Nabbed! … with cash, bombs and fake Spanish passport

Despite Hambali’s low profile, neighbours felt something was amiss.

A simple tip-off from Thai villagers and Asia’s most wanted man was nabbed.

Hambali’s mastery of cloak-and-dagger methods, culled from years of experience with the Al-Qaeda terror network, did not work this time around as he fell into the clutches of Thai Special Branch officers working with the CIA.

The 37-year-old son of a peasant farmer and Osama bin Laden’s point man in Asia, Hambali crossed into Thailand last week from Laos using a fake Spanish passport.

With his wife, he travelled from the Chiang Khong border district in the northern province of Chiang Rai to hide among the Muslim community in Ayutthaya.

The quiet Muslim foreigner, a new tenant in Room 601 of the newly built Boonyarak apartment building, was seen only in the evenings buying groceries and vegetables at nearby shops. There seemed to be nothing special about him, AP reported.

But villagers in the area still felt something was amiss.

They tipped off the Thai authorities that there were strangers living in their area.

Intelligence officials, after checking his background, found out that ‘he was the one the whole world was looking for’.

A woman who lived opposite 601 told AP that when she returned from her factory job around 11pm on Monday, she saw 10 policemen outside the pink-and-orange building.

She took the lift to the sixth floor and saw another 10 officers outside Room 601, knocking on the door.

Realising something was wrong, she hurried into her apartment and locked herself in. Then she sat down and listened attentively, AP said.

‘I just sat there and listened. The men would knock and wait. Knock and wait. This went on for a long time,’ said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

‘Suddenly, there was a commotion and I heard the sound of hammering on the door followed by sounds of punches – thuk, thuk, thuk,’ she said.

Hambali, clean-shaven and with his features altered by plastic surgery, tried to resist arrest by drawing out a pistol, but security agents overpowered him.

Residents said yesterday they were stunned to hear that their well-behaved neighbour was Asia’s most wanted fugitive – Hambali, the chief operative of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah that is accused of masterminding a string of bombings in the region, with links to the Sept 11 attackers.

The raid yielded more than just Hambali. The bomb maker had with him explosives and special bomb devices. He confessed that he wanted to use them for the upcoming Apec meeting in Thailand.

The security authorities also found 1.3 million baht (S$52,000) in cash and a current account balance of US$130,000 (S$230,000) in the latest bank statement he kept in a file.

The money, officials believe, was aimed at galvanising a team of terrorists for the Apec attack and strikes in the region over the next four months.

The Thais handed him over to the officials from the American FBI, who moved him to an undisclosed location in the country for investigation.

The security authorities have been on his trail for some time. Hambali, whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, had evaded police for years, travelling between Indonesia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Thailand and Malaysia.

The search for him intensified in recent months after Washington received information from a top Al-Qaeda detainee that a large sum of money was given to Hambali to carry out a terrorist strike.

Another detainee said that Hambali had recently tried to recruit pilots in a hijacking plot using commercial aircraft against unidentified targets.

Increasingly, Thailand became the centre of inquiry.

A senior Thai national security official said he was believed to be hiding in Bangkok, where he had planned last October’s Bali blasts at a meeting last February. But reports later suggested that he was in Cambodia.

Intelligence sources said that Thai counter terrorism officials – acting on a tip-off from American security agencies – had been on his trail after capturing an Iraqi national who he was using as an intermediary to help him secure a visa to enter Thailand.

Hambali was said to be carrying a fake Spanish passport with a ‘long and confusing name’.

The interrogation of the Iraqi gave them a few key clues – one of which was Hambali’s plan to cross the Cambodian border into Thailand.

The security radar was on high alert when he entered the country – albeit with a new face, quite different from the bearded look he once had.

But this time, he was not so lucky and fell prey to a most unusual adversary – villagers who suspected he was up to something but had no idea who he was.

His luck ran out and the law caught up with him.

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