Obama in Indonesia: The sweeps begin

JARKARTA, Indonesia — Indonesian counterterrorism forces are engaged in a widespread manhunt ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming two-day visit, a nationwide sweep that has so far netted or killed almost 40 suspected Islamic militants.

In the latest raids, police killed two men and arrested eight others after a shootout at a security checkpoint on Friday in the westernmost province of Aceh. Two other men were arrested in Central Java on Thursday.

The exhaustive search, which has entered its third week, appears aimed at securing the country before a visit by Obama and his family, analysts said.

“These raids are the most widespread and intensive I have seen,” said Noor Huda Ismail, an expert on Indonesian terrorist groups and director of the Institute for International Peace Building, a Jakarta-based think tank. “They are taking no chances.”

Although Obama plans to unveil a comprehensive partnership between the two countries as well as build on the message to the Muslim world he began in Cairo last year, his visit is also partly a homecoming.

Obama spent four years living in Jakarta as a boy with his American mother and Indonesian stepfather. The president plans to visit his former school, his old neighborhood in central Jakarta and the resort island of Bali.

The nationwide pursuit of Islamic militants began after police discovered and subsequently stormed a terrorist training camp on Feb. 22 in the dense forest of Aceh, where police found dozens of men honing their skills as sharp-shooters and taking part in other military-style training. Police there found assault rifles, Jihadist books and videos detailing the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people.

Information garnered from the Aceh raids led police to the outskirts of Jakarta on Tuesday where they shot and killed one of the region’s most-wanted terrorists. Police believe that Dulmatin, a master bomb-maker and expert in electronics, set and triggered one of the 2002 Bali bombs.

Inside the Jakarta house where police killed Dulmatin, investigators said they confiscated three remote bomb detonators, pamphlets detailing bomb-making techniques, guns and ammunition.

Indonesia’s Police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri said that no evidence had been found that indicated a planned attack during Obama’s trip, but that security risks did exist.

“The raids are not over yet,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Celebrations over the death of Dulmatin, who had fled to the Philippines in 2003 to join the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf, were tempered by the fact that he managed to slip back into Indonesia undetected, raising questions about the country’s border security.

The United States government had offered a $10 million reward for Dulmatin’s capture.

Even more worrying, analysts said, is the possibility that other high-profile terrorists had come back with him, including Umar Patek, another Indonesian-born radical who has commanded militant groups in both the Philippines and Indonesia. Dulmatin and Umar Patek both trained in Afghanistan, police said.

Counterterrorism officials said that a third man, Zulkarnaen, who they believe also played a role in the Bali bombings, could also have returned.

“The fact that Dulmatin was able to come back with no one detecting it – and possibly bring with him Umar Patek – means that there are still serious gaps in regional monitoring,” said Sidney Jones, an analyst in Jakarta with the International Crisis Group.

Indonesia’s counterterrorism unit, known as Detachment 88, has been much praised over the last eight years for its success in dismantling the militant wing of Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian terror network with links to Al Qaeda, and other radical groups, prompting the Bush administration to begin normalizing ties with Indonesia’s military, a process that has continued under Obama.

The coordinated bombings of the Marriot and Ritz-Carlton hotels in July, however, and now the re-emergence of Dulmatin and the discovery of the Aceh camp, have again shown how quickly Indonesia’s Islamic radicals are able to regroup.

“They are more resilient that we imagined,” Jones said.