A classic Al Qaeda field operative

Alleged Bali bombing planner had extensive training and ties throughout Southeast Asia.

Imam Samudra is exactly the sort of man investigators expected to find behind the meticulously constructed car bomb that ripped through a Bali nightclub last month.

He received weapons training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. He taught at a religious school in Malaysia associated with Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric who the US says leads a terror group that serves as Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian wing. He prefers working with a close circle of friends. And, police say, he's killed before.

Mr. Samudra is the man Indonesian police say served as the "field commander" for the terrorist cell that carried out the Bali attack. "All the orders came from Samudra, beginning in the planning stages, through to the execution of the bombing,'' National Police Chief Da'I Bachtiar told reporters last week.

Samudra was arrested last Thursday as he was about to board a ferry from Java to Sumatra - the first step on a journey that he hoped would safely carry him out of the country.

Instead, two of his associates arrested earlier in the week tipped authorities off to his plans. By Friday, Indonesian police were parading a glowering Samudra, an incongruous figure in a black T-shirt and Converse sneakers shouting, "God is great."

His arrest is the biggest break in the Bali case for Indonesian police, who are working with Australian investigators. But Indonesian intelligence agents warn that any euphoria should be tempered by the knowledge that the most senior participant in the plot - a Yemeni national they say entered the country on a forged US passport - got away.

"This was a classic Al Qaeda operation,'' says a senior Indonesian investigator. He says that the cell was composed mostly of local Indonesians while the bombing expertise was provided by the Yemeni, whose code name was "Syafullah," and two other foreigners. These men, he says, came in shortly before the attack, assembled the bomb, and were probably well clear of the country before it went off.

"Good work is being done, but we're far from achieving total success," the investigator says. "There were 272 Indonesians who went to Afghanistan. We've arrested, what, seven of them at most."

While not every Indonesian veteran of the Afghan war is involved in terrorism, almost every known Indonesian terrorist has ties to Afghanistan - a fact Samudra's involvement helps confirm. His arrest fills out a picture that has been emerging of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al Qaeda's regional terror wing, that has been slowly and steadily emerging over the past two years.

The group has been built around a tight network of Indonesian leaders with ties to the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in the Javanese city of Solo. The school was founded by the deceased Indonesian cleric Abdullah Sungkar and Mr. Bashir, both of whom fled Indonesia in the 1980s to escape jail terms associated with their advocacy for making the country an Islamic state. The US says Bashir, who returned to Indonesia after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, is the leader of JI. It's a charge Bashir, currently in police custody, denies.

To investigators, the emerging pattern is both comforting and alarming. Comforting, because it indicates the terror war remains on a narrow, focused front here, with the vast majority of religious groups untainted by violence. Alarming, because thousands of Indonesians have been channeled through the school in Solo. The whereabouts of most of these men are unknown.

The religiously devoted Samudra left his hometown in the Indonesian province of Banten in 1990 for a religious school in Malaysia, where the government has traditionally been more tolerant of political Islam. He took on the name Samudra, abandoning his given name of Abdul Aziz. Intelligence agents say he also quickly abandoned Malaysia for a trip to Afghanistan, where he spent more than two years training in weapons and studying Islam.

Around 1993, he returned to Malaysia and gravitated to a religious school in Johor that was founded by Mr. Sungkar. As a teacher, Mr. Samudra became friendly with two other Indonesian exiles who would become key figures in the Bali attack, Indonesian police say: Amrozi and his older brother Ali Ghufron, known as Mukhlas.

He also became acquainted with Riduan Isammudin, the Indonesian cleric who regional intelligence officials say is the operations chief for JI. Mr. Isammudin, who's better known as Hambali, remains at large.

Last year, Samudra was tied to the bombing of a shopping mall in Jakarta and two churches here at the trials of two men who were sentenced to death for those crimes. Both men, the Indonesian Eddy Setiono and the Malaysian Taufik Abdul Halim, said Samudra - who was on the lam throughout the trial - was a key figure behind their attacks.

Mr. Halim's brother, Zulkifli, is in turn considered by Malaysian police to be a principal leader of the JI's operations inside Malaysia. Further underscoring the regional nature of the organization, Malaysian police yesterday announced the arrest of three JI members who are suspects in a foiled plot to bomb US, British, and Australian embassies in Singapore.

As for Samudra, though Indonesian police were already looking for him, he was able to play his part in the Bali attack by relying on contacts with other Indonesian militants in Malaysia.

Amrozi was tapped to provide basic logistics for the car bomb that destroyed the Sari Club in Kuta, Bali, on Oct. 12, while Mr. Mukhlas served as an overall coordinator. Indonesian intelligence officials say Mukhlas, who remains at large, is probably more senior in the JI hierarchy than Samudra. They speculate he has temporarily replaced Hambali, whose profile has risen with each successful regional attack, making it difficult for him to travel freely in the region.

That rising profile is what eventually caught up with Samudra, Indonesian investigators say. That, and possibly an increasing level of cockiness. After the Oct. 12 bombing, he revisited the site to survey his handiwork, and only fled Bali to Java, his home island, late the next day. From there, he went to his home province, where he was finally brought to ground.

"He's a smart guy, but we were always going to catch up with him eventually,'' says the Indonesian intelligence officer.

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