It is a working principle of professional interrogators that every detainee wants to tell his story. It did not take long for Riduan Isamuddin--the al-Qaeda operative better known as Hambali--to prove that rule. In fact, it took less than two weeks. After his Aug. 11 arrest in southern Thailand, al-Qaeda's top man in Asia was turned over by Thai authorities to his mortal enemies, agents of the U.S. According to reports they wrote dated Aug. 22 and Aug. 26, copies of which were obtained by TIME, Hambali confessed to his involvement in recent terrorist attacks that have left hundreds dead in Southeast Asia, detailed the relationships between al-Qaeda and terrorist groups in Asia and listed the names of scores of associates.
Of course, Hambali, 39, may be lying about at least some of it. The U.S. operatives who authored the documents for distribution to senior intelligence and police officials around the region prefaced their summaries of Hambali's questioning with a warning that the prisoner may be practicing "counter-interrogation techniques." On the other hand, much of what Hambali says is corroborated by the confessions of two of his closest associates. Summaries of their interrogations were also obtained by TIME. Together, these reports shed new light on how al-Qaeda recruits suicide operatives, how it subcontracts terrorism to like-minded groups and what types of targets it may go after next.
--SIGNING UP FOR SUICIDE
Bashir Bin Lap, a Malaysian known in radical circles as Lillie, studied to be an architect at Malaysia's Polimas Polytechnic. But drawn by the lure of jihad, he made his way to Kandahar, Afghanistan, where he underwent basic military training in an al-Qaeda camp. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Lillie, according to his own account, received a letter from Hambali, an Indonesian who had started off as an activist in Islamist causes in Southeast Asia but had gone on to serve the global-reaching al-Qaeda. In the letter, Hambali asked whether Lillie was prepared to join in a suicide attack. When he replied yes, Lillie claimed, he received an invitation to meet with Osama bin Laden in Kabul. There, Lillie said, he and three other men, including an old classmate from the polytechnic, Mohammed Farik bin Amin, swore allegiance to the al-Qaeda chief. Bin Laden, Lillie maintained, discussed the group's commitment to Allah and told them their duty was "to suffer." Lillie said he understood that the group was to attack a U.S. target but he did not know if the site was within or outside the U.S. He claimed to know no further details about his intended mission.