BANGKOK, Thailand — With Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, so goes the opportunity to make him answer for Al Qaeda’s wrongdoings in court.
That distinction will largely fall to bin Laden’s consigliere, the Kuwait-born Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or “KSM,” a confessed architect of the World Trade Center attacks. The U.S. has just recently announced that his military trial will take place soon at Guantanamo Bay detention center, his prison since 2006.
But the coming Guantanamo trials will also include a lesser-known band of operatives who swore allegiance to bin Laden: two Malaysians and one Indonesian.
They are Guantanamo’s only Asian prisoners, recruited in part to elude U.S. agents focused on monitoring Arabs.
Their Al Qaeda-funded mission was to stage Sept. 11-style jet attacks in California, kill American backpackers in Southeast Asia and down an Israeli jetliner in Bangkok with a Soviet missile supplied by Cambodian gun runners. One hoped to marry four women, have 12 kids by each and build a small army of jihadis like himself.
Bin Laden’s Asian disciples aren’t widely known in the U.S. But their failed plot is core to the CIA’s defense of an infamous and politicized interrogation technique: water boarding.
While some experts claim the cell’s “West Coast Plot” was an Al Qaeda fantasy, former President George W. Bush and others contend it was a life-or-death scenario revealed only through harsh interrogation.
Coming trials may help answer just how close Osama’s Asian operatives came to destroying their wish list of targets. Interrogation files, leaked from Guantanamo Bay via Wikileaks, offer a preview of the proceedings and a look at how bin Laden’s network extended into unlikely corners of Asia.
Who ran Al Qaeda's Asian cell?
The cell’s leader was 47-year-old Indonesian Riduan Isomuddin, better known as “Hambali.” The plump-faced ideologue gained jihadi credibility by traveling to Afghanistan in the 1980s to resist the Soviet invasion.
He later lived discreetly in a spartan rented shack in Malaysia and traveled Southeast Asia as a missionary spreading Islamic extremism.
In the early 1990s, his charisma helped him climb the ranks of Jemaah Islamiyah, then Southeast Asia’s most feared jihadi network. By the late 1990s, his ties to jihadi mastermind KSM and bin Laden established Hambali as Al Qaeda’s point man in Southeast Asia.
Through Hambali, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah network became an Al Qaeda affiliate, offering up some of its better Asian jihadis on an ad hoc basis for training. Al Qaeda offered cash support — sometimes as much as $130,000 at a time — and assigned targets.
Hambali is now detained at Guantanamo with his two Malaysian lieutenants: 34-year-old Bashir Lap, who goes by “Lillie,” and 36-year-old Mohammed Farik Bin Amin.
This pair of technical school graduates met while working at a Kuala Lumpur architecture firm, where ex-soldier Lillie was a draftsman. At various points, both struggled to find steady pay and drifted towards hardline Islamic literature.
In 2000, they sought out Hambali at a Kuala Lumpur mosque speech. Later that year, they were shuttled to Afghanistan for extensive combat and explosives training. They eventually swore an in-person allegiance oath to bin Laden and were groomed for suicide missions.
What were their targets?
According to Defense Department interrogation documents posted by Wikileaks, the cell plotted to bomb U.S., U.K. and Israeli tourists and embassies in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.
One of their more dramatic plans involved shooting down an Israeli El-Al Airlines plane as it landed at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport.
Documents reveal they lined up the purchase a Russian SA-7 shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile from a Cambodian weapons dealer for $20,000. The plan fizzled, however, when the dealer explained they’d have to buy the weapon’s grip stock in Burma, where their contacts were nil.
Defeated, the crew considered simply bombing the airline’s busy check-in counter or airport shuttle vans.
Another plot, according to the interrogation files, focused on bombing an Exxon or Chevron-owned Caltex pipeline in Malaysia’s Malacca Strait, a major oil transport choke point. The group also cased Bangkok’s Khao San backpacker mecca.
In the coming trials, U.S. prosecutors are expected to argue that Hambali is directly responsible for the 2002 suicide bombings in Bali that left 202 dead including dozens of Australian tourists. He is also believed to have played a role in the 2003 Jakarta bombing of a Marriott Hotel frequented by U.S. Embassy staff. The blast killed 12 people.
What is the West Coast Plot?
In the eyes of KSM, his Asia operatives’ highest calling was the “West Coast Plot.”
He had hoped the jihadis could hijack U.S.-bound planes leaving Asia to hit the tallest building in California on the same day the World Trade Center fell, according to the transcript of a pre-trial Guantanamo hearing.
While confessing to this plot, KSM also noted he’d hoped to attack Chicago’s Sears Tower, assassinate former President Jimmy Carter and murder tourists in Thailand.
In broken English, he justified his plans: “We derive from religious leading that we consider we and George Washington doing same thing. As consider George Washington as hero, Muslims, many of them, considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting.”
KSM’s dream of an Asia-based terror plot relying on commercial jets traces back to the “Bojinka Plot” of the mid-1990s.
The Al Qaeda plan involved locating multi-leg, U.S.-bound flights with layovers in Asia. Al Qaeda operatives would board the planes’ first legs and attach time bombs beneath seats. During layovers in Asia, the operatives would exit the plane, leaving behind explosives set to detonate over the Pacific Ocean.
A 1994 trial run failed to destroy a Philippine Airlines plane entirely but killed a Japanese businessman. Most of KSM’s fellow Middle Eastern plotters were captured in Manila, the Philippines capital, before executing the plan.
But KSM escaped. He later perfected his concept, recruiting Hambali to help stage an East Coast-West Coast version of the Sept. 11 strikes.
However, bin Laden decided to “cancel the Southeast Asia part of the operation due to the difficulty in synchronizing the attacks,” according to Guantanamo documents.
KSM didn’t give up. Through Hambali, he prepared the Malaysian jihadis for a post-Sept. 11 “Second Wave” attack, according to interrogation files.
Lillie explained to U.S. that he was “chosen for the operation in the U.S. because Arabs would have problems operating in the U.S.” after 2001. He had “attended a flight school using an alias,” according to interrogation files, and in 2003 unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Royal Thai Air Force using a fake ID card.
But all were captured before they could carry out the strikes.
A U.S.-Thai operation in 2003 found Hambali hiding out in the sleepy Thai town of Ayutthaya — a sting that landed Thai agents $10 million in U.S. reward money. Lillie was also picked up while traveling in Thailand and Amin was arrested separately outside a Thai bookstore.
Was this a serious threat?
The Asian cell’s competence — and American agents’ professed role in halting the attacks — is still debated by Bush administration officials and their detractors.
After his 2003 capture in Pakistan, KSM was interrogated using techniques the Red Cross later deemed “torture,” namely repeated water boarding amounting to as many as 183 total pours.
A memo released by the U.S. Justice Department said these “enhanced interrogation techniques” led KSM to reveal the West Coast plot among other plans. Bush himself claimed in a 2007 speech that U.S. intelligence “broke up” the planned attacks on the West Coast.
“In the minds of Al Qaeda leaders,” he told a graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, “9/11 was just a down payment on violence yet to come.”
More intense interrogation — but not necessarily water boarding — provided a fuller portrait of the Asian cell’s designs. Hambali, his lieutenants and other detainees were variously kicked, slapped and left naked for up to a month, according to a Red Cross investigation.
Hambali complained to the Red Cross that he was shackled by the hands to an overhead pole for so many hours that he defecated on himself with no opportunity to wipe off. Lillie claimed similar treatment, though he was fitted with a diaper.
Bush’s critics claim his administration has taken credit for thwarting the sum of every unfeasible Al Qaeda daydream — and then used these claims to excuse harsh prisoner treatment.
Former Bush speechwriter, Marc Thiessen, has countered that the current administration was “caught blind” by 2009’s attempted plane bombing in Detroit because “we are no longer trying to capture, detain and effectively interrogate senior terrorist leaders such as Hambali.”
The West Coast Plot likely wasn’t viable because bin Laden never fully agreed to a California wing of the attack, according to a terrorism expert and frequent Defense Department contractor contacted by GlobalPost.
However, the Asia cell was perfectly capable of striking multiple targets in Asia, said Sidney Jones, an International Crisis Group terrorism analyst based in Indonesia.
“You can’t see them as just bumbling ... and it was not just fantasy that these attacks were contemplated,” Jones said. “There was a danger that if they hadn’t been rounded up, there could have been some serious attack in Southeast Asia.”
What's next for the Asia cell?
The U.S. announcement that KSM will face a military trial, possibly conducted in secret, suggests his Asian subordinates may face the same fate. Still, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia said last week that officials may still offer an open civilian trial. Only then might a full measure of the Asia cell’s tenacity emerge.
However, there is little chance the jihadis will ever walk free. According to interrogation files, all are deemed “high risk” detainees that would “probably seek out prior associates and re-engage in hostilities” if released.
Lillie confessed that he would continue obsessing over an attack on Malaysia’s U.S. embassy “until the day he died.” According to his interrogation report, he “wanted to marry four women and have 12 children by each wife. His dream is to bring each of his children into jihad and build an army from his family.”
He even hoped, the interrogation file stated, that “one of his children would aspire to become as strong” as bin Laden.