Whatever Became of Hambali?      
      Written by Our Correspondent     
      Monday, 02 March 2009  

      where's Hambali?Somebody is going to have to figure out what to do with 
Southeast Asia's most notorious terrorist 

      Now that US President Barack Obama was promised to close the Guantanamo 
Bay camp for political prisoners - unindicted terror suspects and assorted 
Muslims caught in the wrong place at the wrong time - what will happen to the 
alleged "Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia"? 

      Languishing - and probably being periodically tortured - for three years 
at a CIA location and then in his Cuban cell, Riduan Isamuddin, better know by 
his undercover name of Hambali, is in principle wanted in four countries - 
Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. But those countries have been 
more than happy to let the US take care of him - at least so long as he doesn't 
have the chance to appear in court and have the evidence against him tested by 
defense lawyers, and others who may not be entirely convinced that he was quite 
the terror mastermind of popular repute. 

      Hambali is currently classified by the US as an "enemy combatant", a 
"high value" detainee but that has so far been a dubious device meant to keep 
him in Guantanamo rather than face trial in the countries where his alleged 
crimes were committed. 

      An Indonesian national born in West Java and originally called Nurjaman, 
Hambali had links to jihadists in Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. The most 
spectacular of the terror acts ascribed to him was the Bali bombing in 2002 in 
which 200 people died. He was described as the main link between Al Qaeda and 
Jemaah Islamiyah having been in touch with Arab Muslim extremists since the 
early 1990s and been funded by them. He was also said to be close to Abu Bakar 
Bashir, the Indonesian cleric later convicted, on scant evidence, of being 
behind the Bali bombing. 

      Hambali went underground in 2000 after a series of church bombings in 
Java were ascribed to him and he was wanted by Malaysia and Indonesia at the 
time he was caught living in Ayudhya in Thailand in 2003 with his Malaysian 
wife. Previously he had lived in Malaysia from about 1991 after returning from 
Afghanistan/Pakistan where he had gone in the mid1980s to help the fight 
against the Soviets. 

      Instead of being tried in Thailand as an illegal alien or sent to his 
home country and location of his most serious alleged crimes, or to Malaysia or 
the Philippines he was whisked away to one of the CIA's various detention 
centers and almost certainly subject to the torture procedures given the green 
light by a Bush administration in effect run by then vice president Dick Cheney 
and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. 

      Can he be charged with anything even half credible in the US? His time 
among the militants in Afghanistan long pre-dates Bin Laden's presence there. 
The bombing and other allegations against him have all been in respect of 
activities in Southeast Asia. 

      In any event, though it may be easy to prove that he preached jihad and 
was part of an Islamist push for the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in the 
region, linking him directly to the bombings could be much more difficult. In 
the case of the fiery Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, despite Australian and 
other pressures for vengeance after the Bali bombing, it proved impossible to 
do more than show him to be the spiritual inspiration of jihadist ideas. Direct 
links to known conspirators were absent. He was however luckier than Hambali. 
The Indonesian government - then headed by President Megawati Sukarnoputri - 
resisted efforts of the US to have him "rendered" into US custody. 

      But if now Hambali has the opportunity to appear in court, whether in the 
US or Indonesia, it may be possible to ascertain whether he was more than a 
preacher of extremist notions. If not, he should be protected by both the US 
constitution and by Indonesia's tradition of tolerance for multiples 
interpretations of Islam. 

      Meanwhile US custody, however uncomfortable, is likely a better option 
than being rendered to Singapore and detention at Whitley Road. It was from 
there that fellow jihadist Mas Salamat Kastari allegedly made an utterly 
improbable escape last February 27, or not. More likely, he either died at the 
hands of his interrogators, or was a mole for the authorities all along and was 
now being released with a new identity. Singapore continues the probable 
fiction to this day that he still lurks somewhere in the island nation. 

      Indeed, the closure of Guantanamo and the appearance in court of 
detainees plus the stories of detainees released without charge should give a 
clearer idea of how effective the War on Terror was against actual terrorists, 
or how much of it was also a smoke and mirrors game to silence Islamists and 
use the threat of terror as excuse for locking up people for their opinions or 
for political convenience.


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