Indonesian Cleric Had Role in Skyjackings, Officials Say

Terror: In Malaysia, a jailed Cal State graduate helps unravel Al Qaeda's Southeast Asia network

by Mark Fineman and Bob Drogin
The Los Angeles Times
February 2, 2002


KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - A Cal State graduate from Malaysia has led authorities here to conclude that a Muslim cleric from Indonesia ran terror operations for Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia and played a role in the Sept. 11 skyjackings.

Officials said Yazid Sufaat, who has a 1987 bachelor's degree in biological sciences from California State University, Sacramento, has cooperated with authorities since he was arrested Dec. 9 as he returned from apparently serving in a Taliban medical brigade in Afghanistan.

Law enforcement and intelligence officials said Sufaat identified the alleged regional terrorism chief as Riduan Isamuddin, who is also known as Hambali. Sufaat also is helping them unravel the logistics and operations of a network that was far larger--and far more dangerous--than U.S. officials suspected.

Officials said Hambali, who remains at large, used Malaysia's modern infrastructure, bustling economy and numerous Muslim organizations to hide a way station for Osama bin Laden's loose-knit global army--a place to help future suicide skyjackers in transit, to forge identification letters and to purchase explosives.

FBI Director Robert Mueller said for the first time publicly Thursday that Al Qaeda operatives in Malaysia took part in planning the Sept. 11 attacks. Evidence previously pointed to operatives in Hamburg, Germany, and financial conduits in the United Arab Emirates.

Hambali left Malaysia shortly before Sept. 11, officials here said, and his precise role remains unclear. Officials believe that he returned to Indonesia, home to another cleric who authorities in Malaysia and Singapore say is the network's spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir.

One Malaysian official compared their roles to that of top members of the Mafia. "If Abu Bakar is the godfather, Hambali is the consiglieri," or chief advisor and operational director, the official said. Abu Bakar has declared Bin Laden to be "a true Muslim fighter" but denied any terrorist ties.

Officials describe Sufaat as a foot soldier who provided housing and false identification letters and helped obtain explosives.

The officials said, for example, that Hambali instructed Sufaat to play host to two of the Sept. 11 skyjackers in January 2000, as well as Zacarias Moussaoui, a French citizen who has been indicted in Virginia for his alleged participation in the plot.

Sufaat's signature also appears on a phony letter that the FBI found in Moussaoui's apartment after his arrest in August. The letter, which Moussaoui apparently obtained during one of two visits here in September and October 2000, appointed Moussaoui marketing representative in North America and Europe for a computer technology company called Infocus Tech, Malaysia. It was signed, "Yazid Sufaat, Managing Director."

Wife Calls Allegations Against Sufaat 'Wrong'

Documents on file here indicate that the ownership of Infocus is obscured in a complex web of companies. But they show clearly that Sufaat's wife, Sejahratul Dursina, also known as Chomel Sufaat, is a significant shareholder, with at least 20% of the 500,000 outstanding shares.

She declined to be interviewed. On Friday night, she made a statement to a Malaysian Internet news service staunchly defending her husband, who was ordered detained for two years earlier in the day.

"I strongly deny these allegations against him. They are baseless, wrong and outrageous," she told Malaysiakini.

Saiful Kasri, the lawyer retained by Infocus, said this week that the company is a "100% legitimate" importer of U.S. computer software and hardware and has partnerships with U.S. companies that were jeopardized by the indictment.

"Yazid Sufaat has nothing to do with the company," Kasri said. "He is neither a director, employee nor shareholder."

Malaysian officials said their investigation convinced them that Infocus Tech and its real managing director--as well as Sufaat's wife--are not suspected of wrongdoing.

Published reports this week quoted the FBI as alleging that Sufaat also gave Moussaoui the $35,000 that Moussaoui declared when he flew into Chicago from London last February. Malaysian officials said Sufaat has denied that.

"No money whatsoever changed hands," a Malaysian official said, quoting Sufaat.

The official said that "in fact, we believe that Sufaat had no knowledge of what they were planning--neither Moussaoui nor the hijackers who stayed at his condo the previous January."

"The only thing that Sufaat found peculiar during his visit was that Moussaoui asked him if there were any flight schools nearby," the official added.

When Moussaoui learned that the only school was hours away, he left Malaysia. "We assume he may have also been scouting the region for flying schools and he decided it was easiest to do in America," the official said.

Moussaoui was arrested in Minnesota for alleged visa violations Aug. 17 after instructors at a local flight school told the FBI that they were suspicious of his demands to learn to use a Boeing 747 simulator even though he had flunked out of another school's course for beginning pilots.

He was indicted Dec. 11 on conspiracy charges resulting from his alleged numerous links to the Sept. 11 skyjackers and their handlers. His trial is scheduled for this fall.

Officials said Hambali instructed Sufaat to play host to two future Sept. 11 skyjackers, Khalid Almihdhar and Nawaf Alhazmi, for three days in January 2000. Their presence in Malaysia already has been reported, but Sufaat has provided authorities with new details.

Local officials said U.S. authorities had asked Malaysian intelligence to watch for a group of suspected Arab terrorists who might be entering the country in 2000. The CIA asked the authorities to only record and watch their movements, not to arrest them.

Those suspects, as well as Almihdhar and Alhazmi, arrived in Kuala Lumpur on Jan. 5, 2000, and Malaysian agents tracked them 20 miles south to a secluded and well-kept condominium complex called Evergreen Park.

The group stayed in Sufaat's modest three-room, two-bath weekend retreat next to a country club and 18-hole golf course designed by Jack Nicklaus. Malaysian officials said they immediately gave surveillance photos of the group to U.S. intelligence.

CIA officials have said they determined only last summer that the meeting was important, when they identified one person in the photos as a possible suspect in the bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Yemen in October.

As a result, they warned the FBI and U.S. immigration officials to watch for Almihdhar and Alhazmi, but it was then determined that they already had entered the United States. The two men are believed to have helped commandeer American Airlines Flight 77 and crashed it into the Pentagon.

Visits to Malaysia to Enlist Support

Officials said Hambali used his frequent visits to Malaysia to enlist support for a campaign to create a strict Islamic state comprising the Malaysian peninsula, Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

He did so, they said, by using local clerics who preached the severe, anti-Western brand of Islam espoused by the Taliban. The gatherings took place in private homes, or small, little-known Muslim schools.

Sufaat had gone to California in the early 1980s, first enrolling at Humboldt State University and later transferring to Sacramento. University records indicate that he was born Jan. 20, 1964.

He graduated in 1987 with a bachelor's degree in biological sciences, concentrating on clinical laboratory technology, with a minor in chemistry. He is remembered by the few teachers who recall him as an average student. He met his wife, who is also Malaysian, while in California.

When he returned home, his mother-in-law didn't approve of his capitalist ambitions and secular liberalism and insisted that he attend religious classes. Many young Malaysians returning to this moderate Islamic nation from the West do so.

Sufaat studied with someone who later introduced him to Hambali, and Sufaat gradually became a disciple.

"I would put it this way: If Hambali was the travel agent, Sufaat was the guy at the airport holding up the sign," said a Malaysian official, who asked not to be identified.

In nearly two months of interrogations, Sufaat has provided details that have helped officials begin to understand Hambali's leadership of Jemaah Islamiah, a network with cells in Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Other details have come from more than 40 others detained, including cabdrivers, factory workers, accountants and corporate executives.

After returning from California, Sufaat's life was anything but remarkable. He initially joined the Malaysian army, where he was a lab technician assigned to a medical brigade. After five years, he left the service with the rank of captain and worked for a civilian laboratory.

In August 1993, he set up his own company, Green Laboratory Medicine. Corporate records show that Sufaat owns half the 220,000 shares in the company, which thrived on government subcontracts to test the blood and urine of foreign workers and state employees for drug use.

Sufaat's wife helped establish Infocus Tech in 1995.

They lived in a quiet suburban enclave, in a modest yellow-brick row house on a block-long street called Diamond Lane. They had four children, hired an Indonesian maid and drew no attention from police.

Suspect 'Was Already on Our Radar Screen'

Even after Malaysian authorities tracked the future skyjackers and other suspected terrorists to his condo, Sufaat drew only a little scrutiny.

"Sufaat was already on our radar screen, but he really became interesting after Sept. 11," a Malaysian official said, "after the FBI found the letter in Moussaoui's apartment."

But by then, Sufaat was gone. His wife, through attorney Kasri and human rights investigators, said Sufaat went to Pakistan last June because he wanted to do his doctorate in pathology at the University of Karachi. He needed the degree, she said, to meet new Malaysian government standards for drug-testing subcontractors.

Malaysian officials said they are convinced that Sufaat spent much of last fall in Afghanistan, serving in a Taliban medical brigade.

In any case, Malaysian intelligence was ready when Sufaat crossed the Thai border to Malaysia on Dec. 9. "We had a complete profile of Sufaat by the time he came home," one official said.

Sufaat has been imprisoned under a law that, in effect, allows Malaysian authorities to detain a suspected subversive indefinitely without formal charges.

Malaysian officials said Sufaat acknowledged his role soon after his arrest. He helped Malaysian and Singaporean authorities break up a cell that plotted to attack U.S. military and commercial targets in Singapore, as well as several embassies there, they said.

They said Sufaat also admitted that his Green Laboratory was used as a conduit to purchase 4 tons of ammonium nitrate to build a truck bomb for the Singapore cell--ingredients that authorities now believe are stored on the Indonesian island of Batam a short ferry ride from Singapore.

Fineman reported from Kuala Lumpur and Drogin from Washington. Times staff writer Eric Bailey in Sacramento contributed to this report.


Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times

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