KUALA LUMPUR: Hambali aka Riduan Isamuddin, formerly Al-Qaeda’s most powerful leader in South-East Asia and detained in Guantanamo Bay for 13 years, has finally made his appearance before the prison’s Periodic Review Board.
The man, who wreaked terror in the region, masterminded the Bali bombing which killed 202, bombed churches in Indonesia on Christmas Eve and plotted to kill world leaders in Bangkok, is seeking his release.
On Aug 18, journalists were allowed to watch 10 minutes of the unclassified portion of the session which was broadcast via a satellite link from the US high-value detainees prison in Cuba.
The Indonesian-born Hambali came to Malaysia in 1985 at the age of 21 and lived here for almost 20 years. He married a Sabahan, Noralwizah Lee Abdullah @ Lee Yin Len.
Over the last 48 hours, his case has attracted attention among the intelligence communities and in a number of countries, including Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
This is the first time that Hambali, whom some refer to as the “Osama bin Laden” of South-East Asia, has been “seen” since his arrest in August 2003.
Making the case for his release, Hambali’s representative, a military officer, had described him as “respectful”, “energetic” and someone who “always smiles and never hesitates to answer any questions.”
“During his time in detention, he has learned English. He also taught himself some Arabic, and then held classes to help teach his fellow detainees.
“He went so far as to have homework and tests for them. His father and uncles were all teachers. So, it came naturally for him,” the officer read out in the opening statement.
He said Hambali also had stated he had no ill-will towards the United States and that “he believes America has diversity and sharing of power is much better than a dictatorship”.
Hambali, he added, had said that he wanted nothing more than to move on with his life and be peaceful.
“He hopes to remarry and have children to raise.”
However, the officer representing the US government, argued against his release.
Hambali, he argued, appeared to be a mentor and teacher to his fellow detainees and was “seemingly exerting influence” over them and had been heard promoting violent jihad while leading prayers and during lectures.
“We judge that he remains steadfast in his support for extremist causes and his hatred for the US.
“He most likely would look for ways to reconnect with his Indonesian and Malaysian cohorts or attract a new set of followers if he were to be transferred from Guantanamo Bay.”
He said Hambali’s younger brother, Rusman Gunawan, had now emerged to be part of the Islamic State (IS) Indonesian network.
Hambali is one of 61 detainees at Guantanamo, where high-value detainees and terrorists are held at the facility.
When President Barack Obama was first elected, he had pledged to close down Guantanamo Bay.
The Obama administration set up the Periodic Review Board to review high-value prisoners in long detention to hear their case for their release.
Hambali (real name Encep Nurjaman) has a number of aliases, including those not commonly known like Daniel Suarez Naveira and Alejandro Davidson Gonzalez.
The son of a farmer and the second of 13 children, he came to Malaysia in 1985 looking for work.
But two years later in 1987, he left for Afghanistan to fight against the Soviet occupation.
There, Hambali met Osama and established close ties with the Al-Qaeda.
And when he returned to Malaysia, he spent a major part of his life building up his terror network and planning attacks in South-East Asia.
He was the key point man for Osama in the region and the main link between Al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Indonesian terror network.
Hambali was good friends with JI leaders Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar who had set up a religious school, Luqmanul Hakiem, in Ulu Tiram, Johor, that was raided and closed down by the police because it was actually operating as a centre for establishing key JI operatives.
The school was where Hambali met his wife.
Hambali was living in Sungai Manggis, Banting, Selangor, in 1991, selling kebab and medicine but by the mid-1990s, a lot of money started flowing in from different sources, including the Middle East.
He then had members set up charities to collect money for needy Muslims and used the RM2mil they gathered to buy arms and send members for training in Afghanistan and to buy ammonium nitrate to make bombs to attack embassies in Pakistan.
At this time, Hambali was already working very closely with JI’s Abu Bakar. They shared a vision of setting up an Islamic state encompassing Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines and were prepared to bomb their way to it.
One of his followers was quoted as saying that for years, Hambali also told them during usrah (religious discussions) that “the only way to set up an Islamic state was to overthrow the Malaysian government by force and infidels have no place in an Islamic state.”
Hambali and Abu Bakar also had meetings with other terrorist leaders in a house near the International Islamic University to coordinate the bombings.
When he was caught in Ayutthya, Thailand, on Aug 11, 2003, he had been planning an attack during the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation meeting in Bangkok which would bring together 21 leaders, including the then US President George W. Bush.
He had shaved his beard and was disguised as a Malaysian businessman.
He was 38 when he was caught and was held in an US overseas secret prison for three years. He was transferred to Guantanamo on Sept 4, 2006, where he has remained to this day.
He is now 52.
In the 10 minutes that journalists were able to see his image through satellite during the unclassified initial hearing before the review board, they said he appeared healthy and sat quietly showing no expression.