A few weeks ago, the New York Times reported something that caught our attention: ‘something secret’ was supposed to happen in the case of Malaysian terror suspect Mohd Nazir bin Lep (Lillie), one of two Malaysians who have been held at the infamous US military detention facility Guantanamo Bay (or Gitmo for short) since 2003.
However, a US federal judge blocked that ‘secret something‘ after a classified court hearing, without providing any reason nor revealing what that ‘secret something’ was. It is alleged that Lillie had been given approval to travel overseas to carry out that ‘secret something’, but no further details were revealed beyond that.
But who exactly are these two Malaysians stuck in the world’s most infamous detention center?
They were two ordinary guys who ended up in Jemaah Islamiyah in the 2000s
Born in Johor in 1976, Lillie’s initial flirting with extremism happened when he was just 18, where he would allegedly read books on jihad despite his young age. He later graduated with a Diploma in Architecture from Polimas Politeknik in 1997, before working as a draftsman for a company called H&Y Architecture in KL. Lillie then spent a year-and-a-half in the Malaysian Armed Forces, before later on operating a sugar cane juice business from home.
While serving in the military in 2000, he saw an announcement that Riduan Isomuddin aka Hambali, a Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader and later alleged mastermind of the 2002 Bali bombings, would be giving a lecture at a local mosque. Both Lillie and his ex-Polimas classmate Mohd Farik bin Amin (Zubair) were allegedly attracted to the ‘jihad life’, and so attended the lecture together. It further fueled their desire to go abroad and fight for the cause.
Two weeks later, the two men allegedly ran into Hambali again at the same mosque and asked him to help them get involved in the fighting abroad. And so, after receiving travel instructions, they saved up and traveled to Afghanistan via Pakistan, where they would begin their eight-week training course at the al-Farouq jihadist training camp.
Then 9/11 happened, and Hambali wanted to put the two men to use
The plane attacks on the World Trade Center in New York prompted the US to declare a ‘War on Terror’, and one of their first moves was to bomb the al-Farouq training camp in retaliation for the attacks.
Hambali decided that it was now time to act. He asked Lillie and Zubair, both now trained specialists with knowledge of bomb-making and firearms, to take part in a ‘martyrdom operation’: allegedly a 9/11 copycat plane attack targeting the Library Tower in Los Angeles (today known as the US Bank Tower).
They both agreed, and so were allegedly taken to Kabul to meet ‘terrorist number one’ himself: Osama bin Laden. Lillie claims that al-Qaeda’s head honcho had discussed their ‘commitment to Allah’, and had said that their duty was ‘to suffer’. After swearing bayat (an oath of allegiance) to Osama, the two of them along with cell leader Masran bin Arshad and another Malaysian named Afifi traveled to Thailand to prepare for the operation.
However, before anything could happen, Masran had gotten himself arrested, and the attack was supposedly called off. Following this, Lillie and Zubair began working directly for Hambali in Southeast Asia, but soon everything fell apart for them: while renewing his visa in Cambodia in 2003, Zubair got arrested, and later Lillie too was picked up by authorities while on the way to Bangkok to pick up Hambali’s passport. Information from Lillie later led to the capture of Hambali in Thailand in a joint US-Thai operation, and the game was up for them.
They were held for 3 years by the CIA, and got transferred to Gitmo in 2006
The interrogations of the three men revealed extremely valuable information for American intelligence; most importantly, their confessions drew the clearest line yet connecting JI and al-Qaeda. From their confessions, the CIA discovered that:
- almost all JI funding came from al-Qaeda, and that the money was Hambali’s to do as he wished
- that same funding had been used to fund the Bali bombings of 2002
- al-Qaeda were highly satisfied with the Bali bombings and gave them more funds as a result
- JI had targeted the US and British embassies in Bangkok, various nightclubs in Thailand, shopping complexes in Manila, as well as certain Israeli and Jewish sites
… plus much, much more. There isn’t enough space to talk about all of it, but you can read the full US Department of Defense prisoner documents for Hambali, Lillie, and Zubair, made public in 2013 under the Freedom of Information Act (click names to access).
Given the depth and delicate nature of the information provided by the three men, all three were assessed to be of ‘High Intelligence Value’ and of ‘High Risk’. This would prove to be a major obstacle in securing their release, because…
They are deemed ‘too dangerous to transfer, but too innocent to charge’
Because of various reports of human rights violations taking place there, one of ex-US President Barack Obama’s campaign promises back in 2007 was to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility:
“In the dark halls of Abu Ghraib and the detention cells of Guantanamo, we have compromised our most precious values.” – Barack Obama, 2007
And so, following Obama’s election victory, a task force was created to divide detainees into three categories: ‘prosecute, transfer, or release’. Through this process, Gitmo was slowly being emptied throughout the years Obama was in office.
However, there was one problem: certain detainees were found to be ‘too dangerous to transfer, but not feasible for prosecution’, as much of the evidence yielded had either been ‘tainted by torture’, or was insufficient to mount a proper charge against them:
“… there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes but nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.” – Barack Obama
Hence, the task force in charge of vetting detainees suggested a fourth category: indefinite detention.
Today, of the roughly 780 people who have been detained there, 40 detainees remain in Guantanamo under this fourth category, with Hambali, Lillie, and Zubair – due to their statuses as ‘high ranking (al-Qaeda/JI) members with a great deal of influence’ – among the 40.
Despite our govt’s best efforts, it seems Lillie and Zubair aren’t coming home anytime soon
Ever since the detention of Lillie and Zubair, our government has been making efforts to bring them back. Our then-PM Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi said this in 2009:
“If possible, we’d like to bring both of them home so that they can be held in Malaysian custody if necessary.” – Abdullah bin Ahmad Badawi
And those efforts continue to this day. Earlier this year, our then-Inspector General of Police (IGP) Fuzi Harun said that police had engaged with their US counterparts to arrange for the return of the two men, and even our current IGP is doing the same thing:
“It is the duty of the government to bring them back. That is the responsibility of any nation. Does not matter what they did.” – Hamid Bador, Inspector-General of Police
However, because of the reasons stated above, not much ground has been made; Pentagon prosecutors have so far tried and failed three times to charge Hambali, Lillie and Zubair since 2017.
It’s unclear if the recent ‘secret something’ would’ve done something to their case, but for now anyways, the two Malaysians remain in the controversial Guantanamo Bay, with release or transfer still a long time away.