would be seen to have a negative political impact.

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