August’s capture of Riduan Isamuddin in Thailand has been hailed as a major advance in the war on terror in Southeast Asia. Otherwise known as “Hambali,” this well-publicized figure in the extremist transnational Islamic network has been variously implicated in the 9/11 strikes in New York and Washington, planning for a series of operations that were to have taken place in Singapore in December 2001, the Bali attack last year, and most recently, the bombing of the US-owned Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. While Isamuddin’s arrest is no doubt important–not least in symbolic and potential intelligence terms–it is unclear what direct impact his detention will have on the current tempo of cross-border jihadist terrorism in the region.
HAMBALI: WHO IS HE?
Riduan Isamuddin, the son of a respectable family of Sudanese farmers and Islamic scholars, is believed to act as al Qaeda’s main point man in Southeast Asia. He is a close disciple of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir–the alleged spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyya (JI, literally “Islamic community”)–whom he first met in Malaysia after returning from a three-year stint fighting the Soviet occupation force in Afghanistan. As was the case with many other Islamic radicals of his generation, this experience as a mujahideen warrior instilled a burning belief in the utility and sanctity of jihad, both as a means to recapture the glory of the Muslim past and as a viable way of overcoming seemingly immutable power asymmetries. With Moscow’s humiliating withdrawal from Kabul in 1989, Hambali refocused his attention on “liberating” Southeast Asia. He became a devout advocate of Ba’aysir’s fiery Salafism that has since been identified as intrinsic to the region’s pan-Islamic resurgence.
According to western and Southeast Asian officials, Hambali was critical in establishing JI’s initial hardcore membership and tying the group to the wider al Qaeda network that he had been exposed to in Afghanistan. Most of his early recruitment efforts were aimed at migrants fleeing the repression of the Soeharto dictatorship in Indonesia or radicalized students hailing from the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) who had become disillusioned with the western predilections of the Mahathir government. During the 1990s, however, he appears to have increasingly directed his focus toward coopting pre-existing regional insurgents in Mindanao–notably the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)–or levering off latent extremist sentiment in zones of communal-religious violence such as Sulawesi, Ambon and Kalimantan. In all cases, however, Hambali specifically concentrated his ideological message on building localized jemaah islamiyya as precursors to pure Islamic states that would eventually join to form one pan-regional caliphate–or Nusantara Raya–incorporating Indonesia, Malaysia, southern Thailand, the southern Philippines and Brunei.
It is thought that Hambali emerged as JI’s chief military strategist in 1999, assuming control of a central governing council that intelligence sources assert acts as the main coordinating body for four operational terrorist wings–or mantiqis–across Southeast Asia: Mantiqis I, covering Singapore and Malaysia and also under the direct command of Hambali; mantiqis II, covering most of Indonesia; mantiqis III, covering Mindanao (southern Philippines), Sabah (Malaysia) and Sulawesi (Indonesia); and mantiqis IV, covering Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Australia. From this position, he is alleged to have been an integral component of some of the most audacious and devastating acts of Islamic terrorism to have ever been carried out or planned against western interests. In particular, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) believes he was present at a major al Qaeda operatives meeting that was held in Malaysia during early 2000 and that he subsequently organized the travel itineraries and accommodations for at least two of the hijackers involved in the September 11, 2001 strikes: Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi.
Hambali has also been directly tied to a December 2001 terrorist plot that was to have involved a series of bombings against several high profile targets in Singapore, including the Ministry of Defense, the deep sea port at Changi, the diplomatic missions of Israel, Britain, Australia and the United States, and some 250 commercial complexes housing American business interests. Police and intelligence sources across Southeast Asia remain convinced that Hambali hatched the plan in direct collaboration with Osama bin Laden, targeting the city-state on account of its:
*Close defense and economic relationship with the United States;
*Standing as one of the most stable polities in Southeast Asia (meaning a successful attack would have had particularly unsettling effects);
*Multi-cultural, secular and pluralist character (which is inimical to JI’s emphasis on religious fundamentalism and secularism);
*Status as a capitalist and economic hub in Southeast Asia.
More recently, Hambali was implicated as one of the “masterminds” behind the October 2002 bombings on the island resort of Bali, which represents the worst international terrorist incident since September 11 and the most catastrophic attack ever to hit Southeast Asia. Malaysian, Singaporean and Philippine officials claim that the atrocity resulted from a February 2002 JI-al Qaeda planning meeting that Hambali organized in Thailand during which a decision was made to bomb “soft targets” of regional opportunity, particularly those frequented by western tourists such as nightclubs and bars.
For much of the past year little if anything has been heard from Hambali; the radical re-entered the public limelight only in the wake of his capture in Thailand (although several commentators were quick to link his name to the August bombing of the U.S.-owned Marriott Hotel in Jakarta). It is reasonable to assume that this silence reflects the lower profile he was forced to take as a result of emerging as one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted men following the Bali attacks. Indeed, regional intelligence sources believe the operational reins of JI’s mantiqis I passed to Ali Ghufron (aka “Muklas”) in December 2002, a time when Hambali is thought to have taken refuge in Pakistan’s wild North West Frontier Province (NWFP). Ghufron is himself currently standing trial in Indonesia, charged under six articles of the government’s internal security legislation relating to the funding, planning, execution, and inciting of terrorism.
HAMBALI’S CAPTURE AND THE FUTURE OF PAN-ISLAMIC EXTREMISM IN SOUTHEAST ASIA
It is too early to judge how significant Hambali’s arrest will be in terms of mitigating the threat of cross-border extremism and terrorism in Southeast Asia. Certainly his capture represents a major symbolic blow to JI and supporters of the pan-Islamic regional mission that the group so vehemently espouses. Since the discovery of the Singapore plot in 2001, numerous cells have been broken up across Southeast Asia, the disruptive effects of which will be further compounded by the neutralization of such a publicized and, at least from the militant Islamic standpoint, respected demagogue.
More importantly, Hambali is likely to provide a treasure trove of information to intelligence officials, particularly in terms of detailing the nature and scope of al Qaeda links in Southeast Asia and the true extent of its hold over JI as well as localized organizations such as MILF in the southern Philippines, Laskar Jundallah, Wahdah Islamiyah, and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) in Indonesia and Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) in Malaysia. This will help to shed greater light on the evolutionary dynamics of networked groups as well as feed into the genesis of more informed threat analyses (many of which are currently based on arbitrary assessments and questionable assumptions)–both of which are absolutely crucial for mapping the contours of effective and sustainable terrorist countermeasures and response contingencies.
The direct impact that Hambali’s capture will have on the operational tempo of pan-Islamic jihadism in Southeast Asia remains less clear, however. For their part, western and regional governments hope that his arrest will severely dent the ability of JI to plan and execute large-scale acts of terror such as the Bali bombings. Intelligence sources already claim that a spectacular attack on the 2003 Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Bangkok has been thwarted thanks to his arrest.
This being said, the fact that Hambali does not seem to have played a critical role in JI operational activities for nearly a year casts doubt on just how consequential his removal will be in terms of general threat mitigation. Moreover, from what is known about the group, the bulk of its activities appear to take the form of short-term tactical strikes that are the product of ad hoc local initiatives, not the long-term strategic attacks that are contingent on some degree of central planning and leadership.
Linked to the above, JI–like al Qaeda–is an inherently amorphous entity that will probably adapt to changes in its front line militant lineup by assuming an increasingly networked, decentralized character. This will further tilt the tactical-strategic ratio in favor of the former, resulting in acts of terror that, while not necessarily on the scale of the Bali atrocity, will be both more numerous and geographically dispersed in their manifestation.
Certainly there is good reason to celebrate the capture of Hambali, an Islamist whose concept of the “holy war” has been as uncompromising as it has been ruthless. However, one must be careful not to overstate the significance of his arrest. Terrorism, in common with other insidious transnational threats to security, is one that will never be defeated so long as motivating rationales and appropriate, triggering environmental conditions persist. In Southeast Asia, the mere existence of states that are either perceived as suppressing their internal Muslim populations or identified as “championing” the cause of western-style materialist capitalism, will ensure that jihadist violence remains at least a latent feature of the regional geopolitical landscape for some time yet.
The author is a private-sector expert on Southeast Asia and militant Islam.