Kuala Lumpur a Vital Hub for al-Qa'ida Strike Plans

Al-Qa'ida's South-East Asian Network

by Zachary Abuza
The Australian
December 24, 2002


In the final of three exclusive extracts from his new book, US-based terrorism expert Zachary Abuza examines the links between southeast Asia and the September 11 attacks on the US

There is substantial evidence that Malaysia was an important logistical base for Osama bin Laden's al-Qa'ida terrorist network and that some planning for the September 11 terrorist strikes on New York and Washington DC was conducted there.

Three of the September 11 hijackers -- Khalid al-Midhar, Nawaq Alhazmi and his brother Saleem Alhazmi -- were photographed and videotaped by Malaysian intelligence officials at a January 5, 2000, meeting with two suspected bin Laden lieutenants who are suspects in the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen -- Tawfiq bin Atash (aka Khallad) and Fahad al-Quso.

The FBI described Tawfiq, a Yemeni, as "the intermediary between bin Laden himself and the (USS Cole) attack planners" and "a key operative in Osama bin Laden's terrorist network". Tawfiq used travel documents with the name Salah Said.

Also present at the Kuala Lumpur meeting was Khalid Shiek Mohammed, a high level al-Qa'ida operative who helped plan the 1993 attack on New York's World Trade Centre, which killed six people. He was also involved in the Bojinka plot (the foiled 1995 plan to blow up US passenger jets over the Pacific), the USS Cole attack, as well as September 11. Another attendee was an Iraqi al-Qa'ida operative, Ahmad Hikmat Shakir. The FBI believes there were 11 people who attended the meeting in Kuala Lumpur. These are the only confirmed individuals, listed with their known involvement in certain al-Qa'ida attacks:

Tawfiq bin Atash (Khallad) -- USS Cole.

Fahad al-Quso -- USS Cole and East African embassies.

Khalid Shiek Mohammed -- 1993 World Trade Centre, Bojinka plot, USS Cole, September 11.

Ramzi bin al-Shibh -- USS Cole and September 11.

Khalid al-Midhar -- USS Cole and September 11.

Nawaq Alhazmi -- September 11.

Saleem Alhazmi -- September 11.

Ahmad Hikmat Shakir.

Riduan Isamuddin (Hambali).

This meeting was meant to plan the USS Cole bombing, the September 11 attacks and to review the failed operations to bomb Los Angeles International Airport and targets in Jordan during the millennium celebrations. Two co-conspirators in the USS Cole attack delivered money to Khallad at the Kuala Lumpur meeting for the operation.

The operatives believed Malaysia to be a secure place to hold a high-level meeting of at least five very senior bin Laden lieutenants with vast knowledge of al-Qa'ida operations, over the course of four days, from January 5-8.

After the meeting, Malaysian intelligence followed al-Midhar and Alhazmi, and searched the hard drives of computers they had used, but did not have any evidence to arrest them.

The man who escorted the two operatives was Hambali, now southeast Asia's most wanted man, and the meeting took place in the apartment of Yazid Sufaat -- both men are high-level operatives of regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah.

After the meeting, al-Midhar and Alhazmi left Malaysia, flew to Los Angeles via Bangkok and Hong Kong, respectively, on January 15, 2000. They lived openly and enrolled in a San Diego area flight school, using their real names.

The Malaysian intelligence service obviously shared the videotape and photos with the CIA. Although the CIA knew that al-Midhar had a multiple entry visa to the US, it did not put him on a terrorist watchlist or inform immigration authorities or the State Department. Indeed, al-Midhar was able to leave the country for Frankfurt on June 10, where he played a role in the attack on the USS Cole, while Alhazmi applied to extend his visa on July 7, 2001.

Following the attack on the USS Cole, Khallad was under intense investigation and on January 4 he was named as a key planner of the attacks. In July 2001, a CIA officer assigned to the FBI re-discovered a CIA cable that detailed Khallad's presence at the Kuala Lumpur meeting and sent an email to the CIA's counter-terrorism centre: "This is a major league killer, who orchestrated the Cole attack and possibly the (1998 East) Africa bombings."

The FBI discovered al-Midhar had re-entered the US on July 4, 2001. The CIA put al-Midhar and Alhazmi on a "terrorist watch list", but only on August 21, 18 months after the Kuala Lumpur meeting, causing a huge scandal in the US.

According to recent congressional testimony, the CIA learned that the two were in the US in March 2000, but did not inform the FBI. When immigration authorities were eventually informed, it was too late -- the two were already in the US. The FBI began looking for them immediately but was unable to find them.

Also at the Kuala Lumpur meeting was Ramzi bin al-Shibh. Al-Shibh was named as the missing 20th hijacker, who tried to enter the US four times. Al-Shibh, a Yemeni Imam from Hadramaut province, lived in Hamburg and shared an apartment with Mohammed Atta. The two attended Al Quds Mosque, where they were recruited by a Syrian-German, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, who trained in an al-Qa'ida camp in Afghanistan.

Zammar put Atta and al-Shibh in touch with Khalid Shiek Mohammed, who came to Hamburg in early 1999 and sent them to Afghanistan for training in 1999.

Following the Kuala Lumpur meeting, al-Shibh tried to enter the US four times, first in May 2000, using his passport and twice the passport of Agus Budiman, an Indonesian architecture student at the University of Hamburg, before he came to the US in October 2000, and perhaps unwittingly assisted many of the September 11 hijackers.

Budiman also prayed at Al Quds Mosque and became close friends with Atta, al-Shibh and another hijacker Marwan al-Shehhi, the leaders of the September 11 attacks.

Al-Shibh was related by marriage to one of the hijackers, Khalid al-Midhar.

The pilot of the hijacked plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, Ziad al-Jarrah, tried to enrol al-Shibh into the Florida Flight Training Centre in Venice, Florida.

Between August and September 2000, al-Shibh was in his native Yemen, which investigators believe also links him to the October 2000 attack on the USS Cole. Al-Shibh became a major logistical officer for the September 11 attacks and other al-Qa'ida operations.

Unable to enter the US, al-Shibh remained an important planner and financial backer of Atta. The two attended a meeting in Spain in July 2001, with a senior al-Qa'ida official, to go over the last details of the September 11 attack before Atta left for the US.

Al-Shibh wired $US6200 ($11,000) to Marwan al-Shehhi and $US14,000 to Zacarias Moussaoui, the French Moroccan who was thought to be the 20th hijacker, to pay for his flight training.

Al-Shibh fled Germany on September 5, travelling via Spain to Pakistan. He was one of the most wanted terrorists, as he attended both the Kuala Lumpur and Madrid meetings, and was captured in a shoot-out in Karachi, Pakistan, on September 11 this year.

Moussaoui, who was already in detention in the US before the attacks, raised the suspicion of federal investigators when he enrolled in a Minnesota flight school but asserted that he did not need to learn how to take off or land. Moussaoui is thought to have been recruited as the 20th hijacker once al-Shibh was denied a visa on four separate occasions into the US. Moussaoui received almost $US15,000 in two wire transfers in early August 2001 from al-Shibh; $US6300 of which was used to pay for lessons on a 747 flight simulator. He was detained on August 17, 2001, and to date is the only suspect to be indicted for the September 11 attacks.

The federal indictment against Moussaoui asserts that he received a letter from a Malaysian firm, Infocus Technology, in October 2000, that appointed him their "marketing consultant" for the US, Europe and the United Kingdom, and was signed by Sufaat.

Through this letter, he is thought to have been able to secure a visa to the US. He was paid a retainer of $US2000 per month. Infocus Technology denied having any contact with Moussaoui, much less hiring him as their marketing consultant, and asserted that the letter was a forgery.

Infocus Technology was an al-Qa'ida front company established by Sufaat, a 37-year-old Malaysian, a retired army captain and a US-educated biochemist. Yazid, who had studied at California State University in the 1980s, returned to Malaysia in 1987, becoming a biochemist. He was reproached by his family for his loss of Islamic values while abroad and began attending prayer sessions when he came into contact with a militant preacher Riduan Isamuddin, aka Hambali. Hambali was in charge of setting up a large al-Qa'ida cell in the region, the Jemaah Islamiah, and recruited Sufaat. In June 2001, Sufaat travelled to Afghanistan, where he was trained by al-Qa'ida. He was arrested in mid-September 2001, when he tried to return to Malaysia from Afghanistan. He established another front company for al-Qa'ida, Green Laboratory Medicine.

Infocus Technology hired Moussaoui as a marketing consultant and was able to get him a visa to the US. Infocus was to pay Moussaoui a lump sum of $US35,000 and then a monthly stipend of $US2500. Sufaat has told Malaysian investigators that the money was actually never paid.

Moussaoui was in Malaysia twice, first in September 2000 and then October 2000. There Moussaoui hoped to enter flight school, but was disappointed when he could not receive jumbo jet training and decided to go to America for training.

Moreover, it was at Sufaat's Kuala Lumpur apartment where the major al-Qa'ida meeting between key bin Laden lieutenants, Tawfiq bin Atash, Khalid al-Midhar and Nawaq Alhazmi and al-Shibh, occurred on January 5 2001.

Some concluding thoughts:

One of the things that al-Qa'ida managed to do so successfully in southeast Asia was to graft on to, or co-opt, pre-existing radicals, radical movements and groups.

This raises two large and disturbing issues. The first is at what point did parochial radicals, who had otherwise been concerned with a localised political grievance, become internationalists? At what point did they take their struggle to the next higher level? And how did that process occur?

The second issue is in what way does being linked to an organisation like al-Qa'ida affect a movement such as the Philippines separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which otherwise enjoys considerable popular support and has a high degree of political legitimacy? Does it take away from a national liberation group when it crosses the line and engages in, or supports, international terrorism?

Dr Zachary Abuza is a professor of international relations at Simmons College in Boston. This is an extract from his forthcoming book, Terrorism and Radical Islam in Southeast Asia, to be published by Lynne Rienner early in 2003. An abridged version will appear in the December edition of Contemporary Southeast Asia

Copyright 2002 Nationwide News Pty Limited

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