Whatever Became of Hambali?

Now that US President Barack Obama was promised to close the Guantanamo Bay camp for political prisoners – unindicted terror suspects and assorted Muslims caught in the wrong place at the wrong time – what will happen to the alleged "Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia"?

Languishing – and probably being periodically tortured – for three years at a CIA location and then in his Cuban cell, Riduan Isamuddin, better know by his undercover name of Hambali, is in principle wanted in four countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. But those countries have been more than happy to let the US take care of him – at least so long as he doesn't have the chance to appear in court and have the evidence against him tested by defense lawyers, and others who may not be entirely convinced that he was quite the terror mastermind of popular repute.

Hambali is currently classified by the US as an "enemy combatant", a "high value" detainee but that has so far been a dubious device meant to keep him in Guantanamo rather than face trial in the countries where his alleged crimes were committed.

An Indonesian national born in West Java and originally called Nurjaman, Hambali had links to jihadists in Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand. The most spectacular of the terror acts ascribed to him was the Bali bombing in 2002 in which 200 people died. He was described as the main link between Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah having been in touch with Arab Muslim extremists since the early 1990s and been funded by them. He was also said to be close to Abu Bakar Bashir, the Indonesian cleric later convicted, on scant evidence, of being behind the Bali bombing.

Hambali went underground in 2000 after a series of church bombings in Java were ascribed to him and he was wanted by Malaysia and Indonesia at the time he was caught living in Ayudhya in Thailand in 2003 with his Malaysian wife. Previously he had lived in Malaysia from about 1991 after returning from Afghanistan/Pakistan where he had gone in the mid1980s to help the fight against the Soviets.

Instead of being tried in Thailand as an illegal alien or sent to his home country and location of his most serious alleged crimes, or to Malaysia or the Philippines he was whisked away to one of the CIA's various detention centers and almost certainly subject to the torture procedures given the green light by a Bush administration in effect run by then vice president Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Can he be charged with anything even half credible in the US? His time among the militants in Afghanistan long pre-dates Bin Laden's presence there. The bombing and other allegations against him have all been in respect of activities in Southeast Asia.

In any event, though it may be easy to prove that he preached jihad and was part of an Islamist push for the establishment of a Muslim caliphate in the region, linking him directly to the bombings could be much more difficult. In the case of the fiery Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, despite Australian and other pressures for vengeance after the Bali bombing, it proved impossible to do more than show him to be the spiritual inspiration of jihadist ideas. Direct links to known conspirators were absent. He was however luckier than Hambali. The Indonesian government – then headed by President Megawati Sukarnoputri – resisted efforts of the US to have him "rendered" into US custody.

But if now Hambali has the opportunity to appear in court, whether in the US or Indonesia, it may be possible to ascertain whether he was more than a preacher of extremist notions. If not, he should be protected by both the US constitution and by Indonesia's tradition of tolerance for multiples interpretations of Islam.

Meanwhile US custody, however uncomfortable, is likely a better option than being rendered to Singapore and detention at Whitley Road. It was from there that fellow jihadist Mas Salamat Kastari allegedly made an utterly improbable escape last February 27, or not. More likely, he either died at the hands of his interrogators, or was a mole for the authorities all along and was now being released with a new identity. Singapore continues the probable fiction to this day that he still lurks somewhere in the island nation.

Indeed, the closure of Guantanamo and the appearance in court of detainees plus the stories of detainees released without charge should give a clearer idea of how effective the War on Terror was against actual terrorists, or how much of it was also a smoke and mirrors game to silence Islamists and use the threat of terror as excuse for locking up people for their opinions or for political convenience.