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Ressa: Hambali the al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah link

CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa
CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa

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JAKARTA, Indonesia (CNN) -- The arrest by Thai authorities of Riduan Isamuddin, a key al Qaeda figure in Asia who is also known as Hambali, has been announced by U.S. officials.

Hambali is the suspected mastermind of Bali nightclub bombings, last week's explosion at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and possibly the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, in the United States.

CNN anchor John King spoke with CNN Jakarta Bureau Chief Maria Ressa who has closely followed investigations into terrorist activities in the Philippines, Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia.

KING: The United States believes he has a treasure trove of information on potential al Qaeda operations and other terrorist operations in Southeast Asia. U.S. officials obviously quite eager to question him.

Maria, what can you tell us about the significance of this development in terms of terrorism in your region?

RESSA: Hambali was the most wanted man in Southeast Asia. Has been, really, since 9/11. He is the key leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah, which is basically al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia.

He is the key link between Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda. In fact, according to terrorist experts and intelligence officials in the region, is the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda's leadership council. He is expected to be quite high up, perhaps the highest ranking Asian within al Qaeda's structure.

He shuttled back and forth between Southeast Asia and Pakistan. In fact, during the 9/11 attacks, he was expected to have been with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, according to interrogation reports we've got, that he was one of the planners, along with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh.

KING: And Maria, help our viewers who might be new to this issue understand the relationship, at least the suspected relationship, between the terrorist organizations in Indonesia and al Qaeda.

RESSA: Hambali's arrest is particularly significant because he is the man who connects al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. Hambali's connections go to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was al Qaeda's number three, when he was arrested in March.

Hambali's and Khalid Sheikh's relationship goes back to 1994. In fact, Hambali was also connected to the 1995 cell busted in the Philippines that had Ramsey Youssef, the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bomber.

He's long been involved in terrorism in the region but in a background scene.

For many years he was based in Malaysia, from where he coordinated many of the operations. He is the key man behind a spate of bombings in Southeast Asia beginning in the year 2000.

Perhaps the operation where Jemaah Islamiyah, al Qaeda's arm in Southeast Asia, really flexed its wings was in December of 2000. Simultaneous bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines for which Hambali has been blamed by both governments.

In addition to that, as they've answered, he was a key figure. He organized a meeting of about half a dozen al Qaeda senior leaders, who met in Malaysia in 2000, which basically was one of the first planning sessions of the 9/11 attacks.

Among the leaders who attended those meetings was the man who was believed to be the mastermind of the "USS Cole" as well as the bombing operations within Southeast Asia itself. Three of the September 11 hijackers were also at that meeting.

And later that year, Hambali's deputy was also the host for Zacarias Moussaoui, who is now on trial for September 11-related charges in the United States.

Hambali is a key figure, again, he kept the base both in Malaysia and in Pakistan. A very strong relationship with the al Qaeda leadership, the only non-Arab to sit on al Qaeda's leadership council.

KING: Am I correct in saying Indonesian authorities also believe his organization was responsible for the most recent attack on the J.W. Marriott Hotel there in Jakarta?

RESSA: Absolutely. You're absolutely correct. He has been blamed as the mastermind, not only for the Bali bombings, but just yesterday Indonesian police did say that they believe he is also involved in the J.W. Marriott bombing.

Again, this man is wanted for arrest in more than half a dozen countries in Southeast Asia. So it's going to be tough as to which government would want to prosecute him first.

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