Ever since London's July 7 suicide bombings left 56 people dead, investigators have searched for connections between the four British suspects and al-Qaeda. A direct link to the terror group didn't appear until early September, when al-Qaeda's number two, Ayman al-Zawahiri, claimed responsibility for the attacks in two videotapes, one of which also featured a recording by the apparent ringleader, 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan. TIME has learned that Khan, who described himself in the tape as a "soldier" inspired by Osama bin Laden, may have had a much more direct and long-term involvement with al-Qaeda than previously thought—and also a connection to Southeast Asian terrorist groups. A regional security official tells TIME that an Islamic radical currently detained in Malaysia has admitted that he acted as Khan's guide on two occasions in 2001, when the Leeds-born special-education tutor was transiting in Malaysia on a reconnaissance mission for al-Qaeda. The radical says he was ordered by Riduan Isamuddin, the top terror operative better known as Hambali, to "pick [Khan] up, feed him, house him and take care of him," the source says. "He was checking out the places, trying to see how much funding was needed to keep the jihad going." Hambali, who was arrested in Thailand in August 2003, had extremely close links to al-Qaeda's leadership and acted as operations chief for Jemaah Islamiah (J.I.), the militant network credited with several bombings in the region, including the October 12, 2002 attack in Bali, Indonesia that killed 202 people. On Khan's first visit, the jailed militant told police, they traveled to the Malaysian state of Sabah in Borneo, where Khan was introduced to a senior member of J.I., Nasir Abbas. Nasir, who remains free but is cooperating with Indonesian police, took Khan to a J.I. training camp on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, a source familiar with the details of the journey confirmed.
Police sources in Britain declined to comment on the claims, as did Yusof Abdul Rahaman, the director of the special branch of Malaysia's police force. Sidney Jones, who heads the Southeast Asia office of the think tank International Crisis Group, says that it's critical to understand how "like-minded jihadis from other parts of the world" are forging ties with each other. Jones stresses the role played in such contact by Pakistan's Islamic schools, or madrasahs. Khan is said to have visited a madrasah in Pakistan less than a year ago.