The news felt familiar: after a dramatic shootout in central Java, Indonesian police had managed to corner and kill the region's most-wanted terrorist, Noordin Mohammed Top. A month after first reporting Noordin's death in another August raid, police announced on Sept. 17 that this time they were "sure" that the decapitated body found in the house where the seige occurred was that of the Malaysian fugitive believed to have masterminded everything from deadly Bali bombings and an attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta to the twin explosions on July 17 that struck two hotels in the Indonesian capital. DNA tests in coming days will confirm Noordin's identity, say police, although the corpse's fingerprints already match those believed to be his.
The presumed end to a seven-year campaign to nab Noordin is rightly being celebrated among Indonesian anti-terror forces, who have already netted more than a dozen other high-profile suspects in connection with the latest hotel bombings. The captures aren't a one-off occurrence. Four years ago, Indonesian commandoes killed Azahari bin Husin, the key bomb-maker for Jemaah Islamiah (JI), the extremist network that has as its stated goal the creation of a pan-Asian Islamic caliphate. Noordin is suspected of having been a central JI strategist before forming an even more radical, al-Qaeda-linked offshoot that carried out the July hotel bombings.
In addition to these high-profile raids and shoot-outs, Indonesian task forces have focused on a quieter form of battle: winning the hearts and minds of potential extremists by infiltrating their cells and preaching an alternative path or packing them off to re-education camps. The four-year pause in terrorist activity in Indonesia seemed to prove the success of such tactics.
But the July bombings shattered that peace, and laid bare some holes in Indonesia's anti-terror strategy. One of the men believed to have been killed alongside Noordin was Bagus Budi Pranoto, also known as Urwah. An explosives expert, he spent three years in jail in connection with the 2004 Australian embassy attack but was released in 2007 and is rumored to have quickly re-established contact with Noordin. Some terror experts wonder why people like Urwah, who was thought to have devised the July hotel explosives, were not monitored more carefully after serving their jail terms.
There's also the question of how Noordin was able to elude capture for so long, operating with impunity across the Indonesian archipelago but presumably spending much of his time on the populated island of Java. Unlike, say, parts of Pakistan's frontier, where central authorities don't dare to roam because of tribal activity, Java is firmly under Indonesian control. Yet a network of Islamic militants and sympathizers kept the Malaysian shielded, while he resided in several villages. Reports even trickled out of Noordin's recent marriages to young women in Java, one in the aftermath of the July hotel bombings.
And despite being on the run, Noordin and his lieutenants were still able to lure callow youth to their cause. One of the suicide bombers who struck a luxury hotel in Jakarta, for instance, was only 18. Other key planners of the July attacks are believed to include former students at JI-linked pesantrens, or Islamic schools. In a comprehensive report released last month, the International Crisis Group (ICG), an influential terror and conflict watchdog, warned: "If officials of the [Indonesian] religious affairs ministry visit these schools, as they periodically do, and announce there is nothing amiss, it is because they are not looking in the right place."
Finally, as the ICG report also pointed out, there's the worrisome specter of foreign funding, which appears to have been a crucial ingredient in the July bombings. In particular, Indonesian police are zeroing in on possible money flows from Saudi Arabia and Yemen. The increased integration of Indonesian terror into a global network will make it harder for even the most diligent of Indonesian anti-terror task forces to monitor extremist Islamic activity at home despite the reported demise of a man as influential as Noordin Mohammed Top.