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Setbacks to Terrorists Won't Halt Attacks, Officials Say

Despite arrests, Jemaah Islamiah network cells are expected to remain a threat in Southeast Asia.

August 17, 2003|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

BANGKOK, Thailand — A string of arrests from Thailand to Indonesia has put new pressure on the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network, but it does not mean a quick end to the deadly attacks that have hit Southeast Asia, officials and analysts in the region warn.

Authorities hope that last week's arrest of the man known as Hambali, Southeast Asia's most wanted terrorist suspect, will help them uncover cells operating in Indonesia, the Philippines and other parts of the region.

In a further sign of progress, Indonesian police said Saturday that they had arrested nine suspects in recent days in the Aug. 5 bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, that killed 12 people, including a suicide bomber.

But officials and analysts caution that Jemaah Islamiah and its affiliate Al Qaeda have been active for so long in Southeast Asia that it could take years to track down the networks' agents and end the threat.

"The arrest of Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, is a piece of cheerful news to all peace-loving people of Asia," Singaporean Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng said. "But the threat of terrorism is not over yet, as there are other Jemaah Islamiah operatives still on the run or who have not surfaced. The terrorist threat is a real and continuing one and will not go away for a long time."

Hambali, who has used numerous aliases, was Al Qaeda's top representative in Southeast Asia and the operations chief of Jemaah Islamiah, authorities say. He helped organize terrorist acts in the region for nearly a decade and might have had a role in the Sept. 11 attacks, investigators say.

Authorities believe that Hambali was the mastermind of last year's nightclub bombings in Bali, which killed 202 people, and the Marriott attack. Jemaah Islamiah seeks to establish a Taliban-style Islamic state in much of Southeast Asia.

Hambali was arrested Monday night in Ayutthaya, a town in central Thailand where he had been living since July.

Authorities have been reluctant to discuss how they located Hambali, saying they did not want to jeopardize their efforts to find other suspects. On Friday, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra said a tip from a local citizen had led to Hambali's arrest.

On Saturday, the prime minister said the discovery of an "irregular money transaction" had led authorities to three suspected Jemaah Islamiah members who were arrested last month in southern Thailand and from them to Hambali.

The transaction "resulted in the arrest of the first case, the second, the third, and now we have got the fourth man -- Mr. Hambali -- who is regarded as the last one in our land," Thaksin said. "Finally, we have got them all."

Thaksin did not elaborate, but in June and July authorities arrested three Thais and a Malaysian in southern Thailand as suspected members of Jemaah Islamiah.

Police charged that the four were preparing to bomb embassies and tourist resorts in October when President Bush and other heads of state meet here.

The Malaysian was subsequently identified as Zubair, a senior Jemaah Islamiah member who authorities say played an important role in managing the group's finances.

Malaysian and Thai newspapers reported Saturday that Zubair gave authorities information that helped lead to Hambali's capture.

Thailand handed Hambali over to U.S. authorities, who flew him Wednesday to an undisclosed location where he was being interrogated.

Thaksin told reporters that Hambali was plotting to stage attacks during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in October, when more than 20 heads of state are scheduled to meet in Thailand.

"The result of investigations show that Hambali came to Thailand not only to seek a safe haven, but he also planned to make a move during the APEC meeting," he said. "He came here to work and was using Thailand as a base for committing acts of terror. Investigations reveal some connection to APEC, but we still have to investigate further."

In Indonesia, police said the nine suspects arrested in the Marriott bombing were seized on Sumatra, the home island of Asmar Latin Sani, the driver who carried out the attack. Police said they did not want to identify the suspects for fear of jeopardizing the investigation.

Authorities in Jakarta are on a state of high alert this weekend because of intelligence suggesting the possibility of another terrorist attack there.

Andrew Tan, an analyst with the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore, said Hambali's arrest was a significant breakthrough in the investigation but would not necessarily help authorities prevent attacks in the near future.

Like Al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiah is highly decentralized and relies on a cell structure that allows members to operate independently of one another. Members are also trained to take the initiative in staging attacks if arrests have disrupted the organization's leadership, Tan said.

About 200 suspected Jemaah Islamiah operatives have been arrested in the region in the last two years, but Tan estimates that as many as 800 others who received military and bomb-making training in Afghanistan or the southern Philippines remain on the loose.

"I don't think terrorism has been averted just because Hambali has been arrested," he said. "The overwhelming majority of Jemaah Islamiah operatives are still out there."

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