Reputed Terrorist Didn’t ‘Fit In’ With Thai Neighbors

Times Staff Writer

There was something odd about the man in Apartment 601. Short, chubby and wearing glasses, he seldom came out. When he did, it was usually after dark.

He avoided eye contact and rarely talked to his neighbors. But despite his quiet ways, he seemed to draw attention to himself. In this working-class Thai neighborhood in a town 50 miles north of Bangkok, he was a rarity: a foreigner and a Muslim.

A few weeks after he arrived in Ayutthaya, a resident became suspicious and contacted authorities, the government said. On Monday night, police smashed through the door of his apartment and arrested the most wanted man in Southeast Asia -- the reputed Indonesian terrorist known as Hambali.


After more than two years on the run, Hambali had run out of places to hide. There were no bodyguards, no escape route from his $80-a-month apartment. The man dubbed the Osama bin Laden of the East was whisked away by Thai police and handed over to U.S. agents.

His capture was such a triumph that President Bush announced it personally Thursday during a stop in San Diego.

The Muslim cleric, who was born Encep Nurjaman and later became Riduan Isamuddin, is believed to be a leading member of Al Qaeda and the operations chief of the Southeast Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiah. He also is alleged to be the brains behind numerous acts of terror, including the Aug. 5 hotel bombing in Jakarta, Indonesia, and the nightclub bombing last October in Bali. The two attacks killed 214 people and injured hundreds.

During his final weeks of freedom, Hambali hardly seemed to fit the profile of a terrorist as he walked around the neighborhood by himself in shorts and a T-shirt.

“I was shocked when I heard his story because he seemed quite harmless,” said Karuna Domrongsukkij, who served him a dinner of chicken fried rice at her small cafe a few weeks ago. “He doesn’t look like a terrorist.”

Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra told reporters Friday during a visit to Sri Lanka that neighbors had tipped off authorities to the foreigner with the stubbly beard and distinctive, round glasses.

“We received tipoffs from local people that there were strange-looking people staying around there,” the prime minister said. “So we checked their background and passports and realized that they were the people we were looking for.”

Thai and U.S. officials have revealed few details of Hambali’s arrest or his current whereabouts. U.S. authorities say only that he is in their custody at an undisclosed location.

During a news conference Friday evening on his return to Bangkok, Thaksin declined to offer details of the arrest, apparently out of concern that Thailand’s image would suffer among tourists and foreign investors.

He dismissed reports that Hambali was in Thailand to plan terrorist strikes for October, when Bush and 20 other heads of state will be in Bangkok for an Asia-Pacific leaders meeting.

In June and July, four terrorist suspects allegedly connected with Jemaah Islamiah were arrested in Thailand, accused of plotting to blow up embassies and tourist resorts in an attempt to embarrass Bush during the October meeting.

But Thaksin also played down the possibility that some of Hambali’s confederates might be on the loose in the country. “There are no terrorists in Thailand right now,” Thaksin said.

Thaksin said Thailand arrested Hambali because it was doing its part under a United Nations agreement to crack down on terrorism -- not because it feared attacks on its own soil.

“We are not really involved in that war but we do our duty,” he said.

The lack of information released by the authorities has prompted a wave of rumors. One report said Hambali had been handed over to Indonesia, a claim that was subsequently denied. Another said Hambali had undergone plastic surgery to change his appearance. If so, perhaps he should have chosen a different doctor. His neighbors said he looked just like a picture of him from the 1990s that was shown on TV after his arrest.

Another report said Hambali had been arrested with his wife and two men. That report could not be verified.

The town of Ayutthaya, about a 40-minute drive from Bangkok International Airport, seems an unlikely hiding place for an Islamic terrorist. Mostly Buddhist, it is famous for its historic temples and is a popular getaway destination for Bangkok residents.

The relatively new seven-story building where Hambali lived was in a bustling neighborhood just off the main road. He was staying in a corner apartment with a small balcony on the sixth floor.

Neighbors were well aware of Monday night’s police raid but only learned who their neighbor was Friday, when word of Hambali’s arrest hit newspapers and television.

Residents said 601 was rented about six weeks ago by a tall, dark foreigner, most likely Malaysian or Indonesian.

Soon, neighbors noticed that the short, chubby man also was living there. None of those interviewed by The Times remembered seeing a woman or a third man there.

One neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she lives on the same floor as Hambali and saw him occasionally in the corridor. “He seldom came out,” she said. “He was here for a month. Whenever I saw him he would try to avoid people. He was always trying to avoid eye contact.”

Another woman said she sometimes saw Hambali leaving the building at dusk in his shorts and T-shirt, but she never spoke with him.

“He didn’t fit in at all. Normally there are only Thais in this neighborhood,” she said. “But I wasn’t afraid of him. He looked like a normal person. He didn’t look like someone who would kill people.”