Thu, Aug 28, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Hambali capture has its down side

REUTERS , JAKARTA

The longer suspected bombing mastermind Hambali stays under wraps in US custody, the more Washington risks irritating allies and losing an opportunity to convince doubters about the reality of terrorist networks.

Southeast Asian governments have welcomed the capture earlier this month of the alleged senior al-Qaeda operative and boss of the regional militant group Jemaah Islamiah, but where US authorities took Hambali and what they intend doing with him remains a secret.

Security officials say Hambali, a Muslim preacher also known by his alias Riduan Isamuddin, helped plot the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the US as well as attacks throughout Southeast Asia.

US President George W. Bush called Hambali "one of the world's most lethal terrorists" and said the capture early this month meant he was "no longer a problem."

But that is not particularly helpful to countries such as Indonesia, where not everyone is convinced Hambali and Jemaah Islamiah were responsible for the Bali bombings last October which killed 202 people or that they had a part in this month's Jakarta hotel bombing that killed 12.

Many in Indonesia still don't even believe Jemaah Islamiah exist in the world's most populous Muslim country, according to International Crisis Group Indonesia Project Director Sidney Jones.

"Unless a figure like Hambali can be brought to trial in Indonesia in a way that the Indonesian public can see and hear and learn about the nature of his links to al-Qaeda, they're still going to believe that no such linkage exists," she said.

Similar sentiments came from Ahmad Syafii Maarif, chairman of the 30-million-strong moderate Indonesian Muslim group Muhammadiyah. Asked whether a public trial of Hambali was important, he said: "Of course that's very very important, very decisive."

Hambali, a native Indonesian, has to be returned or else gradually the public could "lose their confidence, their trust in US good intentions," Maarif said.

However, one Western diplomat who declined to be identified said considering the trials Indonesia has already held or is holding over the Bali bombings and other attacks: "I don't think one more public trial would necessarily affect public opinion that much, at least in the short term."

Indonesian officials have said they want access to Hambali for questioning and eventually would like him brought back for trial. Some officials say Washington is being cooperative but they offer no specifics on when either goal might be achieved.

But it isn't just Indonesia with claims on Hambali. Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines could make legal cases against him as well, if what intelligence officials say about his role as a mastermind of violence is true.

The Philippines has also asked for access to Hambali, a suspect in a December 2000 light rail transit bombing which killed 22 people.

A security official in Kuala Lumpur said Malaysia would like some access to Hambali to help Jemaah Islamiah investigations.

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