Southeast Asia's most wanted Muslim militant is said to be a masterful bomb-maker and aspiring regional commander for al-Qaida, who has eluded capture for nearly a decade.
Malaysian Noordin Mohammad Top, classified by the U.S. State Department as a terrorism financier since the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, is believed to have struck again last week when twin suicide blasts killed seven at the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta — at least four of them foreigners.
"Noordin is a smart and cunning terrorist," Brig. Surya Dharma, the former head of the Detachment 88 anti-terrorism unit told The Associated Press. "He wants to show that he deserves to be the commander of al-Qaida here in Southeast Asia."
Noordin's radical ideas took form in the early 1990s at a Malaysian boarding school run by an Indonesian Muslim cleric named Abdullah Sungkar, said Sidney Jones, a prominent terrorism expert. He later joined Southeast Asian terrorist network Jemaah Islamiyah in 1998, after brief training in the southern Philippines.
He fled south to the Indonesian province of Riau in 2002 amid a crackdown on Muslim extremists in Malaysia in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States, before rising to prominence in the Bali bombings.
Prosecutors say Noordin orchestrated attacks in Indonesia four years in a row with al-Qaida's support, including the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali, the first J.W. Marriott Hotel attack in 2003, the Australian Embassy blast in 2004, and the 2005 triple suicide bombings on restaurants in Bali.
Together, they killed more than 240 people, many of them Western tourists. Police have widely distributed his photo and offer a $100,000 reward for information that leads to his capture, yet Noordin has slipped across borders undetected.
'Talent for escape'
A disagreement over targeting civilians caused a split in Jemaah Islamiyah and Noordin formed a more violent faction, Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad, which he reportedly called the "al-Qaida for the Malay archipelago." Its aim is to create a common Muslim state in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.
The closest authorities have ever come to seizing him was probably in July 2008, in Palembang, a coastal city on Sumatra, in a raid that netted 10 militant suspects.
"Noordin has shown a talent for escape," said Jones, a senior adviser to the International Crisis Group think tank. "He has narrowly avoided arrest about six times and remains the target of what may be the biggest manhunt in Indonesian history."
With more that 17,000 islands and a population of 235 million, Indonesia "is an easy place for one man to remain hidden if he wants to and he also has a lot of sympathy," said Scott Stewart, vice president for tactical intelligence at the Texas-based private intelligence company Stratfor.
Trained in the southern Philippines, where a Muslim insurgency is being waged against the central government, Noordin is also "more than capable of constructing the explosive devices that were used," he said in a telephone interview with The AP. He may also have trained someone else to do it, Stewart said.
Most of Noordin's support network was thought to have been wiped out by a massive operation in recent years under Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono that rounded up hundreds of purported operatives and supporters.
In November 2005, police shot and killed Azhari Husin, a close friend and technical operative of Noordin's, which prompted a video threat to the West.
"As long as you keep your troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and intimidate Muslim people, you will feel our intimidation and our terror," a masked man believed to be Noordin said in the message aired on Indonesian television at the time. "You will be the target of our next attack."
Three Australians and a New Zealander were killed in Friday's attack on the Marriott, when a bomber blew himself up next to a meeting of executives working for Western companies. The other victim in the Marriott attack was an Indonesian cook, while the identities of those killed at the Ritz-Carlton have not yet been verified.
Investigators are also trying to identify the bombers and are following up leads in Central Java, where explosives were found at the house of Noordin's father-in-law earlier this month that were "identical" to those recovered from the site of detonation, police said. No arrests have been made.
The recent bombings "showed us and America that Noordin is capable of carrying out new attacks," said Dharma the former counter-terror official. "I know the police will never stop searching."