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Osama bin Laden's Asian disciples

How Al Qaeda courted Asians, not Arabs, for 9/11’s would-be sister attack.

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A Thai Muslim boy reads the Quran. (Muhammad Sabri/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGKOK, Thailand — With Osama bin Laden’s killing in Pakistan, so goes the opportunity to make him answer for Al Qaeda’s wrongdoings in court.

That distinction will largely fall to bin Laden’s consigliere, the Kuwait-born Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or “KSM,” a confessed architect of the World Trade Center attacks. The U.S. has just recently announced that his military trial will take place soon at Guantanamo Bay detention center, his prison since 2006.

But the coming Guantanamo trials will also include a lesser-known band of operatives who swore allegiance to bin Laden: two Malaysians and one Indonesian.

They are Guantanamo’s only Asian prisoners, recruited in part to elude U.S. agents focused on monitoring Arabs.

Their Al Qaeda-funded mission was to stage Sept. 11-style jet attacks in California, kill American backpackers in Southeast Asia and down an Israeli jetliner in Bangkok with a Soviet missile supplied by Cambodian gun runners. One hoped to marry four women, have 12 kids by each and build a small army of jihadis like himself.

Bin Laden’s Asian disciples aren’t widely known in the U.S. But their failed plot is core to the CIA’s defense of an infamous and politicized interrogation technique: water boarding.

While some experts claim the cell’s “West Coast Plot” was an Al Qaeda fantasy, former President George W. Bush and others contend it was a life-or-death scenario revealed only through harsh interrogation.

Coming trials may help answer just how close Osama’s Asian operatives came to destroying their wish list of targets. Interrogation files, leaked from Guantanamo Bay via Wikileaks, offer a preview of the proceedings and a look at how bin Laden’s network extended into unlikely corners of Asia.

Who ran Al Qaeda's Asian cell?

The cell’s leader was 47-year-old Indonesian Riduan Isomuddin, better known as “Hambali.” The plump-faced ideologue gained jihadi credibility by traveling to Afghanistan in the 1980s to resist the Soviet invasion.

He later lived discreetly in a spartan rented shack in Malaysia and traveled Southeast Asia as a missionary spreading Islamic extremism.

In the early 1990s, his charisma helped him climb the ranks of Jemaah Islamiyah, then Southeast Asia’s most feared jihadi network. By the late 1990s, his ties to jihadi mastermind KSM and bin Laden established Hambali as Al Qaeda’s point man in Southeast Asia.

Through Hambali, the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah network became an Al Qaeda affiliate, offering up some of its better Asian jihadis on an ad hoc basis for training. Al Qaeda offered cash support — sometimes as much as $130,000 at a time — and assigned targets.

Hambali is now detained at Guantanamo with his two Malaysian lieutenants: 34-year-old Bashir Lap, who goes by “Lillie,” and 36-year-old Mohammed Farik Bin Amin.

This pair of technical school graduates met while working at a Kuala Lumpur architecture firm, where ex-soldier Lillie was a draftsman. At various points, both struggled to find steady pay and drifted towards hardline Islamic literature.

In 2000, they sought out Hambali at a Kuala Lumpur mosque speech. Later that year, they were shuttled to Afghanistan for extensive combat and explosives training. They eventually swore an in-person allegiance oath to bin Laden and were groomed for suicide missions.

What were their targets?

According to Defense Department interrogation documents posted by Wikileaks, the cell plotted to bomb U.S., U.K. and Israeli tourists and embassies in Thailand, Malaysia and Cambodia.

One of their more dramatic plans involved shooting down an Israeli El-Al Airlines plane as it landed at Bangkok’s Don Muang airport.

Documents reveal they lined up the purchase a Russian SA-7 shoulder-fired, heat-seeking missile from a Cambodian weapons dealer for $20,000. The plan fizzled, however, when the dealer explained they’d have to buy the weapon’s grip stock in Burma, where their contacts were nil.

Defeated, the crew considered simply bombing the airline’s busy check-in counter or airport shuttle vans.

Another plot, according to the interrogation files, focused on bombing an Exxon or Chevron-owned Caltex pipeline in Malaysia’s Malacca Strait, a major oil transport choke point. The group also cased Bangkok’s Khao San backpacker mecca.

In the coming trials, U.S. prosecutors are expected to argue that Hambali is directly responsible for the 2002 suicide bombings in Bali that left 202 dead including dozens of Australian tourists. He is also believed to have played a role in the 2003 Jakarta bombing of a Marriott Hotel frequented by U.S. Embassy staff. The blast killed 12 people.

What is the West Coast Plot?

In the eyes of KSM, his Asia operatives’ highest calling was the “West Coast Plot.”

He had hoped the jihadis could hijack U.S.-bound planes leaving Asia to hit the tallest building in California on the same day the World Trade Center fell, according to the transcript of a pre-trial Guantanamo hearing.

While confessing to this plot, KSM also noted he’d hoped to attack Chicago’s Sears Tower, assassinate former President Jimmy Carter and murder tourists in Thailand.

In broken English, he justified his plans: “We derive from religious leading that we consider we and George Washington doing same thing. As consider George Washington as hero, Muslims, many of them, considering Osama bin Laden. He is doing same thing. He is just fighting.”

KSM’s dream of an Asia-based terror plot relying on commercial jets traces back to the “Bojinka Plot” of the mid-1990s.

The Al Qaeda plan involved locating multi-leg, U.S.-bound flights with layovers in Asia. Al Qaeda operatives would board the planes’ first legs and attach time bombs beneath seats. During layovers in Asia, the operatives would exit the plane, leaving behind explosives set to detonate over the Pacific Ocean.