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Decapitation of a hydra? An interview with Rohan Gunaratna

17/09/2009

Today Noordin Mohammad Top, often described as South East Asia most wanted terrorist was killed in a police shoot-out in Central Java. Some might say it has lifted a major security threat in the region but Rohan Gunaratna says the fight is not over yet.

ICSR:  Firstly, who was Noordin Mohammad Top?

Rohan Gunaratna: Noordin Mohammad Top was a Malaysian terrorist driven by al Qaeda’s philosophy. He had been on the run since the devastating Bali bombing of October 2002 which was executed by Jemaah Islamiya and funded by al Qaeda.

In the years that followed, he emerged as the de-facto operational leader of Jemmah Islamiyah. He worked with multiple groups, clusters of cells and individuals, and built the most threatening network in the region.

After the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton bombings in July 2009, the government intensified the hunt for Noordin Mohammad Top. It had been going on for eight years.

 

ICSR:  His death is a real success to them, then.

Rohan Gunaratna: Indeed, Detachment 88, Indonesia’s elite Counter Terrorism Unit should be congratulated: they managed to hunt down and kill Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorist.

After capturing and interrogating his couriers, Rahmat Budi Prabowo alias Bejo and Supono alias Kedu of D88 tracked him down to Solo in Central Java, the nerve centre of Islamic radicalism in Indonesia.

The gun battle lasted eight hours starting at 11 p.m. on September 16. D88 strike team breached the safe house where Noordin Mohammad Top was hiding and killed him along with Aji, a master bomb maker, Urwah, a top recruiter and Susilo, a logistician.

ICSR:  International cooperation was crucial in this particular case. Which countries participated and how did they work together?

Rohan Gunaratna: There is extensive security and intelligence cooperation both within and outside the region.

Detachment 88 was created after the Bali bombing that killed 202 civilians including 88 Australians. Although Australia was reluctant to acknowledge it, without its initial and sustained assistance D88 would not have reached this level of competence.

Furthermore, the US, the UK, Singapore and other countries worked with D88 to build their specialist capabilities. Today, with extensive operational experience D88 trains other elite forces.

As intelligence is the spearhead of counter terrorism, there is excellent intelligence sharing between the countries affected by Jemaah Islamiyah. There is ongoing intelligence exchange between Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, and Australia. And because Jemaah Islamiyah’s operational leader Hambali is in US custody, the US has also shared intelligence with all the regional partners.

Both operational and intelligence cooperation was central in neutralizing Noordin Mohammad Top: as long the threat is persistent this cooperation will continue.

ICSR:  What impact will Noordin Mohammad Top’s death have on the terrorism network in the region?

Rohan Gunaratna: As Noordin Mohammad Top skillfully built and operated a network, he will be replaced by a multiplicity of leaders. None of them will have the skill and the experience of Noordin Mohammad Top but they will pose a long term strategic and national threat to Indonesia and the region.

However Noordin Mohammad Top’s death should not lull Indonesia into a state of complacency. Ideologues of hatred like Abu Bakar Bashir, the co founder of Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Jibril, the leader of Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia (Mujahidin Council of Indonesia) are still active.

Unless Indonesia has the will and skill to dismantle the ideological and operational infrastructure of Jemmah Islamiya and other likeminded groups, Indonesia will continue to suffer from periodic terrorist attacks.

This means not only hunting and killing terrorists but building a legal framework that criminalizes terrorist propaganda, recruitment, fund raising and other support activities that enable and facilitates terrorism, and its parent, ideological extremism.

Rohan Gunaratna is the author of Inside al Qaeda: Global Network of Terror published by Columbia University Press. He debriefed detainees in several countries including in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, US and in Indonesia. He is the head of the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.