A suspect is led off a plane.Â
POLICE have foiled plans for devastating bombings in Indonesia by uncovering an international terrorist cell, arresting 10 men and seizing more than 20 bombs in South Sumatra.
The team was manufacturing and stockpiling sophisticated explosives, reportedly for use against Western tourists or targets. It was part of the network of Bali bombing mastermind Noordin Top.
The arrests began six days ago when a 35-year-old school teacher was arrested near the town of Palembang, police said.
Singapore had issued an international red alert about the man, whose initials police gave as MH. He is understood to have been an associate of Osama bin Laden and part of the Jemaah Islamiah plot to bomb the Australian and American embassies in Singapore in 2001.
Shackled and blindfolded, nine men were flown to Jakarta yesterday for interrogation, while one was still being held in Palembang. They were captured in a series of raids by Indonesia’s elite Detachment 88, assisted by Australian Federal Police.
The discovery of the cell is cause for major concern and will force a rethink by experts who believed JI’s international network had effectively been wound up.
It will be particularly unwelcome news for the Indonesian tourism industry, which, almost three years after the country’s last major terrorist attack, had been enjoying a revival.
The number of Australian tourists going to Bali has been rising steadily despite Canberra’s refusal to remove its travel warning on Indonesia, which states there is a very high threat of imminent attack.
Indonesian police spokesman Abubakar Nataprawira said a large quantity of explosive material had been seized in the raids.
“Detachment 88 has managed to arrest 10 people from a terrorist network,” he said.
“This group of terrorists is connected to the Noordin Top group.
“They have confiscated five ‘Tupperware’ bombs, 14 pipe bombs and potassium chlorate – the quality and quantity is under investigation,” Inspector-General Nataprawira said. Another six incomplete pipe bombs were found.Â
The Tupperware bombs were reportedly packed with ball bearings and bullets to maximise casualties in an attack.
Six lunch boxes, each containing eight detonators, were seized along with electronic timing devices. Inspector-General Nataprawira said MH had provided bomb-making training to several of the arrested men.
Most of those arrested were members of the Anti-Heretical Forum in Palembang. Several were involved in a plot to murder a priest in Java in 2005.
One of their targets was a cafe frequented by tourists in West Sumatra, he said, with other targets still under investigation. He refused to comment on reports that the cell planned to attack Westerners in Jakarta.
International Crisis Group director and Jemaah Islamiah expert Sidney Jones said the police operation was a major breakthrough. “They have headed off something significant,” she said.
If the cell was part of Top’s network, it demonstrated he was able to utilise links to JI operatives in Malaysia and Singapore, links that counterterrorist operations were previously thought to have severed, Ms Jones said.
Along with the capture of another two of Top’s associates in Malaysia in January – en route to meet sympathisers in Algeria – the operations indicate hard-core terrorists in Indonesia are rebuilding their international links.
The arrests emphasise both the effectiveness of counterterrorist operations in Indonesia and the continued risk of major attacks by Top and his associates.
Since the Bali bombings, police have arrested more than 300 JI members and sympathisers. Top has been isolated from the JI mainstream, but continues to evade a police manhunt and demonstrates an ability to recruit hardline Islamists
MH was a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan where he met bin Laden several times, intelligence sources said. He is believed to have been a close aide to Malaysian master bomb-maker Azahari bin Husin, who was killed in a shoot-out with Detachment 88 in East Java in 2005.
MH was arrested on Saturday. The other nine were caught in a series of raids that culminated on Tuesday.