Late last week, Indonesian and Australian police investigating the Bali bombing stumbled across the break they were hoping for: an act of naiveté by one of the bombers.
His error has led to four arrests in Indonesia and given almost certain proof of Al Qaeda's involvement in the attack.
Indonesian police now know the identities of up to a dozen men with ties to last month's bombing who are still inside Indonesia, and 10 more who are believed to have fled the country through Malaysia. Most of those men are Indonesian, but a domestic investigator said there are some "foreign actors" among them.
The hunt for those men is likely to spread across Southeast Asia, with national police and foreign investigators saying indications are that the attack was planned in at least three regional countries Indonesia, Malaysia, and Thailand.
But tracking down the men who are already outside the country, investigators warn, will prove a more difficult task than apprehending the relatively less important foot soldiers who stayed behind. The key, they say, will be intelligence-sharing between the governments of Southeast Asia, who have pledged to work together more closely in the wake of criticism that they are unable to cooperate.
The tipoff came from a man named Amrozi, who, like many Indonesians, has only one name. An intensely religious mechanic from the tiny East Java village of Tenggulun, he was arrested last Tuesday at a ramshackle Islamic boarding school run by his older brother.
About five months ago, Mr. Amrozi bought a white Mitzubishi minivan; at home, he popped the hood and filed off the engine's serial number. On Oct. 12, a sophisticated 150-pound bomb detonated inside the van, killing about 200 people most of them Australian tourists dancing at the Sari Club.
"It would have been much smarter for them to use a stolen car,'' says Prasetiyo (his full name), a spokesman for the Indonesian national police. He says that Australian police, working with Indonesian investigators, were able to discern the car's serial number. Once they had that, it was a simple matter to track down the owner.
Confronted with that evidence and receipts proving he had purchased a ton of the volatile chemical ammonium chlorate from a store in the East Javan city of Surabaya Amrozi confessed his involvement. "He was used as an advance man,'' says Mr. Prasetiyo. "He bought the chemicals, he got a car, he rented the apartment they used to get ready in Bali."
The head of the international investigating team, police Maj. Gen. I Made Mangku Pastika, said that Amrozi has admitted to buying the car and participating in the attack. His main target was Americans, Mr. Pastika told a press conference in Bali yesterday. "He thought many Americans were in Bali. When he knew mostly Australians died he was not happy.''
Indonesian investigators say they're now very close to conclusively tying the attack to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a tightly knit regional terrorist group that works with Al Qaeda and has been linked to a string of attacks in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Malaysia over the past three years.
The Al Islam boarding school, where Amrozi was apprehended, was founded by Mohammed Zakaria, a graduate of the Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school led by Abu Bakar Bashir. Mr. Bashir, whom the US and Indonesia have named the spiritual leader of the JI, is currently in Indonesian custody on charges relating to a terrorist attack in 2000.
Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation, and Bashir, who denies any links to terrorism, has gained a lot of domestic sympathy. He claims the charges against him and other Muslims are an attempt by the US to weaken Islam, and even suggests that the US planted the bombs in Bali to provide a pretense for a crackdown.
Though progress is being made, some are worried that Indonesia's reluctance to go after Islamic militants in the immediate aftermath of the blast will have costs. "They could have moved a lot faster,'' says a Western diplomat. "I have a feeling that the momentum for going after the top people has been lost."
Nevertheless, Al Qaeda appears to have issued an official claim of responsibility for the Bali attack. On Oct. 15, the Al Qaeda website Al Neda, which has made significant announcements in the past (for instance, it was the first place to carry the full testaments of the Sept. 11 hijackers), carried a rambling and at times contradictory statement, including a passage that appeared to take credit for the bombing. According to a CNN translation last week, the Arabic statement read: "By ... bombing nightclubs and whorehouses in Indonesia, Al Qaeda has shown it has no qualms about attacking inside Arab and Islamic lands."
Bashir has maintained ties with the Al Islam school traveling sometimes to give sermons there, according to a school official interviewed by Indonesia's El Shinta radio station. His most recent sermon there was in June, about the time Amrozi bought the van. Amrozi's brother Ja'far Shodiq is a senior teacher at Al Islam.
Amrozi also described meetings in Malaysia in the past few years with Riduan Isammudin, an Indonesian cleric who investigators believe is the principal operations officer for JI and who's been a fugitive since late 2000, when he was tied to the simultaneous bombings of over a dozen churches on Java and Sumatra.
Mr. Isammudin, better known as Hambali, is a veteran of the Afghan war against the Soviet Union and is considered the principal link between Al Qaeda and JI. Amrozi has not told investigators anything further yet about his relationship with Hambali, including whether he was directly involved in the Bali attack.
Police say they are now hunting three of Amrozi's brothers. Mr. Zakaria, the boarding-school leader, was arrested after the police found videos showing that students at Al Islam were being given paramilitary training, police spokesman Prasetiyo said.
Yesterday, the police arrested a forest ranger identified as Komaruddin, who lived near Amrozi and allegedly helped store weapons and explosives for the group.