Noordin Mohammad Top, the Muslim militant who police say is the chief suspect in last month’s suicide bomb attacks on luxury hotels in Jakarta and other deadly attacks, is one of Asia’s most wanted men.
Indonesian police sources said on Saturday they believed the former accountant and maths teacher had been killed during raids in Central Java and were trying to identify his body.
Malaysian-born Noordin was once a key figure in Jemaah Islamiah, a militant group that aimed to create a caliphate across Southeast Asia, but analysts say he created his own more violent splinter group in 2003.
He is suspected of planning the bomb attacks on the JW Marriott in Jakarta in 2003, on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004 and in Bali in 2005 — attacks designed to scare off foreign tourists and businesses.
Experts said the near-simultaneous attacks last month at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta’s main business district used explosives identical to those found in previous Jemaah Islamiah attacks.
The attacks came after a lull of four years during which Indonesia achieved political stability and strong economic growth after a decade of tumult following the ouster of former autocratic president Suharto.
Indonesia’s violent jihad seemed to have subsided. Noordin’s partner, the Malaysian bomb-maker Azahari Husin, was killed in 2005. Two Jemaah Islamiah militants were jailed in April 2008, and three Bali bombers were executed in November that year. Noordin himself had not been heard from in several years.
The July 17 attacks that killed nine people, including two suspected bombers, and injured scores, seemed to signal he had returned to the fray.
Noordin fled to Indonesia with Azahari following a Malaysian crackdown on militants just before the suicide airline attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001.
Intelligence officials say the two men plotted attacks and recruited young Indonesians, some of them from Islamic boarding schools, to carry them out. Noordin was the financier and Azahari the bomb-maker. Newspapers called them the “Money Man” and the “Demolition Man”.
Indonesian troops from the elite Detachment 88 — the same force that apparently has tracked down Noordin — cornered Azahari, an engineer and former university lecturer, at a house in East Java in November 2005. The father of two was killed, either by a police bullet or by a bomb set off by an accomplice.
Some mystical Javanese believe Noordin must possess magic powers or charms that protect 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 sympathisers who guard his whereabouts and act as his couriers when he needs to send messages to his cells.
Noordin re-married and depended on his immediate family to hide and help him, Indonesian counter-terrorism officials say, showing how hard it is to snuff out militancy in Indonesia despite hundreds of arrests and a comprehensive programme to deradicalise extremists.
Analysts said Noordin has been acting on his own since 2003, and has gained a near mythical status among some younger, more radical members of Jemaah Islamiah and other groups.
Noordin’s ability to recruit suicide bombers was the key to his success, said Ken Conboy, a security consultant at Risk Management Advisory and author of books on Indonesian security issues.
“To me that is the real key; that he was able to get these usually village boys and convince them often in just matter of days to give their lives,” Conboy told Reuters. “Now that he’s gone out of that role, that’s a big blow to what’s left of that organisation.”
He reportedly made a video on DIY bomb construction, which included lessons on how “martyrs” should perform their final ritual acts, including prayers and debt repayments, and how to create a video-will.
Noordin, 40, was born in Johor, southern Malaysia, and completed a bachelor of science at the University of Technology, Malaysia in 1991. He worked briefly as an accountant before launching a career as a jihadist with a bounty of 1 billion rupiah ($99,450) on his head.
Noordin’s disagreement with other Jemaah Islamiah members over the use of violence, even if they killed Indonesians, led him in 2003 to form a far more violent splinter group called Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, or Organisation for the Base of Jihad.
His death, if confirmed, would be a major blow against violent jihad in Indonesia, Conboy said.
“Now they’re going to connect the dots and get everybody that was part of the network. Figure out where the explosives came from, who actually provide the last device, sanctuary to the militants all this years, who helped their hands and before they went and did it.”