The Hambali dilemma

US officials are said to have offered to hand over terrorist but Indonesia is now not keen

AFTER demanding for months that the United States hand over Hambali, who is regarded as one of Asia’s most wanted terrorists, Indonesia is said to have spurned an American offer to send him back.

Senior Indonesian intelligence officials and diplomats told The Straits Times that an approach was made by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) three months ago to take back Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali.

But Indonesian officials are said to have poured cold water on the idea of repatriation because Jakarta “does not want another Bashir” on its hands.

Once described as the “Osama bin Laden of South-east Asia”, Hambali was the main link between Al-Qaeda and South-east Asia’s Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terror network that was responsible for a string of bombings in Indonesia, including the devastating Bali attack in October 2002 that killed 202 people.

Hambali was captured in a joint operation by the CIA and Thai police in 2003 and taken to an undisclosed location. There has been speculation at various junctures that he was spirited off to the US-leased British base of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean or to the Guantanamo Bay detention centre in Cuba. Recent reports have also named the Al-Jafr Prison in Jordan’s desert. But the US officials remain tight-lipped.

Lately Jakarta’s outlook seems to have changed.

“When we asked for him, the Americans snubbed us,” noted an official from Indonesia’s state intelligence agency BIN.

“We had no access to him and were given only interview transcripts by their agents that won’t hold in our legal system.

“Now, they want us to do the dirty work of prosecuting him.”

Privately, Indonesian security officials concede that it will be a difficult task convicting Hambali in Indonesia. They fear he could be let off with a mere slap on the wrist, just like Abu Bakar Bashir.

Bashir, who is alleged to be the spiritual head of JI, was released last month. He was originally sentenced to three years in prison for treason and immigration violations, but it was subsequently reduced to 20 months. Said a senior police investigator in Jakarta: “If Hambali is tried here, it’s only a matter of time that he also walks free.”

The Indonesian authorities cite two other reasons for refusing to accept Hambali.

For one, they feel his return will be too divisive in the nation which has the world’s largest Muslim population.

“Hambali will be seen as a Muslim persecuted by America in some sections of our community,” said the intelligence official.

Like the Bashir saga, the Indonesian government will have to walk a tightrope between appeasing Islamic factions in the country and international opinion.

Secondly, Jakarta believes that it has little use for Hambali now. Indeed, this was a point that Indonesia’s Ambassador to the US, Mr Sudjadnan Parnohadiningrat, was quick to highlight during a meeting with foreign correspondents here on Tuesday.

“Without Hambali in our custody, we have already arrested 300 suspected perpetrators,” he said.

This comment is significant in another respect. It underscores perhaps a shared perspective that the Indonesian Foreign Ministry (Deplu) and security agencies like BIN are holding for the first time. Previously, Deplu had long called for Hambali’s return.

Within the Washington beltway, however, insiders argue that inter-agency rivalry, especially between the CIA, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Defence Intelligence Agency, continues to affect coordination.

The CIA might have made the approach to BIN but it is possible that none of the other agencies were informed, according to a well-connected source in the US intelligence community.

In response to queries from The Straits Times, the FBI and the State Department refused comment. Attempts to contact the CIA proved futile.

A State Department official said: “We don’t have anything that we can share with anyone about the detention of and access to Hambali.

“We can tell you that the US government works closely with Indonesia on counter-terrorism issues, including sharing all information we can with their authorities regarding Hambali.”

An administration official, however, conceded that there might have been discussions “at the lower levels” between the intelligence agencies of both countries.

Indeed, the US might have just been sending feelers to Indonesia at a time when it is facing intense criticism at home and abroad on Guantanamo and other prison camps that hold suspected terrorists outside America.

President George W. Bush said last month that he would like to close down the prison camp on Cuba and, according to some Republicans, there has been considerable brainstorming in the administration on how to deal with the backlash against these camps.

One approach was to scale back such operations. And that involved returning several prisoners to their home countries.

At present, 460 people are held at Guantanamo as “enemy combatants”. In total, only 10 have been formally charged since the camp opened in early 2002.

Washington does not acknowledge that they are prisoners of war or entitled to the full protection of the Geneva Conventions.

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