JAKARTA — Ending a six-year national dragnet, Indonesia’s elite counterterrorism force killed the self-proclaimed leader of Southeast Asia’s version of Al Qaeda Thursday in a dramatic six-hour firefight in the central Javanese city of Solo.
Malaysian-born Noordin Mohammed Top has been behind every terrorist bombing in Indonesia since 2003: the first Jakarta Marriot hotel bombing that year, the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing, the 2005 Bali bombings and July’s coordinated attacks on the Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta that killed seven people, six of them foreigners. More than 50 people were also injured in that attack.
“In this holy month of Ramadan the country of Indonesia has been blessed,” Bambang Hendarso Danuri, Indonesia’s chief of police, said at a press conference. “This is a gift.”
It also removes a big security threat to U.S. President Barack Obama, who's planning to visit his former childhood home later this year.
The police acted on a tip given to them by two suspects arrested just hours before the raid began. The suspects said they believed several militants were hiding out in a small house in Solo, a city known as a bastion of radical activity. Police did not know Noordin was inside at the time.
At about midnight Thursday, police evacuated villagers surrounding the house and through a loudspeaker asked the militants to come outside with their hands in the air. The militants began firing, sparking a six-hour shootout. At about 4 a.m., an explosion went off inside the house, leading to speculation that the militants had detonated a suicide bomb to avoid arrest. Rumors had long swirled that Noordin had explosives strapped to his body at all times. Police, however, said the militants were killed by gunfire.
After Noordin’s body was brought to a Jakarta hospital, it was so badly mutilated that it took forensic experts hours to identify him.
Inside the house, which had been blasted apart, police said they found 200 kilograms of explosives, an M-16 machine gun with bullets, a laptop and documents. The documents, they said, pointed to several connections between the militants and Al Qaeda, but they did not elaborate.
The commandos also killed Bagus Budi Pranato in the raid. Known as Urwah, he is a reputed bombmaker thought to be involved in July’s bombings. Urwah is known to be one of Noordin’s closest associates and helped Noordin coordinate the Australian Embassy bombing before his arrest several months before. He was released in April 2007, only three and a half years later.
Sidney Jones, an analyst with the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, said Urwah was able to re-establish contact with Noordin almost immediately after his release, revealing how well-connected Indonesia’s militants are.
The two others killed were Adib Susilo, who rented the house, and Aji, who police said was a protege of the Malaysian Azahari Husin, a master bombmaker who came to Indonesia alongside Noordin but was killed by Indonesian police during a 2005 raid on his house.
Noordin had reached almost legendary status in militant circles for his almost magical ability to evade capture. In the last six years he has been minutes away from being caught on half a dozen occasions. He was nearly caught last month when police raided a farmhouse in central Java. The ensuing 16-hour shootout, however, turned up only one body.
Forensic tests revealed days later that it had been Ibrohim, an Indonesian militant who police believe had helped planned July’s bombings. Ibrohim had researched the targets while he was working as a florist inside both hotels.
Though it is a major victory for counterterrorism in Southeast Asia, Noordin is known as a charismatic recruiter and police say he was seeking support right up until his death. It is likely, they say, that he left enough of a support base behind that future attacks are still a possibility.
“Symbolically his death is important. But it doesn’t mean we can rest,” said a senior counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he isn’t allowed to speak to the press.
Jones, writing in a report earlier this month, said Noordin’s ability to recruit in Indonesia had become “disturbingly easy.”
Indonesia has the world’s largest population of Muslims, more than the entire Middle East combined. But the vast majority tend to be moderate, combining Islam with various animist beliefs. A tiny fraction of radicals, however, began to grow when democracy took hold a decade ago and Islamic militant preachers were able to move about and speak more freely.
The Southeast Asian terror network, Jemaah Islamiyah, began to grow in prominence and managed to orchestrate the first Bali bombings in 2002, which killed more than 200 people. The Indonesian government responded quickly, dismantling the militant arm of Jemaah Islamiyah in the years that followed, winning the praise of the Bush administration.
Still, pockets of militants around the country managed to continuously regroup following the arrest or death of senior leaders, drawing on a network of a few dozen Islamic boarding schools affiliated with Jemaah Islamiyah. Noordin came to Indonesia after fleeing Malaysia in 2001 and by 2002 had become a senior leader and fundraiser with Jemaah Islamiyah. He broke away from the group, however, in 2002 when support for violent attacks was waning among Jemaah Islamiyah members. He formed a small splinter group drawn from various other radical organizations and impressionable youth from the Islamic boarding schools, known here as pesantren.
In a video in 2005, Noordin claimed to be Al Qaeda’s representative in Southeast Asia, calling himself “Al Qaeda for the Malay archipelago.”
A four-year lull in bombings, however, led analysts to believe Noordin had been severely weakened. July’s attack changed all that.
“His network is proving to be larger and more sophisticated than previously thought,” wrote Jones in a recent report.