NEW YORK — The twin suicide bombings in Jakarta last week had all the markings of Indonesia’s most wanted criminal, Noordin M. Top, and have highlighted just how isolated, though perhaps at the same time resilient, the Malaysian-born militant has become.
The Indonesian government has made huge strides in shutting down and reforming the militant wing of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Al Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian terror group to which Top once belonged. In the last seven years, an elite counterterrorism force has arrested or killed almost all of Jemaah Islamiyah’s leaders.
Moreover, the police have implemented a scheme to get at the hearts and minds of the young militants still out there by recruiting jailed and repentent former Jemaah Islamiyah members to preach tolerance to potentially violent fundamentalists.
The program has been considered wildly successful, leading the Bush administration to begin normalizing military ties with Indonesia in 2005, which is the last time the country saw an attack. Indonesian’s whole approach to fighting terrorism, the combination of soft and hard tactics, in fact, is considered to be one of the most successful anywhere in the world.
That is until two suicide bombers ambled into the American-owned J.W. Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta last Friday, killing nine people and wounding dozens.
The attack came as a surprise to most analysts who had thought Jemaah Islamiyah had been so weakened it was unlikely able to coordinate any more large scale bombings.
Jemaah Islamiyah and Noordin Top are believed to be behind almost all the major terrorist bombings in Indonesia, including the 2002 Bali nightclub attacks that killed 202 people, the first bombing of the J.W. Marriot in 2003, the bombing of the Australian Embassy in 2004 and the second Bali attack in 2005 when three suicide bombers blew up three separate cafes killing more than 20 people.
Indonesia’s president was also caught off guard by the attacks. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who was just re-elected in a landslide about a week before the bombings partly because of how swiftly he dealt with Islamic terrorism, struggled to find the right response, at one point suggesting it might have been the responsibility of his former presidential rivals.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been so diminished that most consider it to be less a terrorist organization than merely a social network of conservative Muslims who lobby peacefully for an Islamic form of government. Even the organization’s spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, who founded the Islamic boarding school where so many of the country’s bombers have attended and who spent time in prison for conspiracy charges relating to the 2002 Bali bombings, has discarded his usual violent language.
Indeed, counterterrorism officials believe this latest attack was not organized by Jemaah Islamiyah at all, but by a recently detached Noordin M. Top who has cobbled together his own patchwork of militant cells willing to carry out violent bombings.
“The success of Indonesia’s counterterrorism programs stands,” said Sidney Jones, one of the region’s foremost experts on Southeast Asian terrorism and an analyst with the International Crisis Group. “This group of bombers is almost certainly the splinter group linked to Noordin Mohammad Top, not mainstream Jemaah Islamiyah."
Former friends within Jemaah Islamiyah have continued to protect Top from authorities but fewer and fewer among the group’s ranks are willing to adopt violent tactics, Jones said.
As a result, Noordin M. Top is increasingly on his own and investigations are increasingly focused on catching him.
Just weeks before the bombings investigators came close, when one of Top's closest associates, Saifuddin Zuhri, also known as Sabit, who was trained in Afghanistan under Osama bin Laden, was arrested during raids in Central Java. Police said that as a result, Top moved forward the attack, fearing that Sabit would spill plans to police.
Evidence gathered after the bombings seems to indicate a certain amount of hastiness. Counterterrorism officials — speaking on the condition of anonymity because they aren’t allowed to speak to the press — said evidence suggested that the bombings were moved up, such as the discovery of a laptop bomb in the hotel room where the bombers were staying that was inexplicably left behind.
The most recent bombings resembled older attacks by Top in so much as the target and the kinds of bombs used. But it wasn’t the masterfully executed plan counterterror forces are used to seeing from him – leading them to believe that they have Top on the run.
But terrorism experts are less optimistic, pointing to the vast social network Top, who is a cunning recruiter, has at his disposal. Indonesia’s terrorist networks have proved resilient in the past and have managed to rebuild quickly after high profile arrests, largely because of Top’s skills as a motivator.
There are dozens of Islamic boarding schools, which in Indonesia are known as Pesantran, that are thought to be affiliated with terrorist groups and which offer thousands of recruits, Jones said. There are also informal connections between certain mosques, prisons and businesses.
In Central Java, a loose consortium of radical Islamic publishers have been churning out books calling for violent Jihad now for years. One of those publishers recently released a three-volume set of works written by the so-called Bali bombers who were executed last year.
“The social network of Jemaah Islamiyah and other like-minded groups is strong and available to Noordin,” Jones said. “Jemaah Islamiyah members have in the past provided protection for Noordin, and one reason he is so difficult to catch is that people from this network are reluctant to turn him in.”
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