Long before he achieved notoriety as Hambali, the most wanted Islamic militant in Southeast Asia, the man was known to his neighbors in this village as a youngster who idealized America. He dreamed of rocketing into space like lunar pioneer Neil Armstrong, of visiting the United States and seeing its powerful computers.

"At that time, America was the image of status, the most advanced in technology," said a former classmate, Ujang Iskandar. "He kept saying, 'I want to travel around the world and see for myself and decide.' "

But over time, Hambali came to view the United States as a major cause of the Muslim world's problems. He moved deeper and deeper into radical Islamic groups, and today the 38-year-old cleric is sought by police worldwide as the prime leader of al Qaeda in Southeast Asia.

Investigators said Hambali approved, planned or financed at least eight successful or abortive attacks in the region, including the October 2002 nightclub bombings in Bali that killed more than 200 people. Analysts said he set up a meeting of September 11 conspirators in Malaysia in 2000 and arranged for flying lessons in Malaysia for a would-be hijacker.

The capture of al Qaeda operations chief Khalid Sheik Mohammed in Pakistan four weeks ago has given investigators new insights into his operations. According to intelligence officials in Southeast Asia familiar with a report on the subsequent interrogation, Mohammed has told of working for years with Hambali. Just last November, Mohammed said, he sent $50,000 to Hambali to finance an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta or Bangkok.

Intelligence analysts said al Qaeda has counted on Hambali since the assaults on the United States to put fresh attacks on the scoreboard. With Mohammed's capture, the stocky, 5-foot-5 Hambali ranks as one of the world's most senior al Qaeda leaders still on the loose. He is now the strategic guide of Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asia terrorist network that began in the early 1990s as an al Qaeda spinoff, analysts said. Police continue the search. One analyst in Southeast Asia said Hambali may be in Thailand; other reports have placed him in southeastern Bangladesh, near the Burmese border.

Here, in the village of Pamokolan, in the foothills of West Java, people remember Hambali by his given name, Encep Nurjaman, a serious young man who lived up a dirt lane near the mosque.

Growing up as the second of 13 children, the son of a teacher who was a mosque leader, Hambali had a tendency to play the moralist, friends and acquaintances said. That was not unusual behavior; his village is in a stronghold of Darul Islam, a religious movement that seeks to establish an Islamic state.

"He was very critical, asked a lot of questions," recalled his former fourth grade teacher, Apip Arifin. "If I made a mistake, he would complain." He excelled at math and tried to teach himself English with a book called "24-Hour English." And he had that interest in America.

As Hambali grew into adolescence, he became interested in social issues, criticizing the U.S.-supported government of President Suharto for political oppression.

Hambali graduated from high school in 1983 and failed an exam to enter the military, recalled his former classmate, Ujang. In 1985, he went to Malaysia to find work. In those years, Malaysia was also the chosen place of exile for Indonesians who felt persecuted. He was deep into Islamic studies now.

By 1987, he was in Afghanistan and involved in militant Islamic causes, according to Umar Abduh, a former Darul Islam activist. There, said Umar Abduh, Hambali trained in a camp with an Islamic guerrilla movement fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He acquired the nom de guerre Hambali, borrowed from a revered imam of Islamic history.

And there he met Khalid Sheik Mohammed and forged their close relationship. They became attack organizers -- strategists, not operatives. "There are very few people in the world who can put big operations together," said Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism analyst affiliated with the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. "You need years of experience and a certain mind-set. Khalid Sheik Mohammed and Hambali have that mind-set."

In 1989, Hambali returned to Southeast Asia, taking up residence again in Malaysia, said Umar Abduh. During this period he lived with Abubakar Baasyir and Abdullah Sungkar, two Indonesian militants who were exiled in Malaysia and founded Jemaah Islamiah in 1993-94. He often led religious services.

Hambali lived frugally, and married a Chinese Malaysian woman who had converted to Islam. Whenever he brought her to the home village for a visit, she would remain in the background, veiled from head to toe in a chador, only her eyes visible. "Only the family were allowed to talk to her," Apip said. "He said, 'My wife is my personal property.' "

As early as 1996, according to the sources who have seen reports of the Mohammed interrogation, Hambali worked for Mohammed on al Qaeda's media committee, which publicized the network's exploits with a newspaper, fliers and videos, and culled press reports for leader Osama bin Laden.

In 1996, Mohammed visited Malaysia and Singapore to observe Hambali's recruitment and found him to be "charismatic and popular among his recruits," according to an account of his interrogation. Hambali and his group, "unlike Gulf Arabs, were poor, and therefore take great care in how they spend money for operations," this account said.

After the fall of Suharto in 1998, a Christian-Muslim armed conflict erupted in the Molucca islands of eastern Indonesia and it greatly influenced Hambali. He saw it as emblematic of a worldwide war on Islam and used it to motivate Jemaah Islamiah members, showing them graphic videotapes of attacks on mosques and villages, according to a report of an interrogation of an operative captured in Singapore.

Hambali was growing so trusted within the al Qaeda network that he was tapped to arrange a meeting in Kuala Lumpur in January 2000 at which, analysts said, about a dozen senior al Qaeda members discussed the pending attacks on the USS Cole in Yemen and the Sept. 11, 2001 hijackings. He also arranged flight lessons for Zacarias Moussaoui, now awaiting trial at U.S. District Court in Alexandria on charges of aiding the Sept. 11 plot.

But Hambali was also actively carrying out assaults in this region as well, investigators said. They included a bombing attack on the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia in August, 2000, and on Christian churches in 11 Indonesian cities on Christmas Eve that year.

Mohammed told investigators that it was Hambali who planned a car bomb attack on the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta in the summer of 2001, an unsuccessful operation previously thought to be the work mainly of al Qaeda operatives from Yemen.

On Sept. 11, 2001, Hambali was back in Afghanistan, wanting to be close to bin Laden and Mohammed, said Gunaratna, citing an interrogation report of a captured al Qaeda suspect. After the hijackings, Hambali returned to Kuala Lumpur, where he worked on yet another plan, to attack Western embassies in Singapore with truck bombs. In mid-December, Singapore foiled that plot and he fled to Bangkok, according to intelligence reports.

In a January 2002 meeting there with al Qaeda members, Hambali discussed conducting "small bombings in bars, cafes, or nightclubs frequented by Westerners" in Southeast Asia, another captured al Qaeda member, Mohammed Mansour Jabarah, has said, according to an FBI document. That meeting, intelligence officials from countries in the region said , provided the inspiration for the Bali attacks.

And last November, Mohammed sent him the $50,000 for further attacks. According to three intelligence sources in Southeast Asia who have seen summaries of Mohammed's interrogation, it was decided that if the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok or Jakarta proved too difficult to hit, Hambali's network would strike a "tourist" or "economic" target, similar to the Bali nightclubs.

A highly placed U.S. official added that Mohammed said Hambali also planned an attack on an oil company or tanker and possibly an Israeli embassy in the region.

Apip, his former teacher, said he feels very sorry for the man. "If I had the chance to meet him," Apip said, "I'd say, 'Please surrender yourself. Your family is under a lot of pressure.' " Right after the Bali bombing, Apip recalled, television reporters descended on the dirt lane where Hambali's mother lives. She could not bear to talk to them, he said, and she fainted.

Staff writer Susan Schmidt in Washington and special correspondents Noor Huda Ismail and Natasha Tampubolon in Jakarta contributed to this report.