Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - Asia's most-wanted terrorist suspect, hunted across the region for his role in a series of bomb attacks including last October's deadly blasts in Bali, has been captured, the White House has announced.
Indonesian Islamic cleric Riduan bin Isomuddin, also known as Hambali, is understood to be a leader of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) and an important go-between between that Southeast Asia-based terrorist network and Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters that his arrest was "another important victory in the global war on terrorism and a significant blow to the enemy."
U.S. officials were quoted by wire services as saying Hambali was captured in Southeast Asia this week with the help of an unidentified government and was now in U.S. custody.
An independent Thailand newspaper, The Nation, reports in its early Friday editions that Hambali was captured in the Thai region of Ayutthaya. It cited unnamed sources as saying the terrorist was being held at a "secret location" where he was being questioned by FBI officials and Thai authorities.
The sources quoted by The Nation said Hambali had allegedly confessed to preparing a terrorist attack during the forthcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting.
President Bush is among the 21 Asia-Pacific leaders due to attend the October 20-21 summit in Bangkok.
Speaking to Marines in San Diego Thursday, Bush called Hambali "one of the world's most lethal terrorists," adding: "He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom."
Apart from the Bali bombing, Hambali is accused of planning other attacks, including a car bombing at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta last week in which at least 12 people died.
JI has also been linked to bombings in the Philippines and a thwarted plot to bomb American and other Western embassies and installations in Singapore.
The Singapore government accuses Hambali of arranging al Qaeda training in Afghanistan for JI militants it arrested in connection with the embassy bombing conspiracy.
Terrorism researchers say Hambali is a close associate of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a top al Qaeda leader who was captured in Pakistan earlier this year and is also in U.S. custody.
Hambali also helped to arrange a meeting in Malaysia with two Saudis named Nawaf al-Hazmi and Khalid al-Mihdhar 20 months before they and 17 other terrorists carried out the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Al-Mihdhar and al-Hazmi were aboard American Airlines Flight 77 that crashed into the Pentagon that day.
Another man investigators say was present at the meeting Hambali facilitated in Malaysia later became a suspect in the deadly USS Cole bombing that was carried out during October 2000 in Yemen.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard welcomed news that the man accused of masterminding attacks that cost 88 Australian lives was in custody, a spokesman said by phone early Friday.
Howard called the capture "a huge breakthrough," describing Hambali as "the main link between al Qaeda and JI," according to a transcript provided by his office.
"I congratulate the Americans, and I'm sure that psychologically, this capture will inflict a very heavy blow on the worldwide terrorist network. He's not quite the biggest fish you can catch, but he's pretty close to it."
Howard said he had been aware of the news "for several days" but declined to give any further details.
Earlier this week, American, Australian and Indonesian officials warned of the possibility of another terrorist attack in Indonesia, and the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta held an unprecedented meeting inside the mission compound to warn American citizens about the security threat.
Washington and Canberra warned their nationals about the danger of attacks at international hotels, shopping malls and other places where Westerners gather, and an Indonesian newsweekly reported that JI was suspected to have formed a dozen-strong suicide squad.
A series of ongoing trials of JI suspects was assumed linked to the timing of the threat, and security officials had also suggested that Indonesia's national day - Sunday, Aug. 17 - may be a target date for terrorists planning another strike.
But the news of Hambali's capture has now raised speculation that he may have, over the past several days, provided information about imminent attacks.
The Bali bombing killed a total of 202 people, most of them Western tourists, including seven Americans.
It was the most lethal terrorist attack anywhere since the Sept. 11, 2001, al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. and seen as a change of tactic in a region where suicide bombing had been unheard of. Over the 10 months since, suicide attacks have been carried out in the Philippines and - last week - at the Jakarta Marriott.
The first in a series of trials of men accused of taking part in the attacks at two Bali nightclubs ended last week with Indonesian Amrozi bin Nurisyim sentenced to death.
Amrozi told investigators earlier his only regret was that more Americans hadn't been killed.
Another JI leader, Abu Bakar Bashir - also an Indonesian Muslim cleric - is currently on trial in Jakarta on charges relating to a series of bomb attacks against Christian churches in Indonesia during 2000.
With Bashir, Hambali and the men accused of roles in the Bali bombing all out of circulation, the most senior JI operative still at large is Fathur Rohman al-Ghozi, an Indonesian described as an explosives expert.
He was caught in the Philippines in January 2002 and sentenced three months later to 17 years' imprisonment for possession of a large quantity of explosives, allegedly destined for the Singapore bombing campaign.
But al-Ghozi walked out of a supposed high-security cell inside national police headquarters in Manila a month ago, his escape believed to have been facilitated by crooked officials.
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