Southeast Asia’s most-wanted Islamist militant, a man involved in over 200 murders and who claimed to be Al Qaeda's representative in the region, may have been killed in a police shootout Saturday, Indonesian police said.
Indonesian police are conducting forensic tests to see if Noordin Mohammed Top, a recruiter and explosives expert who led a splinter wing of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) Islamist network, was among the dead after a 17-hour siege between militants and elite counterterrorist police thatå ended Saturday. “God willing, it was Noordin [Mohammed Top]” said Nanan Sukarna, a police spokesman. (this BBC report has unedited footage of the police attack on the home in Temanggung, Central Java where Top is thought to have been killed).
At roughly the same time, Indonesian police also raided a home in the Jakarta suburbs where two associates of Top, armed with guns and hundreds of pounds of explosives, were also killed. National Police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri said those militants were planning a suicide attack using a minivan packed with explosives to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. General Danuri said the planned attack was revenge for the execution last year of three JI members for their roles in the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that murdered 202 Indonesians and foreign tourists.
Indonesia’s antiterror police moved on the house in Temunggang on Friday, after receiving information that it was sometimes used as a hideout by Top. As they move towards the home at about 4 p.m. on Friday, police from the elite Detachment 88 unit were fired on, leading to the siege. At least five explosions rocked the site after dawn on Saturday. Police with antiblast shields eventually approached the house, and pulled out the body of one militant, which the government suspects was Top.
Police allege Top organized the suicide bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta on 17 July, which left nine dead and more than 50 wounded. That attack ended a four-year pause in terrorist attacks in Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim majority country.
Since the Bali bombings U.S.-funded Indonesian counterterrorist officers have arrested more than 400 JI members. In November 2005, Indonesia’s elite counterterrorist unit Detachment 88 shot and killed Azahari Bin Husin, a JI bombmaker and key leader, a success that was hailed at the time as crippling their operations.
The recent reemergence of Top was a reminder that security can't be guaranteed by killing or capturing one or two key leaders. “There are many others that could replace him [Top]” said Hendropriyono, a former national intelligence chief. “The threat is not over.”
To be sure, the supply of Indonesian Islamists who share Al Qaeda's extreme view of the world -- it boils down to "everyone who doesn't believe in our version of Islamic government is an enemy" -- was never very large, and has been dwindling in recent years. The core group of militants who built JI were radicalized fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s or were, at least, taught by them.
Top "was one of the last Afghanistan veterans,” says a former U.S.-counterterrorist official who spoke on condition of anonymity, referring to the 1980s conflict. “They’ll [JI] have trouble recruiting someone of that caliber” again.
JI itself, while still wanting to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia, has also changed in recent years. Its ideological leaders, clerics like Abu Bakar Bashir, grew convinced that mass casualty attacks on civilians were doing their cause more harm than good among average Indonesians. That left the more militant among them, led by Top, to branch out on their own.
In a 2005 video, after a second attack on Bali island, a balaclava-clad Top claimed to be al-Qaeda’s representative in Southeast Asia and to be carrying out attacks on Western civilians to avenge Muslim deaths in Afghanistan. Since the mid 1990s, when Top became a JI operative, he has had a key role in planning, financial management and recruiting in JI’s armed wing.