You'd never guess from the plaintive tone that the man being interrogated is supposed to be one of the world's most dangerous terrorists. Even through a fog of bureaucratic paraphrasing, Riduan Isamuddinbetter known as Hambaliappears a very unhappy man. And that's not just because his capture on Aug. 11 in central Thailand delivered him into the hands of his mortal enemy, the U.S. Or that he is facing the prospect of a lifetime behind bars. No, what really seems to bother the 39-year-old Indonesian is that Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the regional network of militant Islamic groups he spent the past decade building up, is now collapsing. That, at least, is his claim, according to records Time has obtained, which summarize the interrogations of Hambali and two of his closest companions.
In a lengthy interrogation session on Aug. 22, Hambalithe man believed to be ultimately responsible for many other bombings across Southeast Asia that have claimed hundreds of livescomplains that JI is in a "very bad" state. "The captive [Hambali] kept insisting that JI was breaking down because of those who had been captured," an anonymous interrogator writes. In addition, Hambali laments, "all the group's savings have been lost to raids and arrests," and "JI is now totally dependent on al-Qaeda for money." In short, says the interrogation summary, JI is essentially "destroyed."
That is an astonishing claim from the man widely believed to have been JI's chief operational commander. It also contradicts what many intelligence officials and analysts assert: that JI has been wounded but remains extremely dangerous. Those same officials warn that the process of separating truth from deliberate misdirection when interrogating such experienced operatives as Hambali is far from easy. Indeed, the American intelligence agents who authored the documents for distribution to senior intelligence and police officials around the region repeatedly remind their readers how slippery Hambali is, prefacing the summaries of each day's interrogation with the same warning: "The following comments came from a senior al-Qaeda prisoner, and could be designed to influence as well as inform. The prisoner may also deliberately withhold information and practice counter-interrogation techniques."
The question of how potent Asia's terrorist networks remain is particularly resonant now, on the eve of the first anniversary of the Oct. 12, 2002, Bali bombings. In the year since the Bali attack, Asian and U.S. security forces have won many battles in the region's war on terror. Police have arrested hundreds of alleged JI operatives across Asia, including the main perpetrators of the Bali blasts and the suspects in the Aug. 5 bombing of Jakarta's JW Marriott hotel. Intelligence agencies in various Southeast Asian countries are also proving more adept at sharing information: Hambali's arrest came after Thai security officials and U.S. intelligence operatives acted on information provided by Malaysian authorities.
Yet experts fear the terror threat in Asia remains as high as ever. Despite JI's clear record of agitation in Indonesia, Jakarta has yet to formally acknowledge the network's existence, largely out of fear of offending the country's Muslim political parties. Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters have found refuge in Pakistan's lawless tribal areas and are staging deadly cross-border raids into Afghanistan. Cooperation among different countries, though improving, is still hampered by distrust.
Reading between the lines of Hambali's confession, it's clear how much trouble JI is still capable of causing. It retains strong links to al-Qaeda andat least until Hambali's arresthad access to large amounts of its cash. What's more, JI operatives are still receiving training in secret locations in Asia and JI can continue to count on a steady supply of disaffected, angry young Muslims ready to kill and die as jihadis. "When you fight terrorism you cannot arrest or kill one or two people, however important they are," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book Inside al-Qaeda. "You must criminalize the group, go after their propaganda, their financing, their safe houses and their training facilities. You must target the whole organization, not just one or two peoplethat's useless."
WHO'S THE BOSS?
One of the key insights gleaned from the interrogation of Hambaliwho Time has found out is being held on a joint American-British air base on the remote Indian Ocean island of Diego Garciais that the ties between al-Qaeda and JI are even stronger than previously believed. It's particularly revealing that the two aides arrested with Hambali were the Malaysians Mohamad Farik Amin, alias Zubair, and Bashir bin Lap, whose nom de guerre was Lilie. As Hambali himself notes in his confession, neither Zubair nor Lilie are JI members. Rather, they are al-Qaeda operatives who were originally members of a four-man, all-Malaysian suicide squad that pledged a direct oath of fealty to Osama bin Laden to die for the cause. "Lilie stated that bin Laden discussed their commitment to Allah with the group," the interrogator's summary states, "and told them that their duty was to suffer."