A Classic Al Qaeda Field Operative ; Alleged Bali Bombing Planner Had Extensive Training and Ties throughout Southeast Asia

Article excerpt

Imam Samudra is exactly the sort of man investigators expected to find behind the meticulously constructed car bomb that ripped through a Bali nightclub last month.

He received weapons training at Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. He taught at a religious school in Malaysia associated with Abu Bakar Bashir, a Muslim cleric who the US says leads a terror group that serves as Al Qaeda's Southeast Asian wing. He prefers working with a close circle of friends. And, police say, he's killed before.

Mr. Samudra is the man Indonesian police say served as the "field commander" for the terrorist cell that carried out the Bali attack. "All the orders came from Samudra, beginning in the planning stages, through to the execution of the bombing,'' National Police Chief Da'I Bachtiar told reporters last week.

Samudra was arrested last Thursday as he was about to board a ferry from Java to Sumatra - the first step on a journey that he hoped would safely carry him out of the country.

Instead, two of his associates arrested earlier in the week tipped authorities off to his plans. By Friday, Indonesian police were parading a glowering Samudra, an incongruous figure in a black T-shirt and Converse sneakers shouting, "God is great."

His arrest is the biggest break in the Bali case for Indonesian police, who are working with Australian investigators. But Indonesian intelligence agents warn that any euphoria should be tempered by the knowledge that the most senior participant in the plot - a Yemeni national they say entered the country on a forged US passport - got away.

"This was a classic Al Qaeda operation,'' says a senior Indonesian investigator. He says that the cell was composed mostly of local Indonesians while the bombing expertise was provided by the Yemeni, whose code name was "Syafullah," and two other foreigners. These men, he says, came in shortly before the attack, assembled the bomb, and were probably well clear of the country before it went off.

"Good work is being done, but we're far from achieving total success," the investigator says. "There were 272 Indonesians who went to Afghanistan. We've arrested, what, seven of them at most."

While not every Indonesian veteran of the Afghan war is involved in terrorism, almost every known Indonesian terrorist has ties to Afghanistan - a fact Samudra's involvement helps confirm. His arrest fills out a picture that has been emerging of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Al Qaeda's regional terror wing, that has been slowly and steadily emerging over the past two years.

The group has been built around a tight network of Indonesian leaders with ties to the Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school in the Javanese city of Solo. The school was founded by the deceased Indonesian cleric Abdullah Sungkar and Mr. Bashir, both of whom fled Indonesia in the 1980s to escape jail terms associated with their advocacy for making the country an Islamic state. The US says Bashir, who returned to Indonesia after the fall of dictator Suharto in 1998, is the leader of JI. It's a charge Bashir, currently in police custody, denies.

To investigators, the emerging pattern is both comforting and alarming. Comforting, because it indicates the terror war remains on a narrow, focused front here, with the vast majority of religious groups untainted by violence. …