Indonesian Police Kill Asia's Most Wanted Islamist Militant

Noordin Mohammed Top had eluded police for eight years.
Noordin Mohammed Top had eluded police for eight years. (AP)
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By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 18, 2009

JAKARTA, Indonesia, Sept. 17 -- Asia's most wanted Islamist militant was killed during a raid by an American-trained anti-terrorism squad in Indonesia on Thursday, ending a long hunt for an erstwhile accountant linked to a string of terrorist attacks, including bombings on the resort island of Bali and suicide attacks in July on two American luxury hotels in Jakarta.

Noordin Mohammed Top, a university-educated master of disguises, eluded police for eight years but was finally cornered in a rented house surrounded by palm trees in central Java. Noordin declined to surrender, kept shooting and died with "bullets in his pockets," Indonesia's police chief, Bambang Hendarso Danuri, told reporters. The militant's body and those of three confederates were found in the bathroom.

Police launched the operation after the arrest Wednesday of two militants who provided information that led to Noordin's rented house near the town of Solo.

Noordin, who claimed links to al-Qaeda and received funding from supporters in the Middle East, led a small but vicious militant group that operated under various guises, including the name Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad. The group, which has attacked hotels, bars and other targets, declared after a 2004 bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that it wanted "to make Western nations tremble."

Noordin's death alleviates security concerns ahead of a November trip to Jakarta by President Obama, who lived here as a boy. When President George W. Bush visited Jakarta in 2006, he stayed only six hours because of safety concerns.

In the bullet-scarred house where Noordin died, police found laptop computers, guns, grenades and explosives.

No evidence has been uncovered of any plans by Noordin or his lieutenants to disrupt Obama's trip. But Indonesian authorities said this summer that they had foiled a plot by Noordin's group to attack the palace of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a car bomb. Reelected in July for a second term, Yudhoyono, a former soldier who studied at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, has worked closely with U.S. authorities in battling Islamist militancy in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.

The United States helped arm, train and fund Special Detachment 88, the Indonesian police unit that led the hunt for Noordin and launched Thursday's raid.

Police thought they had found and killed Noordin in July, but the body turned out to be someone else's. Noordin's identity, police say, has now been verified through fingerprints taken from the corpse found in the bathroom.

Noordin was most recently linked to suicide bombings in July in Jakarta at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, both popular with Western businessmen. Nine people, including the bombers, died. Police quickly captured or killed a number of Noordin's associates, but Noordin managed to stay one step ahead.

Over the years, he reportedly had adopted various disguises, passing himself off as a prosperous businessman and a ragged beggar. He also benefited from a network of supporters, many of them activists in Jemaah Islamiah, a deeply entrenched Islamist group that has been blamed for various attacks but now claims to disavow violence.

Noordin, a Malaysian citizen, fled to Indonesia after a crackdown in his home country triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. In Indonesia, he linked up with the armed wing of Jemaah Islamiah but later split from it to form a more violent outfit, Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, or Organization for the Base of Jihad.

Sidney Jones, a senior adviser for the International Crisis Group's Asia program, said police had "taken out" Indonesia's most dedicated follower of al-Qaeda's cause of global jihad. But she warned that associates still at large could well regroup in time. A quick retaliatory strike is unlikely, Jones said, but "I also don't think that you can conclude that terrorism in Indonesia is dead."

Noordin's death and the capture of many of his associates shows that, after a slow start, Indonesian police are winning the battle to uproot militancy, said Andi Widjajanto, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia. Noordin's death, he said, also lays to rest a long-standing assertion by Islamist activists: that Noordin never really existed. "He is real. He is not a fictional character created by authorities to prove there is a threat," Widjajanto said.

Staff writer Ellen Nakashima in Washington contributed to this report.

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