Uncovering Southeast Asia's jihad network
A three-part CNN special report on terrorism in Southeast Asia
From Maria Ressa
CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief
(CNN) -- The bomb attacks on the island of Bali in which almost 200 people died were the worst terrorist attacks since September 11.
A series of near simultaneous explosions transformed a tropical paradise into a scene of devastation -- weeks later dozens of unidentified bodies remain packed into in an overflowing morgue.
The attacks, experts say, were a signal of more things to come as al Qaeda switches its global strategy.
In 1995, I spent weeks chasing a story about a terrorist cell busted in the Philippines that turned out to be one of al Qaeda's earlier cells.
Privately I was told of one plot so fantastic even the investigators couldn't believe it, until they saw it come alive on September 11.
That was the first lesson I learned in investigating al Qaeda: you have to have imagination.
Seven years and hundreds of intelligence documents later, it comes down to this -- meticulously connecting the dots to find they lead to the same small group of men inciting a global jihad.
In a little more than two weeks, there have been 12 separate explosions in Southeast Asia. The deadliest in Bali was a wakeup call to the region.
But if you read these intelligence documents, the explosions wouldn't be a surprise. Intelligence officials have long been warning of this possibility.
Why? Because the al Qaeda leaders who planned the September 11 attacks are the very same people who set up the terrorist networks -- and activated their plots -- in this region.
It is through these networks that al Qaeda has helped trigger and fuel the jihad in Asia.
The Bali bomb attacks of October 12 took intensive planning.
The simultaneous blasts were designed, investigators say, to funnel people closer to the last -- and deadliest -- blast.
That explosion was so fierce, a doctor at the site said, it ruptured the internal organs of many of the people inside the club. The fires that followed burnt them alive.
"The Bali bomb was designed to cause maximum fatalities and casualties," says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on al Qaeda and author of the book Inside al Qaeda.
The explosion, he says, was deigned "to make people burn and suffer."
Investigators say the bombs were made of C4 plastic explosives, TNT and the fertilizer ammonium nitrate.
Intelligence sources tell CNN several tons of these explosives have been stockpiled in the region by the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed within days by the U.S., Australia and Britain for carrying out the Bali attack.
In fact, says Zachary Abuza "the Jemaah Islamiya network is more or less the al Qaeda cell in Southeast Asia."
Jemaah Islamiya's plan is breathtaking -- to carve out one giant Islamic state from parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and even Australia.
Intelligence officials say Osama Bin Laden has franchised his brand of terrorism, offering Muslim separatist groups in Southeast Asia, such as JI, support on condition they merged their goals with his anti-Western agenda.
"The way they work in the region is that they are plugging into the different extremist organizations in each country which may have their own agenda but at the same time, they could work together and perpetrate all these violent attacks," says Concepcion Clamor of the Philippine National Intelligence Coordinating Agency.
Overall intelligence officials from more than half-a-dozen countries agree al Qaeda's Southeast Asian network is led by two Indonesian clerics.
One of them, Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, has been called the Asian Osama bin Laden.
Long wanted by Singapore, Malaysia and the United States, Ba'asyir was arrested by Indonesia last week.
He says the Indonesian government is going after him because it is weak and bowing to U.S. pressure -- a card Ba'asyir plays often.
"They probably want to arrest me, to kill me or to push me out of Indonesia," he says.
"This is part of a plan to weaken and defeat Islam," he adds.
But regional intelligence documents obtained by CNN say Ba'asyir has a strong personal connection to bin Laden -- his son is an al Qaeda fighter.
Perhaps more dangerous than Ba'asyir and still free, accoding to authorities in the region -- is his deputy and operations chief, Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali.
Hambali is blamed for a similar series of near simultaneous explosions in the Philippines and Indonesia in December 2000.
The explosions in Bali, preceded and followed by 6 blasts in the Philippines, bear the fingerprints of Hambali, say Philippine and Indonesian investigators.
Indonesian-born Hambali is believed to be behind plots to bomb nightclubs and bars across Southeast Asia
Months before, the U.S. distributed a warning to its allies in the region of a new Hambali plot to target nightclubs and bars in Southeast Asia.
There is more.
Documents obtained by CNN from 1995 suggested then that the Afghan war veteran was linked to a terrorist cell busted by the Philippine police at the time.
It was a lead, like many others, that was overlooked.
Today three of the members of that cell are serving life sentences in U.S. prisons for a plot to bomb American planes in Asia -- among them Ramzi Youseff, who also masterminded the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993.
Meanwhile the cell members had also begun recruiting pilots for suicide missions. They wanted to crash commercial planes into buildings like the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.
Intelligence officials in the Philippines say they believe that 1995 plan was the genesis for 9/11.
That was recently verified by Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, Youseff's uncle.
Unlike Hambali, he was identified at the time as a member of the terror cell and soon became a fugitive.
As for Hambali, after 1995 he disappeared from the radar screen of intelligence agencies only to resurface in January 2000 in a quiet condominium complex in Malaysia.
The CIA asked Malaysia's Special Branch for surveillance work of a key al Qaeda meeting, which U.S. officials now say was one of the planning sessions for the attacks on September 11 and the USS Cole.
The host of the meeting turned out to be none other than Hambali.
Among those who attended, according to U.S. and Malaysian officials: Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Bin Al-Shibh who would later outline how they carried out the September 11 attacks.
Also there was Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaf Al-Hazmi who crashed a plane into the Pentagon on September 11, and Tawfiq bin Attash Khallad, whom the U.S. calls the mastermind in the bombing of the USS Cole in Oct 2000.
The owner of the Malaysian condominium where the meeting took place is Yazid Sufaat. Now in prison, Malaysian authorities say he was Hambali's deputy there.
Malaysian authorities say Sufaat told them that Hambali asked him to host another man in that same apartment 8 months later.
That man was Zacarias Moussaoui, now on trial in the U.S. on charges related to the September 11 attacks.
Sufaat also did one more thing at Hambali's bidding. He used a company he owned to purchase 4 tons of ammonium nitrate which Malaysian authorities are still searching for -- the same type of explosives used in the largest bomb blast in Bali.
Intelligence documents obtained by CNN document how from 1995 until 2001, Hambali built up al Qaeda's network in Southeast Asia.
There were several ambitious plots, some of which have been foiled by authorities in the region.
However, regional intelligence officials have told CNN that others remain active with Hambali and his homegrown militants continuing to receive al Qaeda's help.
Click here for part two of Maria Ressa's investigation of jihad in Asia.