JAKARTA (AFP) – Indonesian police said Friday they had captured the head of Southeast Asian extremist network Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for some of the deadliest terror attacks in the region.
They said Zarkasi had been heading the militant Muslim outfit since 2004 and that he had been seized in raids last weekend which also netted the alleged head of a JI special forces unit.
The capture of Zarkasi, who is also known as Mbah which means grandfather in Javanese, is a further blow to JI, an Al-Qaeda-linked organisation that aims to create a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia through violent jihad.
“Zarkasi controlled JI operations across the whole of Indonesia,” said Surya Dharma, head of the country’s anti-terror unit, Detachment 88.
He said the 45-year-old militant was in charge of training JI leaders, controlling weapons and ammunition, and managing assignments for attacks.
Sidney Jones, a JI expert and the Southeast Asian director of the International Crisis Group, told AFP that Zarkasi was from “the real first important generation of JI”.
JI is a shadowy organisation and information about who is who within the group, and what roles they play, is scarce.
The anti-terror chief Dharma said Zarkasi was nabbed in Indonesia’s cultural capital of Yogyakarta a few hours after the capture of 37-year-old Abu Dujana, named as the head of a special forces unit within JI.
Dujana’s capture alone was considered to be a major breakthrough for Indonesia’s efforts to curb the activities of the group, blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people — mostly westerners — and a string of other attacks on western or Christian targets.
Terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna told AFP that the capture of the two men meant that “the military wing of JI, and JI as an organisation, has suffered very significantly.”
In video footage aired at the press conference, the pair spoke calmly of their roles in the organisation.
A bespectacled and greying Zarkasi said he had become the effective leader of JI in 2004 when it had created a “board” at its peak, while a wiry, moustachioed Dujana said he had headed the organisation’s military wing.
Zarkasi said he had only been leader while the organisation searched for “a real leader so that (we) are guided in performing our religion in a good way, either by faith propagation or in jihad (holy war)…
“We are continuing to look for a good amir (leader), the real one,” he added.
Raids in Yogyakarta in March, in which one militant was shot dead and seven others arrested, had led police to charts mapping the structure of JI, which showed that a board governed the group.
At the time, Dharma said, they were sure the board existed but they didn’t know who sat on it.
The raids led to a major seizure of bombs and weapons, which police said would have been used in future atrocities.
The anti-terror chief said JI was still in existence — even though no bombings blamed on them have occurred since October 2005 — and that members had been “building a network by recruitment, training and stockpiling weapons and ready-to-use bombs.”
He said Dujana, whom police announced they had captured on Wednesday, refused to reveal the whereabouts of Noordin Muhammad Top, a Malaysian fugitive.
“Even though (Dujana and Noordin) are in different structures, Dujana will not betray him by revealing his whereabouts,” he said.
Noordin is another of Indonesia’s most wanted men. He is believed to have formed a splinter group intent on launching more attacks after some JI members were unhappy that some Muslims had been killed in JI operations.
Speaking by telephone from the United States, expert Gunaratna said that it was only “a question of time for Detachment 88 to hunt down other high-value targets” including Noordin.
JI is also accused of carrying out the 2003 Marriott Hotel and 2004 Australian embassy attacks in the capital Jakarta as well as a triple suicide bombing in Bali in 2005.