WASHINGTON — Al Qaeda's top terror operative in Southeast Asia has been arrested and is in U.S. custody, according to White House and intelligence officials, who hailed the capture of the militant Muslim cleric as a major blow against Osama bin Laden's deadly global network.
Officials said Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, was apprehended in central Thailand in the last two days in a joint operation involving the CIA and Thai authorities. Several lower-ranking Al Qaeda operatives were also held, officials said.
President Bush, taking a break from his monthlong vacation at his ranch in Texas to speak to U.S. troops at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, called the Indonesian-born Hambali a "known killer" and "one of the world's most lethal terrorists."
Hambali, 37, has a lengthy terrorist rap sheet, from his role financing a failed 1995 plot to blow up 12 U.S. passenger jets over the Pacific to his status as chief suspect in this month's car-bomb explosion outside the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia.
U.S. officials also said the fiery orator was linked to two of the Sept. 11 hijackers, helped organize a failed plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other civilian targets in Singapore, sponsored dozens of attacks in the Philippines and Indonesia, and was the chief instigator of the nightclub bombings that killed 202 people on the Indonesian resort island of Bali in October.
In addition, a U.S. intelligence official said that a senior Al Qaeda figure now in custody recently alleged that Hambali was ordered "shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks to recruit pilots to conduct additional suicide attacks" within the United States.
It was not clear if that effort was related to frantic warnings by U.S. officials in the fall of 2001 about a possible "second wave" of airborne attacks. Nor was it known if Hambali successfully recruited any additional pilots, the official said.
The official also said that earlier this year, Hambali was paid "a large sum of money" by an Al Qaeda leader in Pakistan to conduct "a major attack." He said the nature of that plot was still unclear.
As the operations chief of a regional terrorist network called Jemaah Islamiah, Hambali is considered the chief link between Al Qaeda and radical Muslim militants in half a dozen nations in Southeast Asia.
Hambali's group claimed to be seeking a unified Islamic state in Southeast Asia that would include all or parts of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.
Hambali is said to have arranged for the training of Jemaah Islamiah recruits at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, to have used Al Qaeda money to finance his group's attacks, and to have imported Al Qaeda experts to help organize regional bombings over the last four years.
Jemaah Islamiah is believed to operate independently of Bin Laden's operations, however. U.S. and Asian authorities hope that Hambali's arrest will disrupt contacts between the two networks and derail terrorism plans.
"He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom, and neither are nearly two-thirds of known senior Al Qaeda leaders, operational managers, and key facilitators who have been captured or have been killed," Bush told the U.S. Marines and their families.
"Now, Al Qaeda is still active, and they're still recruiting, and they're still a threat because we won't cower," Bush added. "Its leaders and foot soldiers continue to plot against the American people. But every terrorist can be certain of this: Wherever they are, we will hunt them down one by one until they are no longer a threat to the people who live in the United States of America."
White House officials, under fire for the government's failure to capture Bin Laden or deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, broke the news to reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew from Waco, Texas, to Southern California. One official said the White House made the announcement because "this is a significant victory in the war on terror."
The official said Bush was informed of Hambali's capture Wednesday morning during a videoconference with CIA Director George J. Tenet as a part of the president's daily intelligence briefing.
U.S. intelligence officials said they intend to interrogate Hambali about past Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah operations, as well as current terrorist plots against Western interests throughout Southeast Asia.
U.S. intelligence considered Hambali a "close associate" of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, the chief planner of the Sept. 11 attacks. Some terrorism experts believe that Hambali in effect had replaced Mohammed as Al Qaeda's top field operative after Mohammed was captured in March in Pakistan.
"They worked together," said another U.S. intelligence official. "They were of similar rank at the end. Hambali is a big fish, a very big fish. Next to KSM, he's probably the most senior guy we've captured."