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RESPONSE TO TERROR

Indonesia Cleric Tied to '95 Anti-U.S. Plot

Asia: Man linked to Sept. 11 attacks helped finance earlier plan to bomb 12 jets, officials say.

February 07, 2002|MARK FINEMAN and RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — An Indonesian cleric who has been linked to two Sept. 11 hijackers was also the business partner of an Afghan terrorist and helped him finance a 1995 plot to blow up 12 U.S. jetliners over the Pacific Ocean, according to documents and officials in Malaysia and the Philippines.

Riduan Isamuddin, 37, has emerged in recent weeks as the Southeast Asia operations director for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, officials say. But documents reviewed by The Times indicate that his involvement in plots against U.S. targets dates to at least 1994. Isamuddin, now better known as Hambali, was identified by authorities recently as the leader of a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Singapore.

Revelations about Hambali's early business ties to terrorists trained in Bin Laden's camps and his involvement in Asian plots make his role in the global terror network appear more central than previously thought.

The new information links the Indonesian preacher to a plot that could have killed thousands of people and gave investigators their earliest hint that terrorists were planning to crash hijacked planes into important buildings in the United States.

In June 1994, Hambali was one of the founders of the Konsojaya trading company here, and on Dec. 1 of that year, his partner in the firm, Wali Khan Amin Shah, helped bomb a Philippine Airlines jetliner.

A Japanese businessman was killed in the blast, which forced the jumbo jet to land in Okinawa. U.S. prosecutors said the bombing was a test for a much more ambitious plot to plant explosives in rapid succession on United, Northwest and Delta airlines jets bound for America's West Coast from cities throughout Asia. The plot also included a plan to kill Pope John Paul II as a distraction while he was visiting the Philippines, court records show.

A freak accident and fire in January 1995 in the Manila apartment that served as the group's bomb factory foiled the plans, which U.S. prosecutors said would have killed as many as 4,000 Americans in a 48-hour period.

Philippine police wiretaps showed that until the plot was discovered, Hambali's company was in frequent contact with Mohammed Khalifa, Bin Laden's brother-in-law, who headed a Manila-based charitable organization allegedly used to spread Bin Laden's influence.

One of the plotters later told investigators in the Philippines that their ultimate goal was to hijack a commercial airliner and crash it into a government building in Washington--a plan that foreshadowed the Sept. 11 plot.

Involved with Khan--Hambali's business partner--in the plot to bomb the 12 planes was Ramzi Yousef, who was also found guilty in the 1993 truck bombing of the World Trade Center, and Pakistani Abdul Hakim Murad. According to court testimony, all three had either been to terrorist camps or fought in the war against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. All three were convicted by a federal jury in New York in 1996 in the plot to bomb the 12 planes.

Testimony during the trial showed that Khan used Malaysia as an unwitting logistics base and frequent transit point before the planned attack.

Khan was arrested in Manila after the apartment fire but escaped 77 hours later and fled to Malaysia. He was captured by Malaysian police 11 months later when they identified him by the three missing fingers on his left hand. Malaysian authorities immediately handed him over to the FBI.

Officials said they learned years later that Hambali had supplied Khan with a new identity and cover in Malaysia, where he lived on the resort island of Langkawi using the name Osama Turkestani.

Malaysian officials and a former Philippine investigator who headed the investigation into the case now say the Konsojaya company was central to the bombing plot, which was code-named Bojinka.

"According to my analysis, Konsojaya was the nerve center not only for business but also for operational supervision [of the plot to bomb the airplanes]," said Rodolfo Mendoza, the former head of Philippine counter-terrorism who led the Bojinka investigation.

Mendoza added that he believes Hambali's role in the corporation meant that he also was a key participant in financing and organizing the terror plot.

Corporate records on file in the Malaysian capital show that Khan, who was on Konsojaya's board of directors, owned half the company's 6,000 shares. Other company documents show that Hambali and his Chinese Malaysian wife, Noralwizah Lee, also were among the company's founding directors.

Other Konsojaya directors included another Afghan, Mehdat Abdul Salam Shabana, who owned the other half of the company's shares, and Hemeid H. Algamdi, described as a 30-year-old Saudi Arabian from Jidda, records show.

Konsojaya's managing director is listed as Amein Mohamed, a Yemeni who is described in a company profile circulated to suppliers and customers as the former marketing director of a Pakistan-based buying agent for a Saudi company in Jidda.

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