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Inside The Bali Plot

11 minute read
Simon Elegant/Kuala Lumpur

The city-state of Singapore is an impeccably well-ordered place. Bubble gum, for instance, has been banned for 10 years because it is too messy. One year ago, Islamic terrorists hatched a plot to wreck the island’s placidity. They planned to bomb the U.S., Australian and Israeli embassies, Singapore government buildings, and locales where sailors from the U.S. Navy’s Seventh Fleet congregated. Singapore is well policed, however, and the plot was discovered; 13 people were arrested. But although the bombers were foiled, law-enforcement agencies around the world, still digesting the attacks of Sept. 11, recognized that a new front in the terrorists’ war had just opened in Southeast Asia.

The most brutal act of the war in Southeast Asia happened on Oct. 12, when two coordinated bombs killed, at the last count, 191 people–mainly vacationers out for a night’s dancing–in two of the bars in the village of Kuta on the Indonesian island of Bali. Since the bombings, Indonesian police have arrested 20 people said to have taken part in the plot. One of them is a man called Amrozi, who has confessed to transporting explosives to the site and was arrested a month after the bombings in his home village hundreds of miles from Bali on the island of Java. Another is Imam Samudra, allegedly one of the key planners of the attack, who was picked up on Nov. 21 after Indonesian police tracked his cell phone. TIME has discovered, however, that investigators believe the incident’s real godfathers–those described by one Western intelligence source in the region as the “top tier of the operation, not the foot soldiers or even the sergeants and captains like Samudra”–remain at large. Law-enforcement officials think that these men will prove to be the link, long suspected, between Southeast Asian terrorist groups and the international network of Meanwhile, both the nature of the terrorists’ targets and the methods they use to garner recruits have become clear.


Six weeks after the Singapore plot was foiled, according to an FBI report, a meeting of terrorists took place in a village in southern Thailand. The gathering was held at the behest of Riduan Isamuddin, a leader of an organization based in Indonesia called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that has long been suspected of acting as a cover for terrorist acts. Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, fought in Afghanistan with the anti-Soviet mujahedin in the 1980s and is wanted by authorities in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. He was last seen in January 2001, when Indonesian authorities sought his arrest for involvement in a series of bombings the previous month that left 19 dead and scores wounded.

According to the FBI account, Hambali was furious at the failure of the Singapore plot and used the meeting in Thailand to announce an abrupt change in strategy. His group would avoid the risky business of attacking “hard targets,” those located in big, well-policed cities or sites with obvious symbolic value. Instead, the terrorists would seek places where Americans or their allies went to shop, eat or vacation. Bali was the epitome of what they were aiming for; among those killed by the Kuta bombs were an estimated 75 Australians, 22 Britons and 7 Americans. Hambali may now be in Bangkok or Pakistan. But Indonesian authorities have identified a person they claim to be the new leader of the terrorist cells within JI–Ali Ghufron, a radical Islamist from the village of Tenggulun in eastern Java. Amrozi is Ali Ghufron’s younger brother.


Tenggulun is a very religious place. In 1992 two brothers of Ali Ghufron and Amrozi founded a school there to train local youngsters in Wahhabism, one of Islam’s most severely orthodox strains. Most of Tenggulun’s residents follow the more moderate Islam of Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian religious society. Rivalry between the two groups erupted in 1987, when the tomb of a local saint was burned down. The culprit was Amrozi.

The fifth of 13 siblings, Amrozi was always something of a black sheep. At a televised press conference after his arrest last month, he told Indonesian national police chief Da’i Bachtiar that he was “a naughty person, sir–that’s what my family always say about me.” Unlike his brothers, most of whom graduated from religious schools, Amrozi never got beyond junior high and was best known for roaring through Tenggulun on one of his beloved motorbikes.

Amrozi revered Ali Ghufron, who was two years older and the most devout member of the family. In the 1970s Ali Ghufron, with his brothers Ali Imron and Amin Jabir, left Tenggulun to study at Ngruki, 250 miles to the east, in a school established by Abubakar Ba’asyir, a Muslim cleric widely believed to be the spiritual leader of JI. Ba’asyir is currently detained on suspicion of being involved in the series of bombings in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta in Christmas 2000. In the mid-1980s Ali Ghufron went to study in Malaysia, and a few years later Amrozi set out to look for him. Ali Ghufron had fallen in with a group of fellow Indonesians living in Malaysia, led by Abubakar and his mentor Abdullah Sungkar, who shared poverty and a militant brand of Islam. Abubakar and Sungkar had fled Indonesia to avoid being thrown in prison by the government of President Suharto for espousing radical views.

Amrozi tracked his brother to the town of Ulu Tiram in the southern Malaysian state of Johor. By then Ali Ghufron was known as Mukhlas and was a revered teacher at a madrasah. Amrozi feared his lack of piety would not please Mukhlas. So, according to I Made Mangku Pastika, the general leading the Bali investigation, Amrozi prayed five times each day and read the Koran each night. When he felt he was ready to seek his brother’s blessing, he was brought into an Islamic school near the tiny settlement of Sungei Tiram. The school was Militant U. Among those who gathered there, according to regional intelligence officials, were Abubakar, Sungkar (who died of natural causes in 1999), Hambali and Mukhlas. The four men used the madrasah as a base for recruiting their earliest disciples. One of the first was Amrozi. “It was Mas [brother] Mukhlas who raised my awareness to fight the injustice toward Islam,” Amrozi told police.


In 1995 Amrozi was sent home and there opened a garage. Villagers say he was a changed man, always dressing in religious robes instead of the jeans he had previously favored. In 2000, police say, Amrozi was approached by Samudra for help in obtaining explosives for use in the conflict between Muslims and Christians then raging in the Indonesian city of Ambon. “I went to Surabaya and bought the materials,” Amrozi later recounted.

Meanwhile, his big brother had been even busier. He spent time in Singapore recruiting a group to conduct surveillance of possible targets for terrorist strikes. According to Singaporean police, Mukhlas employed his relatives. One of those arrested in January 2000 was Hashim bin Abbas, his brother-in-law. The team’s plans were foiled when a group of Islamic radicals associated with Hambali botched a bank robbery in a Kuala Lumpur suburb. Two of them were killed, and one was captured. Astonished Malaysian police began piecing together the world of militant Islam. More raids and arrests followed, and these led police to the Sungei Tiram madrasah, which was shut down in May 2001.

Mukhlas, forewarned, had fled back to Tenggulun. In late 2001, according to police and intelligence officials, he and Hambali traveled to Afghanistan. It is not clear if Mukhlas was at the meeting in Thailand at which Hambali announced his soft-targets strategy. But regional intelligence officials say they are certain that Hambali soon handed over day-to-day control over JI’s terrorist operations to Mukhlas. “Hambali was too well known,” a Malaysian official says. “He could still give orders, but he had to get out of the region.”

Mukhlas and Hambali, says Rohan Gunaratna, author of a leading work on al-Qaeda, are similar in style. “They are both very experienced operatives who speak little but demonstrate their thinking through action.” They share a ruthlessness in delegating the most dangerous jobs to subordinates, friends or family. Among the 19 killed by the 15 bombs that went off in Jakarta on Dec. 24, 2000, were three of Hambali’s own men. Regional intelligence officials believe that Mukhlas was intimately involved in conceiving and planning the Bali attack, although he appears to have delegated operational authority to Samudra.


Amrozi met with Samudra several times in August and September this year to discuss Bali, according to his confession to Indonesian police. The last time they met, “we had a chat after praying together at the Great Mosque in Solo,” he said to police. Samudra told Amrozi he would send some cash. Amrozi bought the van and the chemicals used in the bombing and ferried them to Bali. When he, Samudra and a number of the other planners met at the resort island, Amrozi was reminded of his place in the pecking order. “At one point I asked them where I was supposed to take the car and explosives,” Amrozi recounted. “But [Samudra] told me it was not my business anymore.” According to a source familiar with a Nov. 15 interrogation, Amrozi disclosed that the target of the group’s main bomb was changed at the last moment by the intervention of three mysterious strangers. Originally, Amrozi told his captors, the group had planned to target only the U.S. consulate in Denpasar, Bali’s capital. But the strangers suggested that only a token bomb be left at the empty consulate; the main effort was to be concentrated on the Kuta bars.

After the Bali bombings, the team dispersed. Patient police work soon led the authorities to Amrozi, who had used his own name to buy the van that carried the main bomb. Samudra, more experienced, managed to stay on the lam for five weeks, carefully limiting his cell-phone conversations to 20 seconds to foil police scanning. The latest technology, however, requires only a few seconds to trace a call, and on Nov. 21 police tracked down Samudra and nabbed two of his bodyguards. They said their boss planned to board a bus about to leave on a ferry to Pekanbaru, on the island of Sumatra. Two policemen arrested Samudra. Indonesian police say he later confessed to being the chief planner of the Bali bombings and to a string of unsolved crimes. Samudra, according to police sources, said one of the bombs that exploded in Kuta was, as he put it, a “martyr bomb,” carried by a man known as Iqbal. If that proves true, Kuta would be the first known suicide bombing in Southeast Asia. Police are currently comparing dna from more than 400 body parts found in Bali with a sample from Iqbal’s mother. Last week Malaysian authorities arrested four more suspected terrorists who they say had been trained as suicide bombers.


Regional intelligence sources tell TIME the police have few clues as to the whereabouts of three critical suspects in the Bali attack. Their identities have not yet been officially revealed, but sources tell TIME the list is headed by a Yemeni national named Syafullah, a senior al-Qaeda operative who is alleged to have been involved in the 1996 bombings of a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that killed 19 servicemen. Syafullah would provide the direct link between JI and al-Qaeda that investigators have long suspected but have been unable to prove conclusively. Also wanted are a Malaysian named Zubair, who fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and an Indonesian named Syawal, who is married to Sungkar’s daughter. Investigators believe that Syawal was an instructor at a camp on the island of Sulawesi used by al-Qaeda for training recruits.

Amrozi, now being held in Bali and possibly facing the death penalty, has shown little remorse. At a police press conference, General Pastika relayed to Amrozi’s relatives his feelings of regret for the trouble he has caused. About his victims, Amrozi had nothing to say except that he was sorry he had killed so few Americans. Australians, Britons and anyone who hangs out with them in the places where expats and vacationers congregate–the nationality hardly matters. All are now soft targets in the sights of Southeast Asia’s deadly families of terror.

–With reporting by Baradan Kuppusamy/Sungei Tiram, Zamira Loebis/Tenggulun, Mageswary Ramakhrishnan/Kuala Lumpur and Jason Tedjasukmana/Bali

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