SOLO, Indonesia – Special forces raided a hide-out Thursday and killed militant mastermind Noordin Muhammed Top, striking at the heart of the terrorist network behind a deadly campaign of suicide attacks in Indonesia, including the Bali nightclub bombings.
It was the latest success against terror figures worldwide, starting with a U.S. missile that took out a key Taliban commander in Pakistan last month.
Besides knocking out Southeast Asia's most-wanted man, Thursday's operation also netted a fugitive bombmaker believed to have designed explosives for twin suicide bombings at luxury hotels in Jakarta in July.
A cunning and charismatic figure, Noordin had eluded capture for more than seven years. He was tracked down at a house in the city of Solo in central Java, a breeding ground for militant Islam, where an overnight siege and hours-long gunfight ended at dawn with an explosion.
The bodies of four suspects were recovered from the burned-out house, including Noordin and an alleged explosives expert, Bagus Budi Pranato, believed to have manufactured the bombs used by suicide attackers in the July 17 attacks on the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels that killed seven and wounded more than 50.
Neighbors said the property was rented five months ago by a young couple who were teaching at a nearby Islamic school. The husband was among those killed in the firefight and his wife, who was pregnant, was wounded but was in stable condition at a hospital.
The prime target was Noordin, a Malaysian citizen and feared regional leader of al-Qaida with links to Osama bin Laden, said national police chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri.
Documents and laptop computers confiscated from the house prove that Noordin "is the leader of al-Qaida in Southeast Asia," he said. Police also recovered hundreds of pounds of explosives, M-16 assault rifles, grenades and bombs.
Noordin's fingerprints, obtained from Malaysian authorities and stored on an Indonesian police database, matched those of one of the bodies, Danuri said. DNA tests had not yet been conducted, and the bodies were flown to Jakarta for autopsies.
Indonesia had mounted one of the biggest manhunts in its history to try to capture Noordin, widely distributing his photo and offering a $100,000 reward for information that led to his arrest. Yet he repeatedly managed to evade authorities, most recently in August when, after an all-night raid on a safe house, the police discovered they had killed the wrong man.
Noordin had an extensive support network, from Islamic schools to sympathetic radical groups, that helped him slip across Indonesia's vast island chain undetected, resettling and taking new wives as he recruited followers and plotted attacks. One of his wives was among those rounded up in the aftermath of the July hotel bombings, though she told authorities she was unaware of her husband's true identity.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono hailed Thursday's operation, saying it had removed a feared figure who "disturbed the life of this country, ruined our image in the international community and paralyzed the national economy." Still, he cautioned that Noordin's death should not be used as a reason for complacency.
A skilled bombmaker, Noordin has been implicated in every major recent attack in Indonesia, including 2002 and 2005 suicide bombings on the resort island of Bali that together killed 222 people, mostly foreigners.
Jemaah Islamiyah, and later Noordin's more militant splinter group, are also blamed for attacks in Jakarta, including the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton suicide bombings in July, an earlier attack on the Marriott in 2003 and a bombing at the Australian Embassy in 2004.
With Thursday's raid, police have now killed seven militant suspects since the July 17 hotel bombs and are still hunting three fugitives. Terrorism experts said Noordin's removal from the radical scene will improve the country's security outlook.
"You can't say that the terrorism threat is over, but you can say that a major figure has been taken out of the picture," said Sidney Jones, a leading terrorism adviser to the International Crisis Group think tank. "The threat had probably been diminished with his death and the inspiration he gave to follow al-Qaida line is finished."
The Obama administration welcomed the operation as "a significant step forward for Indonesia in its battle with political extremists," said State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley. Asked about any U.S. involvement, he said the U.S. did not take part or provide intelligence that led to the raid.
Noordin, 41, formed his radical ideas in the early 1990s at a Malaysian boarding school headed by an Indonesian Muslim cleric, Abdullah Sungkar, who founded the regional Jemaah Islamiyah network. Noordin joined in 1998 after training in the southern Philippines.
He fled to Indonesia in 2002 amid a crackdown on Muslim extremists in Malaysia following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, leaving behind a wife and three young children. He rose to prominence following the Bali bombings, coordinated by his close associate Dr. Azahari bin Husin, who was killed in a raid in late 2005.
A disagreement over targeting civilians caused a split in Jemaah Islamiyah and Noordin formed a more violent faction, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad, aimed at creating a common Muslim state in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
Authorities in the Philippines, who are fighting an Islamist insurgency in the south, said Noordin's death was a welcome sign that terrorists cannot hide forever.
"It's a major accomplishment, it's a big blow to their leadership, to their capability to train new bombers," said Maj. Gen. Benjamin Dolorfino, who leads assaults against al-Qaida-linked militants. "There are gains being made in the anti-terrrorism campaign in the region."
Noordin's death follows the killings of several key al-Qaida and Taliban figures, including Pakistani Taliban chief Baitullah Meshud, who died in a CIA missile strike in August, and al-Qaida operative Saleh Ali Saleh Nabhan, who was killed Monday in a U.S. commando raid in Somalia.
Good thing or bad thing?