Saturday, August 8, 2009

A top al Qaeda bomb maker blamed for last month’s bombings of two U.S. hotels in Jakarta was believed captured or killed in a gunfight with police, authorities said Saturday.

If confirmed, it would be the second major blow to Islamic militants, coming hours after reports of the death of Pakistani Taliban leader Baitullah Mehsud.

Indonesian police said that they raided a workshop in Temanggung in Central Java, and that militants belonging to a group headed by Noordin Mohammad Top were inside.

The Al Jazeera television network said Noordin had been captured, but an Indonesian police source told Reuters news agency that a militant killed in the gunfight was believed to be Noordin. The source said authorities were trying to positively identify the body.

Noordin, known to intelligence officials as “the moneyman,” is ranked No. 3 on the FBI’s most-wanted-terrorist list.

A Malaysian citizen and al Qaeda leader in Southeast Asia, he was suspected of involvement in a series of suicide bombings that have killed more than 240 people in Indonesia since 2002. The most recent were bombings last month at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in the Indonesian capital.

Noordin’s capture or death would be “a big blow to al Qaeda’s Southeast Asia franchise,” said Bruce Riedel, a specialist on al Qaeda at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Mr. Riedel, who chaired a review of Pakistan-Afghanistan strategy for President Obama, said the reported death of Mehsud in a U.S. drone attack was also a welcome development.

“If true, it suggests closer U.S.-Pakistani cooperation against the enemies of the [Asif Ali] Zardari government,” Mr. Riedel said. “After all, Mehsud killed [President Zardari’s] wife [former Pakistan Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto]. Now the challenge is to get Pakistani help against our enemies, starting with the Afghan Taliban and its headquarters in Quetta.”

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said Friday that the reports about Mehsud’s death are correct. He said intelligence sources have confirmed that the Pakistani Taliban leader was killed by Wednesday’s strike in the South Waziristan tribal region.

“And to be 100 percent sure, we are going for ground verification, and once the ground verification reconfirms, which I think is almost confirmed, then we will be 100 percent sure,” Mr. Qureshi said.

On Friday, U.S. officials were still cautious.

“Increasing signs that he is dead … but we’re still not 100 percent sure,” a U.S. official told The Washington Times.

Taliban commander Kafayat Ullah confirmed Mehsud’s death in a telephone interview with the Associated Press. “I confirm that Baitullah Mehsud and his wife died in the American missile attack in South Waziristan,” he said.

The apparent death of Mehsud is the first major victory for the Obama administration in what it now calls a war against al Qaeda, rather than the global war on terrorism.

Imran Khan Wazir, a Peshawar-based analyst with expertise on the Taliban, told The Times that Mehsud’s death “is a big blow to the Taliban and al Qaeda.”

“He has been coordinating all the militant and training activities, including that of suicide attacks of Taliban groups,” Mr. Wazir said.

The Taliban is expected to name a successor to Mehsud soon.

A Pakistani intelligence official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named because of the nature of his work, told The Times that Mehsud’s brother, Hakimullah Mehsud, is the likely new leader.

“He is a teacher at a madrassa [Islamic school], and some say he is worse than his brother,” the Pakistani official told The Times. “We still don’t know who will replace Baitullah, but it is expected to happen soon.”

Ashraf Ali, a specialist on the Taliban movement, said other possible successors include Wali ur Rahman and a man called Asmatullah. He said a succession struggle was possible and could create rifts among the dozen groups that comprise the Pakistani Taliban movement.

Mr. Ali said other Taliban leaders, including Maulana Syed Noor, Hafiz Gul Bahadur and Maulvi Nazeer, also could enter the leadership race. These leaders had objected to the tactics used by Mehsud, who relied increasingly on suicide bombings.

There is also a question of what impact Mehsud’s death will have on his close ties with al Qaeda and his support for operations against U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.

Mehsud was believed to be working closely with al Qaeda leader Abu Yahya al Libbi and Afghan Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani.

The fact that Mehsud was killed in a U.S. drone strike may also help alleviate opposition to the use of the unmanned attack craft in Pakistan.

Mehsud had been deemed Pakistan’s No. 1 enemy because of the assassination of Mrs. Bhutto in 2007 and numerous other attacks that have caused mass casualties among Pakistani civilians.

“U.S. drones attacks after eliminating such notorious person like Baitullah have become quite justified,” Mr. Ali said. “In fact, there has been a suppressed public support for U.S. drones attacks in Pakistan, as most of these attacks have taken out their targets, and the damage has also been relatively minor,” compared to Pakistani army offensives that have displaced millions of people.

The United States had a $5 million bounty on Mehsud. Pakistani officials had offered a reward of $615,000 for information leading to the capture or death of the Taliban leader.

Mehsud took leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, the Movement of Taliban of Pakistan, in 2007. The group includes 13 tribal factions that have sworn allegiance to Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Mehsud was thought to have between 15,000 and 20,000 fighters and an undetermined number of foreign al Qaeda foot soldiers.

Mehsud, 35, was born in Bannu, South Waziristan, the poorest of seven Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the border with Afghanistan.

Raza Khan reported from Islamabad.

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