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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.

A 1994 trial run failed to destroy a Philippine Airlines plane entirely but killed a Japanese businessman. Most of KSM’s fellow Middle Eastern plotters were captured in Manila, the Philippines capital, before executing the plan.

But KSM escaped. He later perfected his concept, recruiting Hambali to help stage an East Coast-West Coast version of the Sept. 11 strikes.

However, bin Laden decided to “cancel the Southeast Asia part of the operation due to the difficulty in synchronizing the attacks,” according to Guantanamo documents.

KSM didn’t give up. Through Hambali, he prepared the Malaysian jihadis for a post-Sept. 11 “Second Wave” attack, according to interrogation files.

Lillie explained to U.S. that he was “chosen for the operation in the U.S. because Arabs would have problems operating in the U.S.” after 2001. He had “attended a flight school using an alias,” according to interrogation files, and in 2003 unsuccessfully tried to enlist in the Royal Thai Air Force using a fake ID card.

But all were captured before they could carry out the strikes.

A U.S.-Thai operation in 2003 found Hambali hiding out in the sleepy Thai town of Ayutthaya — a sting that landed Thai agents $10 million in U.S. reward money. Lillie was also picked up while traveling in Thailand and Amin was arrested separately outside a Thai bookstore.

Was this a serious threat?

The Asian cell’s competence — and American agents’ professed role in halting the attacks — is still debated by Bush administration officials and their detractors.

After his 2003 capture in Pakistan, KSM was interrogated using techniques the Red Cross later deemed “torture,” namely repeated water boarding amounting to as many as 183 total pours.

A memo released by the U.S. Justice Department said these “enhanced interrogation techniques” led KSM to reveal the West Coast plot among other plans. Bush himself claimed in a 2007 speech that U.S. intelligence “broke up” the planned attacks on the West Coast.

“In the minds of Al Qaeda leaders,” he told a graduating class at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, “9/11 was just a down payment on violence yet to come.”

More intense interrogation — but not necessarily water boarding — provided a fuller portrait of the Asian cell’s designs. Hambali, his lieutenants and other detainees were variously kicked, slapped and left naked for up to a month, according to a Red Cross investigation.

Hambali complained to the Red Cross that he was shackled by the hands to an overhead pole for so many hours that he defecated on himself with no opportunity to wipe off. Lillie claimed similar treatment, though he was fitted with a diaper.

Bush’s critics claim his administration has taken credit for thwarting the sum of every unfeasible Al Qaeda daydream — and then used these claims to excuse harsh prisoner treatment.

Former Bush speechwriter, Marc Thiessen, has countered that the current administration was “caught blind” by 2009’s attempted plane bombing in Detroit because “we are no longer trying to capture, detain and effectively interrogate senior terrorist leaders such as Hambali.”

The West Coast Plot likely wasn’t viable because bin Laden never fully agreed to a California wing of the attack, according to a terrorism expert and frequent Defense Department contractor contacted by GlobalPost.

However, the Asia cell was perfectly capable of striking multiple targets in Asia, said Sidney Jones, an International Crisis Group terrorism analyst based in Indonesia.

“You can’t see them as just bumbling ... and it was not just fantasy that these attacks were contemplated,” Jones said. “There was a danger that if they hadn’t been rounded up, there could have been some serious attack in Southeast Asia.”

What's next for the Asia cell?

The U.S. announcement that KSM will face a military trial, possibly conducted in secret, suggests his Asian subordinates may face the same fate. Still, the U.S. ambassador to Malaysia said last week that officials may still offer an open civilian trial. Only then might a full measure of the Asia cell’s tenacity emerge.

However, there is little chance the jihadis will ever walk free. According to interrogation files, all are deemed “high risk” detainees that would “probably seek out prior associates and re-engage in hostilities” if released.

Lillie confessed that he would continue obsessing over an attack on Malaysia’s U.S. embassy “until the day he died.” According to his interrogation report, he “wanted to marry four women and have 12 children by each wife. His dream is to bring each of his children into jihad and build an army from his family.”

He even hoped, the interrogation file stated, that “one of his children would aspire to become as strong” as bin Laden.