Investigators desperate for a breakthrough in the Bali terrorist attacks on Saturday dropped thousands of photos of the two suspected masterminds over a city close to where one of the fugitives narrowly escaped capture a day earlier.
A helicopter flew low over the city of Solo and the surrounding area in Central Java province early Saturday, releasing 10,000 photographs of Noordin Mohamed Top and Azahari bin Husin, believed to be key leaders in the Southeast Asia-based terror group Jemaah Islamiyah, which has been linked to al-Qaida.
Police have struggled to produce any firm leads since suicide bombers launched near-simultaneous attacks on three crowded cafes in Bali tourist resorts in Kuta district and nearby Jimbaran beach on Oct. 1.
The death toll in the attacks climbed to 23 — including the three bombers — after one of the injured died Friday in a hospital.
Noordin slipped away from authorities Friday, fleeing a remote village in Central Java province’s Purwantoro district hours before a raid by anti-terror police, police said.
Noordin and Azahari are two of Southeast Asia’s most wanted men. But the two Malaysians have kept one step ahead of a massive hunt for years, moving constantly in densely populated areas of this sprawling nation of 220 million people and more than 10,000 islands.
Noordin and Azahari are suspected of orchestrating the Bali strike — perhaps with the help of groups or individuals outside the Jemaah Islamiyah network, which has been severely weakened by the arrests of several key leaders in recent years, police said.
Jemaah Islamiyah is also believed to have been behind the Oct. 12, 2002 nightclub bombings on Bali which killed 202 people, and the 2003 and 2004 blasts at the J.W. Marriott hotel and the Australian Embassy, both in Jakarta, which together killed 22 people.
Acting on a tip, about 20 officers moved in on the house in Purwantoro before dawn on Friday, only to learn that Noordin had fled nearly three hours earlier, said Abdul Madjid, a police chief in Solo.
“We can confirm it was him,” said Madjid, adding that police had been forced to delay the raid by several hours because they were worried he was armed with explosives. By the time reinforcements arrived, “it was too late.”
Police have claimed several times in the past few years to have narrowly missed capturing the fugitives, most recently in the West Javanese city of Bandung two years ago.
There was no way to independently confirm if the man who escaped Friday was in fact Noordin.
Investigators report progress
However, investigators appeared to be making headway in other areas of their investigation. Central Java’s Police Chief Maj. Gen. Chairul Rasyid said authorities were close to identifying two of the three suicide bombers.
He also revealed that the wife of another top terror suspect — Zulkarnaen — made phone calls to the island days before the strike.
“Three days before the bombings last week, his wife made several phone calls to Bali,” Madjid told The Associated Press. “We have given the phone numbers that she contacted to the Bali police for them to trace them.” Zulkarnaen goes by only one name.
Indonesia’s top anti-terror official, Maj. Gen. Ansyaad Mbai, also revealed that jailed Jemaah Islamiyah members, including Noordin’s bodyguard, told police two months before the Bali bombings that the network was plotting a terrorist attack in Indonesia.
He declined to give further details about the plot or the arrests, saying only he was convinced Noordin and Azahari were involved.
“It was clearly them,” Mbai told reporters.
'New generation' of terrorists
Police say one of their main priorities is identifying the bombers. Doing so could help them hunt down the masterminds and if Jemaah Islamiyah is involved, give them a better understanding about the organization’s evolving strategy.
The suicide bombers were part of a “new generation” of terrorists, and were likely recruited only recently — perhaps specifically for the Bali weekend attacks — said Bali police chief Maj. Gen. I Made Mangku Pastika.
Photographs of the bombers’ severed heads, found yards from the blast sites, have been circulated in the media nationwide and shown to several jailed Jemaah Islamiyah members. So far, none of the militants have claimed to recognize them.