The CIA has captured a major al Qaeda leader who is believed to have planned bombings in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia.
A top al Qaeda member and a leader of Southeast Asian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, Riduan Isamuddin — also known as Hambali — was arrested as part of a CIA undercover operation in the last 24 hours.
The operation was in cooperation with an undisclosed Southeast Asian country that wants its participation kept secret, officials told ABCNEWS. Hambali was being returned to Indonesia to face terrorism charges.
The CIA called the arrest the "most significant capture since that of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed," who was nabbed in March and is believed to have been the military commander al Qaeda's global terror network and to have masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.
In the past, the CIA has called the Indonesia-born Hambali the "Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia."
Prisoners in custody have told the CIA that Hambali recently received a large sum of money from al Qaeda to carry out attacks against U.S. targets in the region. "He will certainly know about what is in the pipeline," an official told ABCNEWS.
President Bush announced Hambali's capture today in San Diego when he spoke to U.S. troops, many of them just returning from Iraq. "He is no longer a problem to those who love freedom," Bush said. "We're making progress slowly but surely."
A Pentagon official said Hambali is "unquestionably the A No. 1, senior terrorist in Southeast Asia."
The official said Hambali, 37, was "clearly implicated" in plotting the Bali disco bombings of Oct. 12, 2002, which killed more than 200 people, and the Aug. 5 attack on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, in which 11 people died.
Hambali, whose importance only recently became known, was in on the planning of the Sept. 11 attacks, officials say.
Bush called Hambali "one of the world's most lethal terrorists." The president also said the United States was conducting a "broad and unrelenting campaign against the global terror network."
In talking about the U.S.-led effort to oust Iraq's Saddam Hussein and the continuing war on terror, Bush said: "Our enemies have seen the will and the might of the United States military and they are meeting the fate they chose for themselves."
A Product of Suharto’s Repression
A shadowy Islamic scholar, Hambali is believed to be the right-hand man of Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged head of Jemaah Islamiyah. Bashir is on trial in Jakarta on treason charges and for his alleged involvement in a series of church bombings in 2000. He has not, however, been charged in connection with the Bali attacks.
Hambali's capture is a significant victory in the fight against terrorism in Southeast Asia. He is believed to have fled into neighboring Malaysia soon after the Bali attacks as the dragnet closed around top Jemaah Islamiyah leaders.
Last week, a court in Bali sentenced Amrozi — a 40-year-old Javanese man who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name — to death for his role in the bombing of the Sari club on Bali's Kuta beach.
Amrozi's brother, Imam Samudra, believed to be the mastermind of the Bali bombings, also faces the firing squad if found guilty.
Born into a poor Indonesian family, Hambali is believed to be a product of the al Mukmin Islamic school co-founded by Bashir. He was radicalized during the 1970s and '80s, when then-President Suharto severely repressed Islamic radicals seeking to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia.
Like several other Indonesian Islamists, Hambali fled to neighboring Malaysia during Suharto's reign. Intelligence sources say Hambali traveled to Afghanistan during the mujahedeen's struggle against the Soviet occupation, where he is believed to have established links with international militant Islamic networks.
Following Suharto's ouster in 1998, Hambali returned to Indonesia, where al Mukmin functioned as the spiritual center of a growing group of radicalized Muslim youth.
In addition to Indonesia, he is wanted in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines in connection with a series of bomb attacks in the last two years.