Noordon Top plans new path of terror

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Jan. 30, 2006 at 12:45 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Indonesia's top cop revealed Monday the most-wanted Islamist terrorist leader in Southeast Asia has split formally with his organization and started his own.

That could make the terror threat to civilians across the region, especially to Christians and Americans in Indonesia, more serious than ever in the short term.

But it also reflects the increasing success the Indonesian security authorities have been having in recent months cracking down on terror groups and greatly augmenting their intelligence on them.

Gen. Sutanto, head of Indonesia's national police service, told parliament in Jakarta Monday that Noordin Mohammed Top, the Malaysian-born militant who has been the driving force in the wave of terror bombings across the world's most populous Muslim nation over the past few years, has now formally split with his old Jemaah Islamiyah militant network and has now formed his own group entitled Tanzim Qaidat-al Jihad, or "Al-Qaida's Jihad Organization."

Sutanto said the split was not a recent one, but that the Indonesian security services had established it took place several months ago, no later than October 2005 and possibly earlier.

Top has carefully studied the organizational structures and career patterns of Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and sought to emulate them.

Like al-Zarqawi, he has emphasized the technique of recruiting, training and motivating suicide bombers to attack civilian targets and inflict maximum casualties. And following bin Laden and al-Qaida, he lays great importance on Internet activities. Australian and Indonesian security authorities recently revealed Top's supporters had put a primer for Islamist militants online.

Top's trail of terror in recent years has been well documented. He is believed to have been behind the 2002 Bali bombings that devastated discotheques frequented by Western, mainly Australian tourists, killing 202 people, including 88 Australians. He was also behind the bombings in Jakarta of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian embassy in 2004.

But in recent months, the Indonesian security authorities have been breathing heavily down Top's neck. When former Defense Minister Bambang Susilo Yudhoyono succeeded Megawati Sukarnoputri as president of Indonesia, he streamlined the security services and police and put new hard-driving leaders in charge of them. Indonesian and U.S. intelligence have also benefited over the past year from a broad popular wave of support for the United States following the massive American help to Indonesia after the December 2004 tsunami disaster that killed scores of thousands of people in Sumatra.

As a result, Top lost his right-hand man, master bomb-maker Azahari bin-Husin, who killed himself in November 2005 rather than surrender when an elite police squad cornered him near a resort in mountainous central Java. Top narrowly escaped capture at the same time.

Top has also been facing increased criticism within JI, reflecting frustration within the organization dedicated to establishing Caliphate imposing extreme interpretations of Sharia, or Muslim religious law, across Southeast Asia.

The Association of South East Asian Nations region is a vast area with half a billion people, and despite its high profile attacks, JI has so far been unable to significantly generate the political destabilization it sought.

U.S. and Indonesian security authorities believe Top's critics within the organization have charged his emulation of al-Zarqawi and al-Qaida's tactics of inflicting maximum civilian casualties have so far not hurt the Indonesian economy but instead provoked popular revulsion and a far more effective security crackdown against them.

Top's new organization appears to be a defiant repudiation of his critics. Its very name deliberately invokes al-Qaida, and al-Zarqawi's extremely formidable and effective guerrilla organization in Iraq: the Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Balad al-Rafidin, or Organization of the Base of Jihad in Iraq, Land of the Two Rivers.

The name also appears to deliberately carry echoes of the Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Eropa -- the organization of the Base of Jihad in Europe that claimed responsibility for the July 7 suicide bombings of London trains and a bus that killed 52 civilians and injured another 700.

However, traditionally tolerant Indonesia is not Iraq and is in a very different position from the embittered and marginalized Sunni minority in Iraq where al-Zarqawi's group thrives.

Top is therefore attempting to franchise the al-Qaida brand name as other groups around the world have already done. So far, his group seems to have more in common with the terror bombers of Madrid and London than with al-Zarqawi's formidable network in Iraq. And it does not appear capable of posing a formidable threat to the Indonesian government and national stability in the near future. But its capacity to kill and maim will be none the less for all that.

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