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U.S. Captures Highest Ranking al Qaeda Figure in Southeast Asia

Aired August 14, 2003 - 14:59   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Our international viewers who are joining us now, just to quickly recap before we move forward. The White House here in the United States confirming the arrest of this man, Hambali, the mastermind of the Bali bombing, key al Qaeda figure in Asia.
We're going to continue to follow this story, as we bring in our John King now that takes over the next 30 minutes of LIVE FROM. No doubt a story, John, that you've been following for quite some time also from the lawn of the White House.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: And Kyra, the White House is calling this a very significant development in the war on terrorism. It is also, as David Ensor just noted, saying that it has received cooperation from other governments.

I'm told by senior White House officials that this suspect, Hambali, was captured earlier this week. As David noted, now being held in an undisclosed location outside of the United States.

The United States believes he has a treasure trove of information on potential al Qaeda operations and other terrorist operations in Southeast Asia. U.S. officials obviously quite eager to question him.

And we are told, also, at the bottom of the hour, 30 minutes from now President Bush will address this arrest in his remarks out in California.

Joining us now on the telephone from Jakarta, our Maria Ressa, someone who has followed closely the investigations in terrorist activities in Philippines, Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia.

Maria, what can you tell us about the significance of this development in terms of terrorism in your region?

MARIA RESSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hambali was the most wanted man in Southeast Asia. Has been, really, since 9/11. He is the key leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, which is basically al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia.

He is the key link between Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda. In fact, according to terrorist experts and intelligence officials in the region, is the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda's leadership council. He is expected to be quite high up, perhaps the highest ranking Asian within al Qaeda's structure. He shuttled back and forth between Southeast Asia and Pakistan. In fact, during the 9/11 attacks, he was expected to have been with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, according to interrogation reports we've gotten, that he was one of the planners, along with Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh -- John.

KING: Maria, we are just learning of this arrest but we are also told that it took place several days ago. The White House is saying it received good cooperation from another government, refusing to identify that government as yet.

Any indication from your sources that it is the government of Indonesia, which, of course, has been under pressure from the White House at times to do more in the war on terrorism and, of course, has domestic political concerns to being public at all about its cooperation with the United States?

RESSA: You're right on all fronts. There has been no confirmation thus far on the Indonesian end, although there have been several false alarms about Hambali's arrest over the last few months.

Just about a month ago, Indonesia had very publicly denied that he had been arrested.

But at this point, it's about 2 a.m. in the morning in Jakarta. All throughout the day, over the last week, particularly since the Marriott bombing, there's been a lot of intense pressure on the Indonesian government to come up with the results. They have announced both the alleged suicide bomber as well as other suspects within the bombing, but there's been no kind of announcement regarding such a high-profile arrest -- John.

KING: And Maria, help our viewers who might be new to this issue understand the relationship, at least the suspected relationship, between the terrorist organizations in Indonesia and al Qaeda.

RESSA: Hambali's arrest is particularly significant because he is the man who connects al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah.

Hambali's connections go to Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was al Qaeda's number three, when he was arrested in March. Hambali's and Khalid Shaikh's relationship goes back to 1994. In fact, Hambali was also connected to the 1995 cell busted in the Philippines that had Ramsey Youssef, the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bomber.

He's long been involved in terrorism in the region but in a background scene. For many years he was based in Malaysia, from where he coordinated many of the operations.

He is the key man behind a spate of bombings in Southeast Asia beginning in the year 2000. Perhaps the operation where Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia, really flexed its wings was in December of 2000. Simultaneous bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines for which Hambali has been blamed by both governments. In addition to that, as they've answered, he was a key figure. He organized a meeting of about half a dozen al Qaeda senior leaders, who met in Malaysia in 2000, which basically was one of the first planning sessions of the 9/11 attacks.

Among the leaders who attended those meetings was the man who was believed to be the mastermind of the "USS Cole" as well as the bombing operations within Southeast Asia itself. Three of the 9/11 hijackers were also at that meeting.

And later that year, Hambali's deputy was also the host for Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now on trial for September 11-related charges in the United States.

Hambali is a key figure, again, he kept the base both in Malaysia and in Pakistan. A very strong relationship with the al Qaeda leadership, the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda's leadership council -- John.

KING: And Maria, before I let you go, we are focusing on his al Qaeda connections, of course, because of his potential importance in the investigations in the global war on terrorism. But am I correct in saying Indonesian authorities also believe his organization was responsible for the most recent attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel there in Jakarta?

RESSA: Absolutely. You're absolutely correct. He has been blamed as the mastermind, not only for the Bali bombings, but just yesterday Indonesian police did say that they believe he is also involved in the J.W. Marriott bombing.

Again, this man is wanted for arrest in more than half a dozen countries in Southeast Asia. So it's going to be tough as to which government would want to prosecute him first - John.

KING: Maria Ressa, joining us on the phone from Jakarta, Indonesia, thank you for your help. And we'll get back to you as developments warrant.



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