It is a working principle of professional interrogators that every detainee wants to tell his story. It did not take long for Riduan Isamuddin—the al-Qaeda operative better known as Hambali—to prove that rule. In fact, it took less than two weeks.
After his Aug. 11 arrest in southern Thailand, al-Qaeda’s top man in Asia was turned over by Thai authorities to his mortal enemies, agents of the U.S. According to reports they wrote dated Aug. 22 and Aug. 26, copies of which were obtained by TIME, Hambali confessed to his involvement in recent terrorist attacks that have left hundreds dead in Southeast Asia, detailed the relationships between al-Qaeda and terrorist groups in Asia and listed the names of scores of associates.
Of course, Hambali, 39, may be lying about at least some of it. The U.S. operatives who authored the documents for distribution to senior intelligence and police officials around the region prefaced their summaries of Hambali’s questioning with a warning that the prisoner may be practicing “counter-interrogation techniques.” On the other hand, much of what Hambali says is corroborated by the confessions of two of his closest associates. Summaries of their interrogations were also obtained by TIME. Together, these reports shed new light on how al-Qaeda recruits suicide operatives, how it subcontracts terrorism to like-minded groups and what types of targets it may go after next.
SIGNING UP FOR SUICIDE
Bashir bin Lap, a Malaysian known in radical circles as Lillie, studied to be an architect at Malaysia’s Polimas Polytechnic. But drawn by the lure of jihad, he made his way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he underwent basic military training in an al-Qaeda camp. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Lillie, according to his own account, received a letter from Hambali, an Indonesian who had started off as an activist in Islamist causes in Southeast Asia but had gone on to serve the global-reaching al-Qaeda. In the letter, Hambali asked whether Lillie was prepared to join in a suicide attack. When he replied yes, Lillie claimed, he received an invitation to meet with Osama bin Laden in Kabul. There, Lillie said, he and three other men, including an old classmate from the polytechnic, Mohammed Farik bin Amin, swore allegiance to the al-Qaeda chief. Bin Laden, Lillie maintained, discussed the group’s commitment to Allah and told them their duty was “to suffer.” Lillie said he understood that the group was to attack a U.S. target but he did not know if the site was within or outside the U.S. He claimed to know no further details about his intended mission.
But Hambali, who a regional intelligence official says is being interrogated at the joint British-American air base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia, knew more, according to his own account. Hambali said he recruited the four members of the cell on behalf of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the alleged mastermind of 9/11 who was al-Qaeda’s military commander until his arrest in Pakistan in March. Mohammed told Hambali that the cell’s mission involved hijacking a plane, and instructed him to get in touch in Malaysia with an activist named Zaeni, whom Hambali knew had trained as a pilot. When Hambali did just that, Zaeni told him he was not prepared to carry out the mission. Hambali assumed Zaeni had changed his mind because he had small children. Later, according to Hambali, Zaeni was arrested in Malaysia. As far as Lillie knew, the operation was called off after the cell leader, Masran bin Arshad, was arrested.
Their plans for “martyrdom” disrupted, Lillie and Amin found themselves instead working directly for Hambali in Southeast Asia. Hambali told interrogators the men had no other friends but him. Thai police say it was Amin and Lillie who led them to Hambali. Trailing Amin, they spotted him in the company of Lillie. Those two were arrested in June and August, respectively, and Lillie directed police to Hambali. Before the three were busted, they had worked, according to their confessions, as a liaison unit between al-Qaeda and extremist militants in Southeast Asia, principally those of Jemaah Islamiah (J.I.), a network of radical groups.
The confessions of Hambali, Lillie and Amin draw the clearest line yet connecting J.I. and al-Qaeda. For the past year, Hambali told his interrogators, almost all J.I. funding came directly from al-Qaeda, by way of Mohammed. Hambali added, with a touch of boastfulness, that he alone decided what to do with the $130,000 he received through June of this year. According to a copy of the interrogators’ report (which was translated into a regional language and then back into English): “The prisoner said that al-Qaeda sent the money to him without any condition and without any instruction.”
Hambali said an initial al-Qaeda outlay of $30,000 was used to fund the bombing a year ago of two nightclubs in Bali that left 202 dead. “Al-Qaeda was highly satisfied with the Bali bombing and as a result provided additional money” totaling $100,000, according to an interrogation report. Of the $45,000 allocated to J.I. in Indonesia, Hambali said, $15,000 was earmarked to support the families of the jailed Bali plotters. The remaining $30,000 was to be used for terrorist attacks. Hambali speculated that some of it was spent on the August attack on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people.
Hambali told his jailers that another recipient of his largesse was the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (M.I.L.F.), which is fighting for an independent Muslim state in the southern Philippines. The group denies that it has ties to J.I. or al-Qaeda, but Hambali and Lillie both described a transfer of some $27,000 to the M.I.L.F. this summer. Lillie said an M.I.L.F. contact reported by e-mail that the money would be spent on “cars and motorcycles,” which were codes, Lillie indicated, for M-16s and pistols. Regional intelligence officials say J.I. operatives train in M.I.L.F.-protected camps, a point Hambali confirmed under interrogation. Hambali’s interrogators say he told them it is “most likely a large number of members of J.I. Indonesia are hiding in the Philippines and supporting the M.I.L.F.” U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Francis Riccardone told journalists last week the U.S. was “very, very concerned” about links between J.I. and the M.I.L.F. He warned that unless the latter group severed those ties, the U.S. would cut M.I.L.F.-controlled areas out of the $30 million in aid the U.S. has pledged if secessionists sign a peace accord with Manila.
Hambali and his lieutenants were also charged with casing targets, including the U.S and British embassies in Bangkok, various nightclubs in Thailand and shopping complexes frequented by Westerners in the elite Makati district of Manila. Jewish and Israeli sites received close attention. Though anti-Semitism is central to al-Qaeda’s creed, the group has not traditionally focused on attacking Jews. That may have changed last November, when suicide bombers struck a Mombasa hotel frequented by Israelis, killing 13 people, and two shoulder-launched missiles were fired at an Israeli plane nearby. The Kenyan attacks may presage more to come: Lillie said he did surveillance on two Israeli-owned businesses on or near Bangkok’s Khao San Street, the region’s most famous backpacker district, as well as on the ticket counter and airplanes of Israeli carrier El Al at the city’s airport. Hambali scouted the Israeli embassy and a synagogue in Manila. “The prisoner mentioned that Jewish targets were always the main priority,” reads a report about Hambali.
One of the themes Hambali returned to repeatedly in his interrogation is the notion that J.I. is collapsing. He complained that the network is in a “very bad” state “because of those who had been captured,” an interrogator wrote. “All the group’s savings has been lost to raids and arrests,” Hambali claimed. J.I. had been virtually “destroyed.” Many intelligence officials and analysts disagree, saying J.I. has been wounded but remains extremely dangerous. Hambali was probably “trying to steer his interrogators,” argues Zachary Abuza, author of a forthcoming book on al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia, “trying to make them feel complacent.” Of the assertions Hambali made to his jailers, his assessments of J.I.’s powers were the ones they were least likely to trust.