Terrorists plotting to assassinate Indonesia’s president and other top officials during independence celebrations in August were considering carrying out their strike in June to coincide with President Obama’s visit, intelligence officials say.
What’s more, the disruption of the plot on Friday has shone a spotlight on the influence of al Qaeda in the South Asian nation, which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population, just weeks before Mr. Obama’s visit.
Scott Atran, an analyst who has closely studied terrorism in Indonesia, said the terrorists were “bent on a Mumbai-style rifle-and-grenade assault on President [Susilo Bambang] Yudhoyono and other national leaders.”
He said the attack had been scheduled for Aug. 17, Indonesia’s independence day, but there was “some hint that the plotters might have moved things up to coincide with President Obama’s planned visit to Indonesia” in June.
However, Mr. Atran, other analysts and intelligence officials ruled out the possibility that Mr. Obama was the intended target of this attack.
“Obama seems to be much too hard a target, but those planning Obama’s visit in June were, and are, no doubt, well-versed by [a counterterrorism team] about what is going on,” said Mr. Atran, research director in anthropology at France’s National Center for Scientific Research.
A counterterrorism team conducted a raid on militants in Indonesia’s Aceh province in February and stumbled upon a jihadi training camp in the foothills of Jalin, near Banda Aceh, intelligence officials said.
Using intelligence from local informants, many of them ex-Aceh rebels who analysts say despise the Islamic militants, the team tracked down and killed Dulmatin, the group’s leader. Dulmatin had set up the training program to build a “nerve center for Southeast Asian terrorism” under the name “al Qaeda of the Verandah of Mecca.”
Dulmatin, an Indonesian volunteer during the Soviet-Afghan war, was nicknamed “the genius” for his electronic know-how and had helped to assemble and detonate devices used in the 2002 Bali bombings. He fled to the southern Philippines but returned to Indonesia after a 2008 shootout in the Philippines.
Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based senior adviser with the International Crisis Group, said it appeared that a small group of fugitives had hatched the plot to assassinate Mr. Yudhyono after the Aceh training camp was broken up. She said the plot had “almost no chance of success.”
A coalition of terrorists known as lintas tanzim was formed after several jihadi groups reached the conclusion that Jemaah Islamiyah, the best-known jihadi group in the region, had become too passive and abandoned jihad for religious outreach, and a more violent splinter group led by militant Noordin Top had no plans beyond preparing for the next attack.
Lintas tanzim defined the enemy as anyone who has obstructed the application of Shariah, meaning that many Indonesian officials were high on its list.
“The group is like other so-called al Qaeda franchises that like the brand name, but may not be taking orders from al Qaeda’s leadership,” said a U.S. counterterrorism official, speaking on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter.
“It’s attracted some big-name militants from different extremist factions in Indonesia, but these people aren’t necessarily organized under a cohesive command-and-control structure,” the U.S. official said. “The Indonesians have been aggressive in going after them, including a training camp earlier this year.”
The Indonesian plot bore similarities to the 2008 Mumbai attacks in which terrorists took over hotels and killed 166, including six Americans. Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), a Pakistan-based terrorist group, has been blamed by India and Western intelligence agencies for that attack.
Ms. Jones said about a dozen Indonesians were trained by LeT between 2000 and 2003, but it was not clear whether LeT had any role in planning the Indonesia plot. “I think Mumbai was probably just an inspiration,” she said.
Indonesia’s police chief, Gen. Bambang Hendarso Danuri, said the attackers had planned to focus their assault on the independence day ceremony at which Mr. Yudhoyono and other Indonesian and foreign dignitaries would have been present. “Killing all the state officials would have accelerated the transition from a democracy to a state controlled by Islamic Shariah law,” he told reporters.
“Their plan was also to launch attacks in Jakarta against foreigners — especially Americans — and attack and control hotels within certain communities, imitating what happened in Mumbai,” Gen. Danuri said.
A report by the International Crisis Group said the discovery of the jihadi training camp in Aceh revealed “a major mutation in Indonesian jihadi ranks. … It had chosen Aceh as a base, despite the antipathy of Acehnese to radical Islam.”
Mr. Obama, who spent part of his childhood in Jakarta, was expected to visit Indonesia in March but delayed his trip until mid-June so he could oversee the passage of the health care bill in Congress.