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Southeast Asia Terrorist Group Down But Not Defeated


Experts say the death of a top leader and Indonesia's jailing of hundreds of members of the terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah have dealt a serious blow to the organization. Both the Indonesian government and terrorist experts agree the group is still capable of launching more attacks.

Indonesia, which has the world's largest Muslim population, has suffered a series of terrorist attacks over the past few years - most of them the work of the regional militant network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

Indonesian authorities have arrested around 260 JI militants, and brought 160 to court for the attacks. Five have been sentenced to death for their crimes, which include the 2002 bombing on the resort island of Bali. More than two hundred people died in that attack, most of them foreign tourists. A second bombing in Bali late last year killed 20 people.

Ken Conboy, a terrorism expert in Indonesia, says while Jakarta has successfully prosecuted militants, many of them are now getting out of jail and may cause problems in the coming months. Among them is the alleged JI spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir.

"A lot of the people that were arrested after the 2002 first Bali bomb are now being released. They've served their time, they had three years, some had three to five years, and there's a whole slew of guys that are getting released, have been released," Conboy said. "The acting emir of JI, Abu Rustan just got out. Later this year, in theory, Abu Bakar Bashir should get out. These guys are unrepentant. If anything, their release is going to embolden their supporters."

Conboy says, however, the death of explosives expert Azahari bin Husin last November during a shoot-out with police in Central Java severely hurt JI. But, he says, there are still key members on the loose, several in the southern Philippines, whom authorities need to capture before they launch more attacks.

"If they were able to get guys like Noordin Top I would feel a lot more comfortable. He seems to be the one right now that hands down is the most aggressive," Conboy said. "Dulmatin is probably one of the most technically competent. Zulkarnain is the one with the most seniority, it bothers me a lot. … These are the likes of the guys that have to be taken care of."

Malaysian Noordin Top, who police believe is one of the masterminds behind the bombings in Indonesia, is one of JI's most wanted men. Also high on the list of JI fugitives is Zulkarnain, who is thought to be responsible for several attacks, and explosives expert Dulmatin. The U.S. government offers a 10 million dollar reward for his capture.

Sidney Jones, a Southeast Asian terrorism expert from the International Crisis Group, says the problem with JI is its loose structure. It appears there are different groups that pose different types of threat.

"We have to keep in mind that we're effectively dealing with two groups. We're dealing with the suicide brigade that's led by Noordin [Top] with a couple of other people," said Jones. "That is the immediate threat and I think that this is in the process of being systematically rounded up by the police and I think that it's a matter of time before Noordin is caught and the capacity of this group to do serious damage is diminished."

The Indonesian police chief on Monday said that intelligence indicated Noordin Top may have declared himself head of a new organization. If it is true, that would be a sign of a formal split in JI.

Jones says the suicide brigade holds no more than 30 people and operates on an ad hoc basis. It is the main organization that concerns her the most, especially over the long run.

"I think we're dealing with a longer-term problem with the rest of the JI organization, which is much larger, with people who are coming out of prison now with the determination to build that back up again," she said. "And we have to look at where that's going to go five years from now, not tomorrow."

For decades, the iron-handed rule of former President Suharto kept Islamic militants contained - often through harsh repression. But Suharto was ousted in 1998, and since then the Indonesian government has paid more attention to human rights and developing a healthy legal system. Many in the country think that is the best way to limit the growth of militant groups - and that clamping down too hard, or rigging the courts, would only backfire by pushing angered Indonesians into militancy.

Ansyaad Mbai, the head of the government's counter-terrorism coordinating desk, says Indonesia has tried to follow the rule of law in dealing with terror suspects.

"Indonesia is very concerned in enforcing the law by respecting human rights and does not wish to repeat practices of the past where in dealing with radical groups, there were many violations of human rights," he said. "Today we do not wish to repeat that."

Ansyaad also says regional law enforcement cooperation is essential in fighting terrorism, because Jemaah Islamiyah members work with people in Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines.

"Apart from that, still within the area of law enforcement, these terrorists use sophisticated technology such as cyber technology in communicating with each other," he said. "We also need cyber technology to be able to intercept their network and of course technological assistance from the developed countries."

Over the past few years, the Indonesian government has extended its contacts with security officials in the United States and Australia, as well as increased cooperation with Malaysia and Singapore.

The Indonesian government and terrorism experts agree the good news on the war on terror is the number of really dangerous militant fugitives has been narrowed down to a handful.

But, the concern now, they say, is every month that goes by without their capture brings the reality of another terrorist attack closer.