The bomb maker was the Indonesian Moro Islamic Liberation Front–trained JI operative Rohman al-Ghozi. Cooperation between Singapore and Philippines intelligence led to Ghozi’s arrest in Manila on January 15, 2002, as he tried to board a flight to Bangkok. He was on his way to pick up funds from JI leaders for the purchase of explosives meant for an attack in Singapore.
JI had other bomb makers, including a Malaysian called Azahari Husin, and Hambali called for a meeting in Bangkok in early February 2002. Also present were Indonesian JI leaders Mukhlas (Huda bin Abdul Haq) and Zulkifli Marzuki, and Malaysian JI leaders Wan Min bin Wan Mat and Noordin M. Top.
They discussed small-scale bombings in bars, cafés, and nightclubs frequented by Westerners in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines, and Indonesia. After debating the locations, the group decided to target the Indonesian tourist resort island of Bali for maximum impact.
After the Bangkok meeting, Hambali sent Mukhlas $35,500 through Wan Min, and Mukhlas roped in his brothers Amrozi and Ali Imron for the operation. Ali Imron, a bomb maker who had taught weapons handling in an al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, later told me that while he didn’t know Hambali well, and he wasn’t his usual commander, he had agreed to join the operation because his brother Mukhlas trusted him.
On the evening of October 12, 2002, Ali Imron placed a box-shaped bomb on the sidewalk outside the U.S. Consulate in Denpasar, the provincial capital of Bali, and then drove a Mitsubishi L-300 van packed with a ton of potassium chlorate and 20 kilograms of TNT to the junction of Legian Street in the tourist hub of Kuta, where another man took the vehicle. Just after 11:00 PM, a cell phone call activated the bomb outside the U.S. Consulate, injuring a passerby, but no one in Kuta heard anything beyond the pop music pulsating out of pubs. The party was in full swing in Paddy’s Pub when a young Indonesian man walked in, looked around, and detonated his vest bomb.
As survivors stumbled outside to escape the fireball, the man who had taken the car from Ali Imron drove his mobile bomb to the front of the Sari Club and pressed the detonator.
A total of 202 people died in Bali that night: 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 Brits, 7 Americans, 6 Germans, 5 Swedes, and 32 nationals from 17 other countries. Two bodies were never identified.
Ali Imron, along with the cell’s operation commander, Imam Samudra, and the rest of the attackers, left Bali the next day. Indonesian police, now focused on the threat and aided by the countries whose citizens had lost their lives, discovered the chassis of the Mitsubishi L-300 at the blast site, leading to the first break: the van had been sold to Mukhlas’s brother Amrozi. His name was familiar to Indonesian investigator Benny Mamoto, as he had heard about him from the ISD when he had come to interview the Singapore JI detainees months earlier. Amrozi’s arrest, in the East Java village of Lamongan, gave Indonesian police key documents and a list of cell phone numbers that were traced to other members of the network, and by July 2003, more than eighty-three suspects were under arrest, and Hambali was on the run.
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Hambali told the Thai Special Branch about his brother, Rusman Gunawan, also known as Gun Gun, who was with a cell in Pakistan called al-Ghuraba: “the foreigners” in Arabic (they weren’t from Pakistan). On September 18, members of that cell—thirteen Malaysians and five Indonesians—were arrested. The thirteen Malaysians, aged between seventeen and twenty-five, were enrolled at Abu Bakr Islamic University and Madrasah Jamiat Dirasat, the latter a religious school controlled by Lashkar-e-Taiba. Investigations showed that many of them were products of Luqmanul Hakiem, a JI-run religious school in Ulu Tiram, closed down by the Malaysian authorities in early 2002.
Many of the students were trained in both religious studies and military and terrorist skills, and were being groomed to be the next generation of JI leaders. A few had traveled to Afghanistan for guerrilla training some months before 9/11 and had met bin Laden in Kandahar. As it turned out, the cell had not yet committed any acts and weren’t plotting anything; they were training and studying. In November the eighteen students were repatriated to their home countries.
On February 9, 2006, Fran Townsend, assistant to President George W. Bush for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism, previously in the Department of Justice, told reporters in a press briefing that after 9/11, KSM planned to launch a West Coast plot, aiming to hit the tallest building on that side of the United States. During a hearing at Guantánamo Bay in March 2007, KSM revealed that the intended target was the Library Tower in central Los Angeles. He had worked with Hambali and recruited four members for the cell, and he trained the leader in shoe-bombing techniques. Townsend stated: “The cell leader was arrested in February of 2002… at that point, the other members of the cell believed that the West Coast plot [had] been canceled, was not going forward.”
A May 23, 2007, White House “Fact Sheet” echoed that the plot was foiled in 2002: “In 2002, we broke up a plot by KSM to hijack an airplane and fly it into the tallest building on the West Coast.”
Advocates of the coercive interrogation methods authorized by the Bush administration later claimed that it was their use on KSM that prevented the West Coast attack. The problem with this argument is that KSM was arrested in March 2003, long after the plot had been derailed. KSM, practicing classic counterinterrogation techniques, told interrogators about that plot, leaving them to think he was cooperating, but in reality he was giving information that was outdated. The plot was over: the then cell leader had been captured, as Townsend noted.
In a declassified memo entitled “Detainee Reporting Pivotal for the War Against Al-Qai’da,” the CIA claimed that in March 2003 KSM gave information on Majid Khan, who in turn gave up information. “Based on that information, Zubair was captured in June 2003.” The memo then claims, “We used the information Zubair provided to track down and arrest Hambali.” To put it charitably, this is a loose interpretation of what happened.
The memo also tries to boost the importance of Gun Gun and the al-Ghuraba cell, stating: “Hambali admitted that some members of the [Pakistani] cell were eventually to be groomed for U.S. operations—at the behest of KSM—possibly as part of KSM’s plot to fly hijacked planes into the tallest building on the U.S. west coast.” This “eventually” and “possibly” was the best that analysts could conclude, despite 183 sessions of waterboarding, the coercive interrogation technique that simulates drowning. The reality is that the al-Ghuraba cell wasn’t involved, which is why the United States didn’t request the arrest of its members and they were sent to their home countries.
And while KSM was “confessing” to plots already thwarted, and those running the EIT program thought that this was important news, he didn’t tell them about plots that hadn’t yet happened but which he definitely knew about because of his position as al-Qaeda’s military commander, such as the cells working in Madrid, London, and Jakarta. Pleased with the success of the first Bali attack, in October 2002, KSM gave Hambali $100,000 as “a sign of congratulations” and another $30,000 for further operations. Hambali gave the money to Noordin Top and the bomb maker Azahari Husin to fund the bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on August 5, 2003, approximately five months after KSM was arrested.