JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia’s most wanted Islamist militant, Noordin Mohammad Top, was killed in a police shoot-out in Central Java, police said on Thursday, lifting a major security threat in Southeast Asia.
Malaysian-born Top, who set up a violent splinter group of regional militant network Jemaah Islamiah, was widely considered the mastermind of the bomb attacks on two luxury hotels in Jakarta in July, as well as other attacks in Bali and in Jakarta, which have killed scores of Westerners and Indonesians.
Top was born in southern Malaysia and turned to militant Islam after university and a spell as an accountant. He fled to Indonesia with fellow Malaysian and expert bomb-maker Azahari Husin following a domestic crackdown after the September 11 attacks in 2001. He became a key figure in militant group Jemaah Islamiah and is suspected of planning attacks on the JW Marriott in Jakarta in 2003, on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004 and in Bali. He formed a far more violent splinter group around 2005, whose name in English was “Al-Qaeda Jihad Organization for the Malay Archipelago,” after his hardline stance on violence put him at odds with other JI members.
It is unclear what Top’s actual connections to the wider al Qaeda movement were, but analysts say several in his group appear to have had links and Indonesian police are investigating whether his network was receiving overseas funding from the Middle East.
While the mainstream JI has backed away from supporting violence, at least on Indonesian soil, Top did not. Helped by his professional background, analysts say Top became an expert in planning attacks, knowing how to find safe houses, undertaking surveillance and mixing explosives. Ken Conboy, a security consultant and author, said Top’s key role was his ability to recruit suicide bombers “...to me that is the real key that he was able to get these village boys and convince them often in just matter of days to give their lives.” Analysts also say he was quick to improvise tactics after, for example, some of his early attacks killed many Indonesian Muslims and as security was increased at some targets.
Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group said Top had been the only leading militant leader in Indonesia who had still been campaigning for implementation of Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa on killing Westerners. “There isn’t another radical leader in Indonesia who has given that same message so consistently,” said Jones. She said Top’s death was “a huge blow for the extremist organizations in Indonesia and the region.”
“It’s a major success for the police but it doesn’t mean, unfortunately, that the problem of terrorism is over. It’s still unclear how many people were in Noordin’s group and there are a number of fugitives still at large who have at least the potential to replace him as the leader of an al Qaeda-like organization.”
Most Indonesian Muslims follow a moderate form of Islam, but an increasingly vocal radical fringe has grown in recent years in Indonesia’s young democracy. Top had built up something of a cult following, particularly among some younger militants, who dismissively refer to many senior JI members as NATO -- “No Action, Talk Only.” So his death could demoralize radicals, although it could also mean he is viewed as a martyr. In practical terms, analysts say that his death will be a big blow to his group and the capture of key members will mean police should be able to quickly unravel much of the network.
Purbaya Yudhi Sadewa, an analyst at the Danareksa Institute, said Top’s death would help improve investment sentiment. “This is plus-plus news for the economy,” said Sadewa, who said he expected Indonesian financial markets to see more gains. Moody’s Investors Service also raised Indonesia’s sovereign rating on Wednesday by one notch to Ba2 on improving economic prospects.
Helped by improved economic and political stability under President Yudhoyono, the rupiah is the best performing currency in Asia so far this year, while Jakarta stocks are up more than 80 percent and bond prices have also rallied.
Some mystical Javanese believed Top possessed magic powers or charms that protected him. He is thought to have escaped a raid in Central Java in 2006 when two other alleged militants were killed. Police put it down to his reluctance to use easily tracked mobile phones and his reliance on a close network of sympathizers who guard his whereabouts and act as his couriers when he needs to send messages to his cells.
Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu, Telly Nathalia and Sunanda Creagh; Writing by Bill Tarrant; Editing by Ed Davies