Southeast Asia's Most Wanted Militant at Large

Southeast Asia's most wanted Muslim militant is said to be a masterful bomb-maker and aspiring regional commander for al-Qaida, who has eluded capture for nearly a decade.

Malaysian Noordin Mohammad Top, classified by the U.S. State
Department as a terrorism financier since the 2002 and 2005 Bali
bombings, is believed to have struck again last week when twin
suicide blasts killed seven at the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott
hotels in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta - at least four of them
foreigners.

"Noordin is a smart and cunning terrorist," Brig. Surya
Dharma, the former head of the Detachment 88 anti-terrorism unit
told The Associated Press. "He wants to show that he deserves to
be the commander of al-Qaida here in Southeast Asia."

Noordin's radical ideas took form in the early 1990s at a
Malaysian boarding school run by an Indonesian Muslim cleric named
Abdullah Sungkar, said Sidney Jones, a prominent terrorism expert.
He later joined Southeast Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah
in 1998, after brief training in the southern Philippines.

He fled south to the Indonesian province of Riau in 2002 amid a
crackdown on Muslim extremists in Malaysia in the wake of the Sept.
11, 2001, attacks in the United States, before rising to prominence
in the Bali bombings.

Prosecutors say Noordin orchestrated attacks in Indonesia four
years in a row with al-Qaida's support, including the 2002 bombings
on the resort island of Bali, the first J.W. Marriott Hotel attack
in 2003, the Australian Embassy blast in 2004, and the 2005 triple
suicide bombings on restaurants in Bali.

Together, they killed more than 240 people, many of them Western
tourists. Police have widely distributed his photo and offer a
$100,000 reward for information that leads to his capture, yet
Noordin has slipped across borders undetected.

A disagreement over targeting civilians caused a split in Jemaah
Islamiyah and Noordin formed a more violent faction, Tanzim Qaidat
al-Jihad, which he reportedly called the "al-Qaida for the Malay
archipelago." Its aim is to create a common Muslim state in
Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The closest authorities have ever come to seizing him was
probably in July 2008, in Palembang, a coastal city on Sumatra, in
a raid that netted 10 militant suspects.

"Noordin has shown a talent for escape," said Jones, a senior
adviser to the International Crisis Group think tank. "He has
narrowly avoided arrest about six times and remains the target of
what may be the biggest manhunt in Indonesian history."

With more that 17,000 islands and a population of 235 million,
Indonesia "is an easy place for one man to remain hidden if he
wants to and he also has a lot of sympathy," said Scott Stewart,
vice president for tactical intelligence at the Texas-based private
intelligence company Stratfor.

Trained in the southern Philippines, where a Muslim insurgency
is being waged against the central government, Noordin is also
"more than capable of constructing the explosive devices that were
used," he said in a telephone interview with The AP. He may also
have trained someone else to do it, Stewart said.

Most of Noordin's support network was thought to have been wiped
out by a massive operation in recent years under Indonesian
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that rounded up hundreds of
purported operatives and supporters.

In November 2005, police shot and killed Azhari Husin, a close
friend and technical operative of Noordin's, which prompted a video
threat to the West.

"As long as you keep your troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and
intimidate Muslim people, you will feel our intimidation and our
terror," a masked man believed to be Noordin said in the message
aired on Indonesian television at the time. "You will be the
target of our next attack."

Three Australians and a New Zealander were killed in Friday's
attack on the Marriott, when a bomber blew himself up next to a
meeting of executives working for Western companies. The other
victim in the Marriott attack was an Indonesian cook, while the
identities of those killed at the Ritz-Carlton have not yet been
verified.

Investigators are also trying to identify the bombers and are
following up leads in Central Java, where explosives were found at
the house of Noordin's father-in-law earlier this month that were
"identical" to those recovered from the site of detonation,
police said. No arrests have been made.

The recent bombings "showed us and America that Noordin is
capable of carrying out new attacks," said Dharma the former
counter-terror official. "I know the police will never stop
searching."


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