Around the time that 10 Asean and several other Asian leaders were ensconced in local luxury for the 8th Asean Summit last November, a quiet, unassuming, clean-shaven man was studiously reading on the airy porch of a small Muslim guest house in Phnom Penh.
He sat most mornings overlooking the harvest of pond weeds on Boeng Kak lake, English-language news magazines in hand, reading glasses perched on his nose and wearing short trousers, a short-sleeved shirt and white-colored flip-flops for comfort.
Noise and bustle from nearby backpacker restaurants and guest houses, catering to young Western travelers in faux ethnic garments, didn’t disturb the Islamic scholar’s months-long stay in the spartan Phnom Penh guest house.
The most wanted man in Southeast Asia and alleged terror mastermind was in no hurry.
Riduan Isamuddin, the Indonesian better known as Hambali, who is believed to be al-Qaida’s top operative in Southeast Asia and operations chief of the militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, chose Cambodia as his safe haven between September 2002 and late March this year, according to witnesses and intelligence reports.
Hambali was most probably in Cambodia when 202 people were killed in the Oct 12 car bomb attacks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali. The attacks allegedly were carried out by militants linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the terror group of which Hambali is alleged to be chief.
It was probably in Cambodia that he read newspapers carrying the belated warnings by security analysts that Southeast Asia was the new front line in the so-called “war on terror,” witnesses and reports said.
Arrested last week in Thailand’s ancient city of Ayuthaya, Hambali is accused of orchestrating the Bali attack, the recent bombing of the J W Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people and a spate of other explosions in Indonesia and the Philippines.
He has also been implicated in preparations for the Sept 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, the 2000 attack on the US Navy’s destroyer Cole in Yemen and a 1995 plot to blow up US airlines, simultaneously, over the Pacific Ocean.
Thai officials believe Hambali was plotting an attack on the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting scheduled to be held in Bangkok in October, which will be attended by 21 world leaders, including US President George W Bush.
But one Phnom Penh resident, an ethnic Cham who met Hambali, said on Wednesday they could not believe he was anything but a pious man.
“I don’t believe he could be involved [in terrorism]. He was polite and smiled a little bit too,” said the person, who requested their identity remain secret.
“He used to wear short trousers and short sleeved shirts and would sit outside,” said the person, gesturing to several chairs set in a common area at a guesthouse overlooking the Boeng Kak lake.
“He read [English-language] magazines everyday. He was very quiet and polite,” the person said.
Shown a photograph of Hambali cut from a newspaper after last week’s arrest, the person pointed, smiled and said, “That’s him.”
But during Hambali’s stay in Phnom Penh, when he was visited frequently by several acquaintances, he trimmed his hair short, shaved off his beard and had lost weight. It was the clean-shaven, short-haired Hambali that was arrested in Thailand.
He mostly stayed near his room, No 10, and always wore a baseball hat when he went out. Sometimes he went to eat out with friends, and to pray at the local Dubai Mosque. Several times his friends, who appeared to speak Thai with him, brought food and stayed over, said the person.
Room No 10, with its Formica walls, hardwood floors and fan, cost Hambali 10,000 riel (about $2.50) per night, or, up-front, $40 per month.
“He spoke English…. He told me he used to stay in a rented house near the railway station. He said he didn’t have a wife,” the person said.
“He stayed for two months [at the end of 2002] and then for another month after the [Jan 29] Thai riots. When the Poipet border was re-opened he went to Thailand,” the person added.
Thailand and Cambodia closed their mutual borders in the aftermath of the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, but re-opened their frontiers on March 21.
A senior police source said this week that Hambali entered Cambodia through Koh Kong province.
Koh Kong town is a busy fishing and trade port with a large ethnic Cham population. Koh Kong provincial police confirmed earlier this year that they were on the look-out for Hambali, who is reported to have taken a Cambodian Cham woman as a wife.
According to intelligence reports obtained by The Cambodia Daily, three Jemaah Islamiyah operatives known as Mizi, Ibrahim and Zaid—who is also known as Zubair—traveled to Cambodia between September and November 2002 in a bid to obtain forged Cambodian passports.
Intelligence sources believe that the individual named Mizi was, in fact, Hambali, and that he had designs on making Cambodia a staging ground from which to launch regional terror attacks.
Intelligence officials believe that Hambali, Ibrahim and Zaid (aka Zubair) may have been successful in obtaining the fake Cambodian passports, which would have assisted their movements in Southeast Asia.
Hambali and his operatives may also have scouted Western targets in Cambodia, according to intelligence reports.
According to reports in Thailand’s The Nation newspaper on Wednesday, a Malaysian identified by the alias Zubair was arrested in Bangkok in June.
An alleged al-Qaida operative, Zubair was close to Hambali, knew his movements well and acted as a scout for his hideouts and as a messenger for contacts with al-Qaida. Zubair was handed over with Hambali to the US Central Intelligence Agency for interrogation last week. It is not known where Hambali has been taken by US security.
In late May, Cambodian police closed two Islamic schools funded by the Saudi Arabian-based Om-Alqura organization and charged Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, 40, with alleged terrorist acts linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.
On June 12, just days before the Asean Regional Forum was set to kick off in Phnom Penh, Cambodian ethnic Cham Sman Esma El, 23, was arrested at a Kuwaiti-funded orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district.
Sman Esma El had recently returned to Cambodia, having studied at Islamic religious schools in Thailand for three years. He was accused of having links to the three suspects already in police custody and was charged with international terrorism acts linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.
Interior Ministry officials confirmed last month that US Central Intelligence Agency agents interrogated the four suspects in Phnom Penh in June.
According to intelligence reports, one of the Thai Muslim suspects admitted under CIA and police questioning that he had attempted to obtain passports for the man believed to be Hambali and his two operatives, Ibrahim and Zaid (aka Zubair).
Under questioning, the suspect also admitted that he knew the three were probably involved with terrorist activities, the intelligence reports allege.
Cambodian Cham suspect Sman Esma El had also obtained a Cambodian passport under an assumed name and his sister was married to Hambali’s associate Ibrahim, according to intelligence.
Kao Sopha, a lawyer for three of the suspects, said on Thursday that any evidence extracted from his clients under police or CIA questioning cannot be used in court.
“Any such police reports have abused the legal process, because they interrogated my clients without a lawyer present,” Kao Sopha said.
Claiming the police do not have sufficient evidence to prosecute his clients, Kao Sopha said he has not asked his clients if they were involved with three alleged militants.
“They never told me anything about their involvement and I do not want to press them for answers,” Kao Sopha said.
“It is not a ripe time for me ask them for those answers. I will do this after receiving a complete report from police and the investigating judge,” he said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Oun Bunna said last week that prosecution of the four Jemaah Islamiyah suspects would be difficult as no clear evidence links them to acts of terrorism.
If the court cannot gather more evidence by the time the six-month pre-trial detention period expires in December, there will be no case for the suspects to answer, he added.
Cambodian officials have been extremely tight-lipped about the evidence that led to all four arrests but have confirmed the alleged militant Islamic cell was fingered by information provided by a US government security agency.
US Embassy officials have said they do not comment on matters of intelligence.
At the Boeng Kak guesthouse where Hambali stayed, the person who met Hambali knew nothing of his arrest in Thailand or that the modest guesthouse, favored by Chams and visiting Muslims, had likely housed a cell of Islamic militants.
“I am very surprised,” was all the person could say.