December 14, 2001. Singapore’s famed domestic intelligence service, the Internal Security Department, better known by its initials, ISD, briefed an American security liaison officer on a plot by the pan-Asian terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah to attack the U.S., Israeli, British, and Australian embassies in Singapore. The ISD was just then thwarting the operation, and the liaison officer told the ISD about the casing and martyrdom videos found in the rubble of Abu Hafs’s home and sifted through during the DocEx investigation. It had been determined that the Singapore sites being cased in the video were locations usually frequented by U.S. military personnel. The ISD asked for a copy of the videotape, which it received on December 28.
On December 15 the ISD arrested a Singaporean JI member, Khalim Jaffar, and subsequently found, in a search of his home, the master copy of the same tape. He had made and produced it with the help of another Singaporean JI member, Hashim Abas. Khalim Jaffar told ISD investigators that he had screened a videotape of sites around Singapore’s Yishun Mass Rapid Transit station in Abu Hafs’s home. He said that he had made notes and had drawn diagrams of the station to explain his plan. While al-Qaeda had given the attack its support, operational defects had prevented its being carried out.
The tape provided concrete proof of the connection between JI and al-Qaeda.
September 2001. The phone rang twice in the ISD duty office in Phoenix Park, Singapore, before an inspector, Charlie, answered it. The muted television in the office showed search and rescue efforts at ground zero, where the World Trade Center towers had once stood. The caller, whose distinctive accent Charlie’s trained ear recognized as being that of a Singaporean Malay, told him about a man named Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan who said he knew Osama bin Laden, had fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and intended to return there soon to rejoin the mujahideen.
Pranksters knew better than to call an ISD office, but Charlie still had to verify the information. An investigation showed that Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan was serious, and uncovered associates of his who had been part of Darul Islam (DI), an Indonesian group that had fought for independence against the Dutch and then, after independence, had fought to turn the country into an Islamic state. DI emir Abdullah Sungkar would go on to form Jemaah Islamiah, a DI splinter group.
Jemaah Islamiah was very security conscious and used a system of codes to arrange meetings. When they gathered for what were supposed to be prayer sessions in private homes, they all brought their shoes into the house instead of leaving them outside, as Singaporeans usually do. The members also stayed away from mainstream religious activities, and dressed in modern fashions, abandoning the usual Middle Eastern–style robes that DI members wore for T-shirts, jeans, and the like. They also shared with each other a subscription to Playboy magazine (banned in Singapore). The deliberate attempts to blend in seemed reminiscent of the pre-9/11 preparations of Mohammed Atta and Ramzi Binalshibh’s Hamburg cell.
On October 4, Mohammad Aslam bin Yar Ali Khan made a move to leave Singapore on a flight to Pakistan, and, after weighing the situation, the ISD decided to let him go. There was little to hold him on, but, more importantly, his arrest would alert the rest of the group that they were being watched. Two weeks after Aslam left, an Asian who called himself Mike arrived in Singapore and met with group members. Many knew him from a bomb-making class he had given in Malaysia in 2000. Mike told the group that an al-Qaeda operative with the alias Sammy would be arriving shortly to plan a terrorist attack, and that they should help him.
When Sammy arrived from Kuala Lumpur on October 13, members of the group met him in a hotel just outside Singapore’s Orchard Road shopping district and drove him to a car park in Marina South, a quiet area on the outskirts of the business quarter. There Sammy briefed the Singaporeans on his plan to use truck bombs to attack the U.S. Embassy, the Israeli Embassy, and U.S. naval bases in Singapore.
He asked the group members if they had other suggestions, and they proposed the Australian and British diplomatic missions as possible targets—because they were located close to the U.S. Embassy. The group also explored attacking “soft targets” such as commercial buildings housing U.S. companies.
Using a video camera, Sammy and group members cased the selected targets, creating a tape that they labeled “Visiting Singapore Sightseeing” to disguise its contents: the soundtrack to the video was the theme music from the Hollywood hit movie Armageddon. Mike had other operatives purchase seventeen tons of ammonium nitrate, case the U.S. naval bases, and find suitable warehouses where they could prepare the truck bombs. They were given five thousand dollars to cover expenses.
Through data mining and investigative footwork, the ISD later identified Mike as an Indonesian named Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, who was based in southern Mindanao and traveled on a Philippines passport under the name Alih Randy. Sammy was identified as the Canadian who had been arrested in Oman, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah. When I interrogated Jabarah with fellow FBI agent George Crouch, he told us that he had tried to get a Yemeni al-Qaeda member to be a suicide bomber in Singapore, as none of the Singaporeans wanted to martyr themselves.
Jabarah’s path to al-Qaeda began with his training in camps in Afghanistan in 2000 and 2001, after which he pledged bayat to bin Laden, who assigned him to an operation in Southeast Asia under KSM. In mid-August 2001, Jabarah stayed with KSM for three weeks in Karachi and was trained by the 9/11 mastermind in surveillance and stealth travel techniques. He was also taken to meet Riduan Isamuddin, a JI commander more commonly known as Hambali, who had responsibility for Singapore and Malaysia, and who was a close associate of KSM’s: through him, Hambali had joined al-Qaeda and had pledged bayat to bin Laden.
Jabarah was first sent to Malaysia to aid JI members seeking to attack the U.S. and Israeli embassies in the Philippines, and KSM gave him explicit instructions to leave Pakistan before Tuesday, September 11, 2001. He met with JI operatives about a week after his arrival in Malaysia—in mid-September—and surveyed the U.S. Embassy in Manila before traveling to Singapore to plan an operation there.
In December 2001, after the Singaporean JI members were arrested, Hambali told Jabarah to flee to Southeast Asia. He went instead to the United Arab Emirates. KSM told him to travel to Oman to set up a safe house for al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan and heading to Yemen. In Oman Jabarah was arrested.
The ISD commander overseeing the operation against the group in Singapore, Brian, had his team of investigators watching almost a hundred people, and he would have liked to watch the plot mature further, as there were still many unanswered questions: Who else was involved in the plot? How extensive was this terrorist network in Singapore and the region? How were these groups linked to al-Qaeda? And what other acts of violence were they planning?
Brian, a seasoned investigator and commander who had honed his interrogation skills on espionage cases and had a nonconfrontational style that encouraged suspects to talk, had his hand forced after the press reported that Aslam had been arrested by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. His teams moved in, and in a series of raids (the last of which was December 24, 2001), a total of twenty-three men were arrested. Those who were not positively identified as group members were allowed to flee with their families to Malaysia, as the ISD was confident that they could track them if they returned.
At Singapore’s Whitley Road Detention Centre, the head of ISD, Andrew, reviewed the case in Brian’s office. Standing before a flip chart, Andrew began reworking the organization’s structure in his cursive script as investigators pointed out subordinate cells they had uncovered, spelled out names, and debated the role of peripheral characters.
When they had first mentioned the name Jemaah Islamiah, liaison security services didn’t have any information, and one had even laughed dismissively: “It means ‘Islamic community.’ Why should it concern us?” But what the ISD had discovered was a pan–Southeast Asian terrorist network with multiple cells in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines and with direct links to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Just as 1979 had been a pivotal year for al-Qaeda, it was also a very important year for Islamist terrorist groups in Southeast Asia. Members of many organizations traveled to Afghanistan to help fight the Soviets and also to experience the “thrill” of jihad and victory over a superpower.
Not without reason did a January 2003 Singapore government white paper on JI label the Soviet jihad as “perhaps the most significant factor in the radicalization of the militant Islamic groups in the region.” Abdullah Sungkar, who went on to found Jemaah Islamiah with the cleric Abu Bakar Bashir and other senior Darul Islam members, had traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s to arrange for his members to participate in the jihad. They maintained a connection with operatives who went on to form al-Qaeda. By the mid-1990s select JI members were being sent to train in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, learning “sophisticated terrorist tradecraft and expertise,” as the white paper reports, and “they transferred the skills to other members of their organizations.” They forged links with other terrorist groups based in Southeast Asia whose members had fought in Afghanistan, including the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The Afghanistan connection gave al-Qaeda members easy access to Southeast Asia. A number of JI members I later spoke with told me that they had met KSM and other al-Qaeda members when they went through the region. Khallad and 9/11 hijackers Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi passed through Southeast Asia between December 1999 and January 2000, and Hambali helped with their lodging and travel. Hambali was central to cementing the relationship between al-Qaeda and JI. A disciple of Sungkar, he had been sent by him to train in Afghanistan in 1986, where he also fought the Soviets. He remained in the country for eighteen months, building a relationship with KSM in the process.
As with other regional terrorist groups it tried to co-opt, al-Qaeda funded JI, thereby tying the two groups to each other. While Hambali embraced al-Qaeda and swore allegiance to bin Laden, other JI members resisted the connection, preferring to focus on their near enemy rather than al-Qaeda’s far enemy, the United States.
Other JI commanders I later spoke to, including Nasir Abbas, told me that they had opposed Hambali and had refused to endorse his operations. He had control over Singapore and Malaysia, which is where al-Qaeda’s initial focus in the region was because that was where its members were. At times he managed to bypass local commanders and run operations in their fiefdoms, including in Indonesia itself. Hambali’s efforts were helped after Sungkar died, in 1999, and Abu Bakar Bashir took over. Bashir supported Hambali’s relationship with al-Qaeda and gave Hambali freedom to do almost whatever he liked.
December 13, 2001. Hambali was furious when he learned of the arrests in Singapore. This was yet another failure for him: he had orchestrated a series of bombings of Christian churches across the Indonesian archipelago on Christmas Eve 2000, but several of the bombs had been badly placed and had failed to kill anyone. Still, 19 people died that night, and 120 were injured, in what came to be known as the Christmas Eve bombings. With the Singapore plan in ruins and key operatives in custody, Hambali decided to improvise and met several of the Singapore JI fugitives in Johor on December 13. He ordered them to bomb targets in Singapore to retaliate against the arrests. He found an eager terrorist conspirator in Mas Selamat Kastari, who had taken over as operational commander of the Singapore JI network from Ibrahim Maidin in 1999, and gave him approval to hijack a Singapore-bound airplane and crash it into Changi Airport, Singapore’s international airport, in what an accomplice would later describe, referring to the World Trade Center, as “a WTC on Changi.”
The group had previously identified the airport as a potential target and had taken reconnaissance photos, so with the legwork already done, Mas Selamat handpicked four of his most trusted cell members and accompanied them to Thailand. Hiding out in the seaside resort of Pattaya, they bought five business-class tickets on Aeroflot to Singapore and planned the details of their attack. (The choice of a Russian airline was deliberate; Kastari wanted to avenge the killing of Chechen Muslims by Russian soldiers.)
ISD broke up the plot. On December 29 it alerted all its security partners, and Mas Selamat’s photo appeared on the front pages of Thai newspapers. Their cover blown, Mas Selamat and his cell were forced to flee Thailand. ISD tracked Mas Selamat down in Riau a year later and informed the Indonesian police, who arrested and jailed him for immigration violations. He was eventually deported to Singapore in 2006, as were two of his accomplices.
In 2001, the Indonesian government of Megawati Soekarnoputri was ambivalent about the threat posed by Jemaah Islamiah. The government’s complacency was reinforced when Singaporean authorities named the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir as the spiritual leader of JI. But while Bashir appeared to be harmless and well respected, in reality he was firmly committed to violence and had let Hambali effectively run the group. Megawati’s own vice president led the chorus of skeptics who muttered darkly about Western conspiracies, insisting that Jemaah Islamiah simply meant Islamic community. All that changed on October 12, 2002, when two massive bombs ripped through the heart of Bali. This was the second anniversary of the USS Cole attack, a thought that immediately went through my mind when I heard the news.
Hambali’s first successful operation in Indonesia was the bombing of the Filipino ambassador in Jakarta in August 2000. While the ambassador’s Mercedes-Benz withstood the blast of the parcel bomb left outside his front gate (it was detonated as his car drove in), he was badly injured, and an Indonesian guard at the gate and a street vendor were killed.
The bomb maker was the Indonesian Moro Islamic Liberation Front–trained JI operative Rohman al-Ghozi. Cooperation between Singapore and Philippines intelligence led to Ghozi’s arrest in Manila on January 15, 2002, as he tried to board a flight to Bangkok. He was on his way to pick up funds from JI leaders for the purchase of explosives meant for an attack in Singapore.
JI had other bomb makers, including a Malaysian called Azahari Husin, and Hambali called for a meeting in Bangkok in early February 2002. Also present were Indonesian JI leaders Mukhlas (Huda bin Abdul Haq) and Zulkifli Marzuki, and Malaysian JI leaders Wan Min bin Wan Mat and Noordin M. Top.
They discussed small-scale bombings in bars, cafés, and nightclubs frequented by Westerners in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. After debating the locations, the group decided to target the Indonesian tourist resort island of Bali for maximum impact.
After the Bangkok meeting, Hambali sent Mukhlas $35,500 through Wan Min, and Mukhlas roped in his brothers Amrozi and Ali Imron for the operation. Ali Imron, a bomb maker who had taught weapons handling in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, later told me that while he didn’t know Hambali well, and he wasn’t his usual commander, he had agreed to join the operation because his brother Mukhlas trusted him.
On the evening of October 12, 2002, Ali Imron placed a box-shaped bomb on the sidewalk outside the U.S. Consulate in Denpasar, the provincial capital of Bali, and then drove a Mitsubishi L-300 van packed with a ton of potassium chlorate and 20 kilograms of TNT to the junction of Legian Street in the tourist hub of Kuta, where another man took the vehicle. Just after 11:00 PM, a cell phone call activated the bomb outside the U.S. Consulate, injuring a passerby, but no one in Kuta heard anything beyond the pop music pulsating out of pubs. The party was in full swing in Paddy’s Pub when a young Indonesian man walked in, looked around, and detonated his vest bomb.
As survivors stumbled outside to escape the fireball, the man who had taken the car from Ali Imron drove his mobile bomb to the front of the Sari Club and pressed the detonator.
A total of 202 people died in Bali that night: 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 Brits, 7 Americans, 6 Germans, 5 Swedes, and 32 nationals from 17 other countries. Two bodies were never identified.
Ali Imron, along with the cell’s operation commander, Imam Samudra, and the rest of the attackers, left Bali the next day. Indonesian police, now focused on the threat and aided by the countries whose citizens had lost their lives, discovered the chassis of the Mitsubishi L-300 at the blast site, leading to the first break: the van had been sold to Mukhlas’s brother Amrozi. His name was familiar to Indonesian investigator Benny Mamoto, as he had heard about him from the ISD when he had come to interview the Singapore JI detainees months earlier. Amrozi’s arrest, in the East Java village of Lamongan, gave Indonesian police key documents and a list of cell phone numbers that were traced to other members of the network, and by July 2003, more than eighty-three suspects were under arrest, and Hambali was on the run.
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Hambali told the Thai Special Branch about his brother, Rusman Gunawan, also known as Gun Gun, who was with a cell in Pakistan called al-Ghuraba: “the foreigners” in Arabic (they weren’t from Pakistan). On September 18, members of that cell—thirteen Malaysians and five Indonesians—were arrested. The thirteen Malaysians, aged between seventeen and twenty-five, were enrolled at Abu Bakr Islamic University and Madrasah Jamiat Dirasat, the latter a religious school controlled by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Investigations showed that many of them were products of Luqmanul Hakiem, a JI-run religious school in Ulu Tiram, closed down by the Malaysian authorities in early 2002.
Many of the students were trained in both religious studies and military and terrorist skills, and were being groomed to be the next generation of JI leaders. A few had traveled to Afghanistan for guerrilla training some months before 9/11 and had met bin Laden in Kandahar. As it turned out, the cell had not yet committed any acts and weren’t plotting anything; they were training and studying. In November the eighteen students were repatriated to their home countries.
On February 9, 2006, Fran Townsend, assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, previously in the Department of Justice, told reporters in a press briefing that after 9/11, KSM planned to launch a West Coast plot, aiming to hit the tallest building on that side of the United States. During a hearing at Guantánamo Bay in March 2007, KSM revealed that the intended target was the Library Tower in central Los Angeles. He had worked with Hambali and recruited four members for the cell, and he trained the leader in shoe-bombing techniques. Townsend stated: “The cell leader was arrested in February of 2002 . . . at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot [had] been canceled, was not going forward.”
A May 23, 2007, White House “Fact Sheet” echoed that the plot was foiled in 2002: “In 2002, we broke up a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast.”
Advocates of the coercive interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration later claimed that it was their use on KSM that prevented the West Coast attack. The problem with this argument is that KSM was arrested in March 2003, long after the plot had been derailed. KSM, practicing classic counterinterrogation techniques, told interrogators about that plot, leaving them to think he was cooperating, but in reality he was giving information that was outdated. The plot was over: the then cell leader had been captured, as Townsend noted.
In a declassified memo entitled “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al-Qai’da,” the CIA claimed that in March 2003 KSM gave information on Majid Khan, who in turn gave up information. “Based on that information, Zubair was captured in June 2003.” The memo then claims, “We used the information Zubair provided to track down and arrest Hambali.” To put it charitably, this is a loose interpretation of what happened.
The memo also tries to boost the importance of Gun Gun and the al-Ghuraba cell, stating: “Hambali admitted that some members of the [Pakistani] cell were eventually to be groomed for U.S. operations—at the behest of KSM—possibly as part of KSM’s plot to fly hijacked planes into the tallest building on the U.S. west coast.” This “eventually” and “possibly” was the best that analysts could conclude, despite 183 sessions of waterboarding, the coercive interrogation technique that simulates drowning. The reality is that the al-Ghuraba cell wasn’t involved, which is why the United States didn’t request the arrest of its members and they were sent to their home countries.
And while KSM was “confessing” to plots already thwarted, and those running the EIT program thought that this was important news, he didn’t tell them about plots that hadn’t yet happened but which he definitely knew about because of his position as al-Qaeda’s military commander, such as the cells working in Madrid, London, and Jakarta. Pleased with the success of the first Bali attack, in October 2002, KSM gave Hambali $100,000 as “a sign of congratulations” and another $30,000 for further operations. Hambali gave the money to Noordin Top and the bomb maker Azahari Husin to fund the bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on August 5, 2003, approximately five months after KSM was arrested.
While Hambali’s capture cut off the remnants of the JI network from al-Qaeda central, operatives like Noordin Top now had acquired a taste for violence. With Azahari, Top went on to carry out three more terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including a second attack in Bali. Azahari was killed when Indonesian police raided his hideout in East Java in November 2005, and Noordin Top was tracked down to a safe house near the Indonesian royal city of Solo in Central Java, where he died in a hail of bullets on September 17, 2009. After that, the Indonesian police discovered a terrorist training camp in Aceh and rounded up several dozen more JI operatives and their new recruits.