The hunt goes on for terror mastermind

Posted in Terrorism | 13-Aug-09 | Author: Patrick Guntensperger| Source: Asia Times

Police spokesperson Nanan Sukarna holds up a picture of a militant suspect

JAKARTA - Many Indonesians breathed easier last week when local television networks announced the arrest of Noordin Mohammad Top, Indonesia's most-wanted terrorist and suspected organizer of last month's deadly JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton suicide bombings.

Reports breathlessly announced that Top had been killed during a televised 16-hour siege at his supposed hideout in central Java. Some reports carried the qualifier that the Indonesian police who conducted the investigation, pursuit and siege took the "official position" that the terrorist had in fact neither been arrested nor killed.

Yet the story that Top had been killed was picked up internationally and amplified domestically. The only problem was that the deemed pro forma police denial was true.

Top was born in Malaysia and was alleged to be a key bombmaker and financier for the al-Qaeda-associated terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, before breaking away to form his own more radical splinter group. One of the most wanted criminals in Asia, he appears to have a sophisticated network of in-country followers and uncanny powers of persuasion, convincing people not only to hide him from his pursuers but also to launch high-profile suicide attacks on his behalf.

He is believed to have been the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 Jakarta JW Marriott Hotel bombing, the 2004 bombing at the Australian embassy in Jakarta, the follow-up 2005 Bali bombings, and most recently the second bombing at the Jakarta JW Marriott Hotel and the Ritz Carlton Hotel across the street. The United States Federal Bureau of Investigation has described him as "an officer, recruiter, bombmaker and trainer for the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) group".

While Islamic groups in Indonesia occasionally make mild statements to the effect that Top's brand of radical terrorism is not reflective of the views of the majority of Indonesian Muslims, and that Islam is a religion of peace, Top's apparent grassroots support has many observers questioning those statements.

Top's ability to move around the country with impunity and to acquire bomb-making materials, space, vehicles, shelter, finance and new recruits while remaining on virtually every "Most Wanted" list in Asia and abroad suggests that support for his radical cause runs deeper than the apologists would have one believe. Every moment Top remains at large reinforces that suspicion.

Meanwhile, local media outlets have had a field day covering the official manhunt. When Indonesian national police officers surrounded and laid siege to the house at Temanggung in Central Java where Top was believed to be hiding, live coverage was provided by every television network and station that had remote broadcasting equipment.

The siege became an epic media event, prompting competing broadcasters in their race for breaking news to report every rumor and suspicion as hard fact. While it turned out that the body of a man killed in the gun battle with police seems to have been a terrorist, possibly even recruited by Top's group, it was not Top himself. It's now clear that he was not in the house at the time of the siege and may never have been.

The police have blamed the confusion on the media, claiming that the reporting was "overly aggressive" and interfered with the police operation. There is some indication that the journalists' proximity to the base of operations and their live reporting of events might have prolonged the standoff and provided the besieged terrorists with valuable intelligence concerning police tactics and strategy.

The aggressive news reporting has prompted Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to call on the media to temper their response to such incidents and to consider the impact of their reporting on police operations. The Indonesian Press Council has also commented on the lack of professionalism displayed by journalists covering the manhunt and shootout.

In a country where freedom of expression and freedom of the press remain hot-button issues, the gonzo approach to news coverage carries the potential for undermining reform and future freedoms. The government's reluctance to unfetter the press completely, with at least six separate sections of the criminal code still allowing for jail sentences for published materials, is often accompanied by official references to the lack of press ethics and professionalism.

The coverage of the shootout has also dangerously heightened tensions between the police and the press. The police, at first hailed as heroes for having brought down the region's most wanted terrorist, were later vilified as glory seekers for prematurely grabbing credit they didn't deserve. The police have countered that their official position from the start was that they hadn't captured or killed the fugitive Top - and reports that claimed they did were based on speculation and rumor.

Journalists insist that their reports of Top's death were based on information provided by anonymous sources inside the police force. Despite the fact that at least one suspected terrorist was taken down and at least one cell of Top's network detected and shut down, security analysts believe that future terrorist attacks are still a clear and present danger in Indonesia. They contend that even if Top is captured or killed, the overall threat would be only marginally diminished.

Retired inspector general Ansaad Mbai, head of the counter-terrorism desk at the Office of the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, was quoted saying, "Even if it's true that [Top] was killed in the raid last week, it doesn't change the fact that our country remains under serious threat of terrorism." He added, "Killing [Top] will only slow terrorist attacks, but his followers will soon gather once more and plan more attacks."

And with Top still alive and at large, that risk is all the greater.

Patrick Guntensperger is a Jakarta-based journalist and teacher of journalism. His blog can be found at