It took time, but by the autumn of 2001, money was no longer a problem. Khalid Mohammed and his cohorts eliminated that and every other obstacle. Rather than rely on casual collections of hapless men patching together whatever foolhardy scheme they lit upon, they drew new men from three continents into their plot--diverse men, including an architect, an aerospace engineer, a patent medicine salesman, a computer programmer, sons of the Saudi middle class and an itinerant Yemeni who lived for two years in a cramped government barracks so uninviting authorities called it a container.
The organization was patient. While the men from around the globe were assembled and prepared, it went on doing what it otherwise did--churning out ideas for new and imaginative ways to kill.
By the time they were done, the old idea, the one with the airplanes, turned out to be the best--or worst--of them all.
Fighters Without a War
Al Qaeda was born in the course of a 10-year resistance to the Soviet Union's 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. The war against the Soviets became a worldwide rallying cry of radical Islam and, more, a forum for action. Tens of thousands of young men from throughout Islam answered the call to arms. The war's end presented a predicament: What would these so-called Afghan Arabs do now?
Fundamentalist Islam is viewed as a threat in much of the Muslim world. Many moujahedeen came home to inhospitable regimes. One of them later described the group as lost, without purpose "except to carry out the jihad."
One such man and his wife arrived at a compound of migrant quarters in tiny Kampung Sungai Manggis, south of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, in early April 1991. He was short, stout, bearded and wearing a skullcap; she, even shorter, and completely covered in dark dress and full veil. The couple were strangers to Mior Mohamad Yuhana, the man who owned the migrant shacks, but they came recommended by a local man, and Mior thought they looked kindly.
The visitor said his name was Hambali, he was Indonesian and was moving to Malaysia so that he might practice Islam more freely. Mior told him he didn't care about that. Stay out of trouble, pay the rent and we'll be fine, he said. He led them to a tiny wooden shack, about the size of a one-car garage, with weathered siding, bare concrete floors and a single lightbulb inside.
Hambali grew up in the volcanic highlands of west Java and attended an Islamic boarding school and university. He answered the call to jihad and spent three years fighting in Afghanistan.
Hambali and his wife arrived in Sungai Manggis with the clothes they wore and a single bag each.
"They cooked and ate, slept on the floor," Mior said.
Sungai Manggis is just minutes from the western Malaysian coast, and from there an hour by boat across the Strait of Malacca to Indonesia. It is a well-traveled path for poor Indonesians, who come for work. But Sungai Manggis is not a place to get rich.
The area is blanketed with overgrown rubber plantations, abandoned when the fickle world market moved on. The landscape is green and tangled, the earth a deep orange clay that clings as dust in the morning and mud after the heavy midday rains. The hills are empty as yet of the Western-style subdivisions of the capital, but the bulldozers are coming. The area is being pulled into the sprawling compass of Kuala Lumpur.
Roadside stands are piled high with mangoes, pineapple, durian and--an indication of the oncoming march of the suburbs--sacks of used golf balls.
Hambali did odd jobs and soon began showing up outside the gold-domed mosque on the southern edge of the nearby market town of Banting, selling kebabs out of a tri-shaw cart. His wife, joined by her mother, was seldom seen beyond the rented shack.
Hambali switched from kebabs to patent medicines and began traveling, on business, he said, disappearing for weeks at a time. At home, he received what became a steady stream of visitors, Mior said. They spoke English and Arabic and sometimes carried Duty Free shopping bags. The men were "in their late 20s or early 30s. They looked tough. I remembered thinking at that time they would make good footballers," Mior said.
Hambali prospered. Soon, he was driving a red Proton hatchback and juggling calls on a pair of cell phones. Many of those calls, investigators later determined, were made to a man who had recently arrived in Manila, Osama bin Laden's brother-in-law.
Joining the Jihad
When the Soviets left Afghanistan, the country descended into gruesome civil war. With shifting alliances of tribes, warlords and religious sects, a network of camps, schools and supply routes that Bin Laden had helped establish along the Pakistani border was busier than ever.