AYUTTHAYA, Thailand – Residents of this ancient Buddhist temple city tipped off Thai police about a suspicious foreigner, leading to the capture of Al Qaeda's (search) Asian mastermind, known as Hambali, officials said Friday.
Hambali (search), an Indonesian whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin, has been taken to an undisclosed location for interrogation by American officials, hoping to find out how much success he had in what is believed to be one of his main roles: recruiting new pilots for suicide attacks in the United States.
Several Southeast Asian governments said they also wanted to question the man believed to be the operational head of Jemaah Islamiyah (search), a terrorist network affiliated with Al Qaeda responsible for a string of bombings and plots around the region.
The capture, in what the White House said was a joint raid by CIA (search) agents and local authorities, was a major victory for the U.S.-led war on terror.
"He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom," President Bush said Thursday during a speech to troops at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif. "And neither are nearly two-thirds of known senior Al Qaeda leaders, operational managers and key facilitators who have been captured or have been killed."
The search came to an end at an apartment building on the outskirts of Ayutthaya, a city only an hour's drive north of Thailand's capital, Bangkok, and a major tourist attraction with its dozens of ancient Buddhist temples.
Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (search) said Hambali was arrested after a tip off from Ayutthaya residents.
"We arrested the suspect after people notified police about the appearance of the foreigner. And after we checked his passport we found that he's the one that's wanted by several countries," Thaksin said during a visit to Sri Lanka on Friday, according to Thailand's state radio network.
Plainclothes officers smashed down the door of Hambali's one-room apartment Monday night and took him away after a violent struggle, residents in the building told The Associated Press. Hambali had lived in the building, where all the other residents are Buddhists, for only two weeks, they said.
A woman who lives across the hall from his apartment said she was returning home from work when she saw police massed outside his door. She hurried to her apartment, locked herself in and listened.
"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, refusing to give her name.
Another woman in the building identified a picture of Hambali as the man who lived in the apartment. She also spoke on condition of anonymity.
Hambali, 39, seen as Usama bin Laden's pointman in the region, is suspected of a role in a number of attacks blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah, including the Aug. 5 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people and the October bombings of nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali that killed more than 200 people.
"He transformed the organization (Jemaah Islamiyah) into one that resembled Al Qaeda," said terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, the author of "Inside Al Qaeda."
Jemaah Islamiyah is also believed to be behind a foiled plot to bomb Western targets in Singapore in late 2001, and a series of church bombings in Indonesia and the Philippines in December 2000.
Authorities also say Hambali is connected to the Sept. 11 plot, although whether he played a direct role is unclear.
In January 2000, Hambali had one of his deputies host meetings between two eventual Sept. 11 hijackers, Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi, and a high-ranking Al Qaeda figure who organized the bombing of the USS Cole (search), at his apartment in Malaysia in January 2000.
A top Al Qaeda detainee has also told U.S. interrogators of Hambali's assignment to find more suicide hijackers not long after the Sept. 11 attacks, a senior Bush administration official said. Other sources confirmed his efforts. Hambali also received money this year from an Al Qaeda operative in Pakistan, the official said.
A U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said it is unclear how successful his recruiting drive was, but that he will be interrogated on the matter.
Hambali's current whereabouts remained unclear. A Thai military source said he was flown to Indonesia on Wednesday, but Bali's police chief, Maj. Gen. I Made Pastika who led the investigation into the nightclub bombings said he was in U.S. custody and had not been brought to Indonesia.
Many in Southeast Asia expressed concern his arrest could trigger a wave of Jemaah revenge attacks.
Hours after the catch was announced, Indonesian police separately said a suspect in the Marriott blasts was arrested outside of Jakarta, but they did not identify him.
Hambali is also wanted by Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines.
Indonesian Foreign Minister Hasan Wirayuda said his government would ask Washington send Hambali to Indonesia to face trial in Bali even though Indonesia has no extradition treaty with the United States.
"Many countries want him, not just us, because he is linked with international terrorist acts," he said
Malaysia said Friday it wants to interrogate Hambali. "Of course we are very keen for him (Hambali) to assist us in our investigations," Inspector General of Police Norian Mai said.
His arrest is "a giant leap, it's a big victory for counterterrorism," said Rodolfo Mendoza, a former Philippine police intelligence officer who tracked Hambali's movements in Manila in the mid-1990s.
But for Al Qaeda, "there will be no vacuum ... because there are second-liners who can replace him immediately," he said.
Thai authorities are believed to have known Hambali was in Thailand in January last year, where he planned the Oct. 12 Bali bombings at a meeting in Bangkok. Since then, according to The Nation's intelligence sources, he had returned to Thailand twice trying to evade an international police manhunt.