WASHINGTON (UPI) — President Bush Tuesday announced the capture of “one of the world’s most lethal terrorists,” the man said to be the operational chief of the Islamic extremist group blamed for the suicide bombings at the Jakarta, Indonesia, Marriott earlier this month and in Bali last year.

“He’s a known killer, who was a close associate of Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” Bush said of Riduan Ismuddin, known as Hambali.

“He is no longer a problem to those of us who love freedom,” the president told an audience of military personnel and their families at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in California.

Hambali is said by U.S. officials to be operations chief for the Southeast Asian Islamic terror network called Jemaah Islamiyah. The group has been blamed for a string of lethal terror attacks and plots in the region, including the Bali nightclub bombings, in which more than 200 people died, and the recent bombing of a Marriott hotel in the Indonesian capital.

Hambali was apprehended in Southeast Asia this week and was in U.S. custody, government officials told United Press International. They refused to give more details.

“It was an undercover operation … (involving) significant manpower,” and more than one U.S. agency, one official said. “It’s a huge catch, he was the third-most-wanted terrorist in the world,” behind al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, added the official.

The White House said Bush got the news at his Texas ranch on Wednesday during his regular daily videoconference intelligence briefing by CIA Director George Tenet.

A senior administration official, speaking by telephone from Air Force One, told reporters that the operation was conducted with the help of other governments that he would not identify.

Hambali, the senior administration official said, had “facilitated” a January 2000 meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, which is thought to have been the first step in planning the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. The meeting was attended by two of the hijackers.

The senior administration official said that earlier this year Hambali had received “a large sum of money for a major attack” from an al-Qaida leader in Pakistan. The official declined to say whether that attack had been disrupted or not, but said Hambali would be interrogated as “part of ongoing efforts to neutralize the threat (of the plan).”

The official added that — according to information from a senior al-Qaida detainee and corroborated by other sources — Hambali had also been involved in attempts to recruit additional hijackers after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Rohan Gunaratna, a Singapore-based researcher and author, says that Jemaah Islamiyah is currently the group “closest to al-Qaida both operationally and in ideology.” Terrorism analyst and author Peter Bergen goes further, describing it as al-Qaida’s “franchise holder” in Southeast Asia.

The close links with al-Qaida are demonstrated, says Bergen, by the way the group has taken up the strategy al-Qaida outlined in October 2002, when an audiotape of bin Laden called for attacks on Western economic targets. The Bali bombing — aimed at Australian tourists — followed later that month, and the Marriott “was clearly an economic target, too.”

The senior administration official called Hambali al-Qaida’s “most important link to terrorist groups in Southeast Asia,” and said his capture “effectively diminishes (al-Qaida’s) lethal capability.”

Since the Bali explosions in October last year, Indonesian authorities have arrested dozens of Jemaah Islamiyah members — including more than 30 thought involved in that attack — and have put Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Baasyir, the group’s spiritual leader, on trial for treason.>

Last week, a court in Bali sentenced Amrozi — who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name — to death for his role in the lethal blasts.

Amrozi’s brother, Imam Samudra, believed to be the mastermind of the operation, also faces the firing squad if found guilty.

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