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Indonesia hotel attacks may signal return of Jemaah Islamiyah

Hours after the Jakarta blasts, investigators focus on a Malaysian regarded as a key ideological leader of the terrorist group, which had not staged a major attack in four years.

July 18, 2009|Josh Meyer and John M. Glionna

WASHINGTON AND JAKARTA, INDONESIA — International suspicion focused on a Malaysian accountant-turned-bomb-maker as the instigator of a pair of hotel blasts in Jakarta on Friday that may signal the reemergence of deadly attacks by Southeast Asian groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, counter-terrorism officials and analysts said.

Noordin Mohammad Top, regarded as the ideological leader of the most violent wing of the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, drew almost immediate suspicion because of his presumed involvement in attacks from 2002 to 2005 in Indonesia, including bombings in Bali and Jakarta, as well as more recent militant activity, officials said.

The region's first significant attack in four years also generated suspicion about others in the sprawling network of militant cells known collectively as Jemaah Islamiyah, often referred to as JI. They include other top commanders and hard-liners recently released from Southeast Asian prisons, the officials said.

"JI is the only known terrorist organization in Southeast Asia that has the capacity, the network and the know-how to do this," said one senior U.S. law enforcement official who has spent years investigating the group. "They are the only game in town."

Before the attacks, authorities found explosives near an Islamic boarding school -- with ties to a woman believed to be Top's wife -- on the island of Java, which includes Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. The explosives appeared similar to those used in the bombings, according to a second U.S. official, who has been briefed on the Indonesian investigation. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the inquiry.

At least eight people were killed in the attacks Friday on the high-rise JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, which stand side by side in a fashionable business district of Jakarta frequented by Westerners. More than 50 people were injured in the attacks, including at least eight Americans. The U.S. State Department said no Americans were known to be among those killed.

One day before the blasts, an Australian think tank warned of a possible resurgence of attacks because of competition among extremist factions of Jemaah Islamiyah seeking to establish dominance. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute report detailed a split between militants who support Al Qaeda's strategy of attacking U.S. targets in Muslim countries and moderates who oppose it.

Of particular concern, it said, were a number of "hardened, experienced militants" recently released from prison who were ostracized by the group's more moderate members. That combination of factors, the institute said, "raises the possibility that splinter factions might now seek to re-energize the movement through violent attacks."

Juan Zarate, a top counter-terrorism official in the Bush administration, said the attacks demonstrated that Jemaah Islamiyah "is not a dead network." At the same time, some experts cautioned against early conclusions that the network or another major group was responsible.

"Southeast Asia is their theater of operations," said Dell Dailey, who was the State Department's coordinator for counter-terrorism during the last years of the Bush administration. "They are the right people to look at, but always remembering that this business is very complex and that we might find later that a small, hole-in-the-wall gang pulled this off due to righteous indignation, religious fervor or political grievance."

The attack was condemned in separate statements issued by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama praised Indonesian officials for curbing militant activity in recent years.

"However, these attacks make it clear that extremists remain committed to murdering innocent men, women and children of any faith in all countries," Obama said. Obama lived in Indonesia for several years as a youth and may have been considering an official visit there in coming months.

Indonesian authorities did not name a suspect, and no group claimed responsibility for the attacks. But evidence emerging Friday indicated that the explosions were the work of suicide bombers who were guests at the Marriott, where a bomb in 2003 killed 12 people.

Authorities said the attackers smuggled in their explosives and assembled the bombs in a room on the 18th floor, where an undetonated device was found later.

The bombers walked through security and were not stopped when checking in days before the blast. Indonesian National Police spokesman Nanan Sukarna told the English-language newspaper the Jakarta Post that security personnel questioned one of the bombers about the contents of his sack after a detector sounded, but let him pass.

"The officer asked the man, 'Is that a laptop?' The man answered 'Yes,' and the officer let the person in," Sukarna said.

Security at Western hotels remained on high alert today as investigators sifted through the wreckage.

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