It's been a successful few days in the war on terror. On Aug. 5 Baitullah Mehsud, leader of Pakistan's Taliban, was apparently killed in a strike by a U.S. drone. And on Saturday Aug. 8, Indonesian authorities reported that Noordin M. Top, the country's most wanted terrorist, was probably killed during a police raid, ending a years-long manhunt for the Malaysian believed responsible for a string of bomb attacks in Jakarta and Bali in recent years. In a dramatic shootout broadcast on national TV, police surrounded and fired shots at a small house in Temanggung in central Java, where the fugitive had been holed up for the past two days. Police have yet to confirm officially the death of Top but local news sources say that small bombs or grenades set off in the house would have killed anyone inside.
Police had surrounded the house since Friday afternoon but were trying to assess if the house had been booby-trapped or if the suspect was holding any hostages. After sending in a small robotic camera on wheels, both possibilities were ruled out, allowing police to fire on the barn-like structure set between a rice field and a small hill, from where more than 150 police surveyed the hideout. When asked by police to identify himself and surrender, the suspect yelled that his name was Noordin M. Top but refused to come out. It is not yet clear whether Top blew himself up, as he was believed to have a bomb vest strapped on, or whether he was killed by police gunfire or their explosives. (See pictures of Bali showing a city reeling from destruction and mourning loss.)
Experts say that Top, an accountant by training, was inducted in 1998 as a member of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the Southeast terror network with links to al-Qaeda. Top, a Malaysian who went to Indonesia after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., is believed to have been involved in all of the suicide bomb attacks in Indonesia since two night clubs in Bali were blown up in 2002, killing 202 people. Experts say he planned the first bombing of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta in 2003 with fellow Malaysian Azhari Husin, who was killed by Indonesian police in East Java in 2005. Top, 40, later directed the attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004 and since then, according to the International Crisis Group, a conflict-resolution organization, has led a JI splinter group of around 30 men believed to be some of the most dangerous jihadis in the country.
If Top's death is confirmed, the news will help restore confidence in President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the authorities, who were caught off guard by two suicide bombers who blew themselves up in Jakarta on July 17 this year at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, killing themselves, six foreigners and one Indonesian. The bombings, the first deadly attacks in four years, reaffirmed concern that JI was back. The Indonesian government had received high praise from Washington in its fight against terror but with Top, a key strategist and recruiter, still on the run, there were persistent fears that another attack was imminent. (Read "Will the Jakarta Bombings Scare Away Foreigners?")
The former head of Indonesia's state intelligence called the operation to hunt down Top "brilliant" but warned that the country must still be vigilant. "We still have to be alert because the brain behind all this is al-Qaeda and the hand moves when the brain tells it to," A.M. Hendropriyono told a reporter on Jakarta's MetroTV. "The brain is outside the country but the tentacles are here and they could regenerate." Still, he said the killing of Top was a victory in that Top's charisma and ability to recruit was as much a threat as his technical ability.
On Friday night police shot dead two militants, Aher Setiawan and Eko Joko Sarjono, in a Jakarta suburb. Police said the men, believed to be Top's accomplices, were making a car bomb with 500 kg of explosives to be used on the President's home in Cikeas, outside of Jakarta. Now, with Top's apparent death, Indonesians can hope that such terror plots will be an exception rather than the rule.