Jemaah Islamiah’s bombs & brains

JI strikes again.

Azahari and Dulmatin forge a formidable team that may unleash more atrocities.

Malaysian bomb-maker Azahari Husin stood by the bedside of his cancer-stricken wife and told her: ‘I have a greater cause in life. It is to serve God.’

These were his parting words to his wife, who had just given birth to their second child and found, soon after, that she was suffering from throat cancer.

That was in the mid-1990s and Azahari, who is widely believed to be the new leader of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist network, was then a lecturer at the Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.

He had fallen under the spell of the late Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir. Both were then exiled Indonesian clerics championing the notions of jihad, or holy war, and were the founders of JI.

Influenced by their teachings, Azahari, who has a doctorate in engineering from Reading University in Britain, went on to train in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines.

It was during this time that he developed his skills for making bombs and emerged as one of the central figures in the JI leadership.

That role has grown over the past year, following a region-wide security crackdown on the rank-and-file in JI.

An internal power struggle in the network following the capture of Al-Qaeda point man Hambali has effectively placed Azahari at the apex of an amorphous network with disparate cells across the vast Indonesian archipelago.

The nucleus of the leadership today revolves around the 47-year-old Azahari, another Malaysian, Mohd Noordin Top, Indonesian Islamic cleric Zulkarnaen and electronics expert Dulmatin alias Noval.

Increasingly though, it is the partnership of Azahari and Dulmatin – his ‘blue-eyed boy’ who attended bomb-making classes under him – that is driving extremist operations in Indonesia.

Both played a key role in Thursday’s bombing outside the Australian Embassy here. Sources revealed that Azahari drew up the blueprint for the attack that was planned initially for March.

But it was his right-hand man Dulmatin who executed the bombing – by recruiting people from the provinces in Sumatra for the operation and deploying teams for the surveillance and actual strike.

Very little is known about the 39-year-old Dulmatin.

An Indonesian intelligence official said that he used to be involved in student demonstrations on campuses in Central Java.

Coming from a well-to-do family, he dropped out of university after being sucked into extremist teachings at religious boarding schools.

The official noted: ‘Dulmatin showed no signs of being a radical in university. But he changed overnight after being influenced by Islamic clerics.’

Known in JI circles as ‘the genius’, Dulmatin was keen on electronics. It was only natural that he developed an interest for making bombs and forging a natural affiliation with Azahari, whom he saw as ‘a father figure’.

A source said: ‘Azahari sees Dulmatin as the golden boy, someone who can do no wrong and a future leader of the terrorist network.’

But Dulmatin’s rise up the ranks was slow partly because old-timers filled most of the key positions. It was only after the 2002 Bali bombings that his standing in the outfit grew.

Intelligence sources said that he reportedly sent the text messages to the mobile phone that detonated two bombs in the tourist resort that killed 202 people. It was Azahari who designed those bombs.

The two men worked together again in last year’s Marriott Hotel blast. Again, Azahari was the main figure in designing the bomb but this time he built it with the help of his trusted aide.

A family friend of Dulmatin in South Sumatra disclosed, however, that he was sidelined in the eventual field operations. He had a falling-out over the planning of the August attack with Zulkarnaen, alias Arif Sunarso, the anointed successor to Hambali at that time.

But the Marriott bombing ended up as a botched operation. And Hambali’s capture paved the way for Dulmatin to muscle his way to the leadership ranks with Azahari and Noordin Top.

Zulkarnaen appears to have been sidelined but is still influential given that he still commands JI’s suicide bombing squad.

But there does not seem to be any clear successor to spiritual leader Bashir.

Despite factional rivalry and ideological differences, the nucleus of this group has worked together for years.

At least two of them crossed paths in the late 1980s and 1990s while undergoing guerilla training in the mujahideen academy in Sadaa, near the Afghanistan border.

Most left their terrorist imprint by carrying out the Christmas Eve church bombings in Indonesia in 2000, and they worked underground to incite violence in the strife-torn provinces of Poso and Maluku through their calls for a jihad or religious war.

Their last three acts in Indonesia – Bali, Marriott and now the Australian Embassy – have proved to be the most devastating.

The latest bombing underscores the ability of JI and its leaders to inflict a major terrorist strike despite the massive police crackdown on the network in recent years.

Azahari’s bomb-making skills could contrive another big terrorist attack on Indonesia. And Dulmatin has taken the lead in training a new generation of JI cadres. Left unchecked, they are likely to strike again.

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