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 ahead of a planned visit by U.S. President Barack Obama.
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.
National police chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri, when asked if it was true that Top had been killed, told reporters: “Yes, yes yes.” The police chief had just held a meeting with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
A smiling Danuri later announced Top’s death at a news conference, triumphantly holding up photos to show the match between Top’s fingerprints and those on police file, as reporters and police in the room cheered. He said police had also seized documents, laptops and weapons in the raid.
Local media, quoting police sources, had trumpeted Top’s death last month during a police raid in Central Java, only to have forensic tests prove that wrong days later.
Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and the world’s most populous Muslim country, has been under intense pressure to capture or kill Top ahead of Obama’s visit in November.
“It’s a huge blow for the extremist organisations in Indonesia and the region,” said Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamic militants with the International Crisis Group. “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 organisation.”
National police spokesman Nanan Soekarna said three people had been captured in the overnight raid on a house near Solo, including the wife of the man renting the house and two others, who were detained earlier.
“We also confiscated explosives, weapons and a grenade from the house,” Soekarna said, adding later that eight sacks of explosives had been found.
Three other people killed in the raid included members of Top’s inner circle, police and analysts said.
Police have been searching for several people believed to be behind the near-simultaneous attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels on July 17 in which nine people, including two suicide bombers, were killed and 53 wounded.
The July bomb attacks in Jakarta ended a four-year lull in militant attacks in Indonesia. Subsequent police investigations showed that Top’s group of militants had planned to assassinate President Yudhoyono at his home using a suicide truck bomb.
Top, a key recruiter, strategist and financier for Jemaah Islamiah, has been on the run for years, eluding capture on several occasions. He and his associates often used safe houses in Central Java as hideouts, helped by a network of sympathisers in the area, and relied on couriers, rather than easily tracked mobile phones, to communicate with his cells.