By Amy Chew
Indonesian police arrested the suspected military commander of the al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network who has been on the run for 18 years, authorities said Saturday.
National police spokesman Argo Yuwono said Aris Sumarsono (alias Zulkarnaen) was arrested by Indonesia’s counter-terrorism police squad Detachment 88 (Densus 88) on Thursday in East Lampung regency on Sumatra island.
“He was the commander of the Jemaah Islamiyah askari (military wing) at the time of the Bali bombing 1,” Argo said in a statement, referring to the 2002 attack that killed more than 200.
Zulkarnaen was captured in a house where he was guarded by a team of armed security guards.
“The guards were armed with homemade weapons. They did not put up a fight. Zulkarnaen and his security guards were all arrested,” a senior security source told BenarNews.
Asked whether the weapons were dangerous, the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to respond to the media, said “yes” and that they could “kill a person.”
The source said Zulkarnaen’s security team moved him often and he was preparing to flee from his house following the arrest of fellow JI member and bomb-maker Upik Lawanga last month. He said police were concerned about potential “revenge attacks.”
“His arrest is very significant. He is one of the last first-generation leaders of JI, one of the few with direct ties to al-Qaeda’s leadership and someone with years of operational experience,” said Zachary Abuza, professor of Southeast Asia Studies at the National War College based in Washington.
He said Zulkarnaen was in charge of a series of major terrorist attacks including the 2003 bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel, the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy and the 2009 bombings of the Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels in Jakarta.
“He has been described to me as serious, focused and a true believer,” said Abuza, who specializes in terrorism and insurgencies.
“The big question is whether JI will lash out to avenge the arrest of its leaders, or if those arrests will force them to lie even lower,” Abuza said.
JI had been blamed for Indonesia’s major terror attacks from 1998 to 2010. Since then, Densus 88 operations weakened the group through the arrests of hundreds of members, including its leaders.
“The arrest of Zulkarnaen comes at a perilous time for JI. JI hadn’t staged a terrorist attack since 2011,” Abuza said, adding it has largely gone underground while focusing on rebuilding its depleted ranks, running is mosques, madrassas, charities, businesses and publishing arms.
“Indeed, the Indonesian government has encouraged this, as they were focused on the threat of pro-Islamic State groups such as the JAD,” said Abuza referring to the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah.
“But in the past year or so, security forces have turned their attention back to JI, arresting its two spiritual leaders as well as more than 30 members in 2020 alone,” Abuza said.
Densus 88 arrested suspected senior JI member Siswanto (alias Arif Siswanto) on Nov. 13, dealing a blow to the group.
His capture came less than two years after the 2019 arrest of the overall JI leader, Para Wijayanto, who was sentenced to seven years on terrorism charges. A Jakarta-based think-tank researcher identified Siswanto as the interim replacement for Wijayanto.
Meanwhile in Jakarta, Indonesian police arrested hardline Muslim cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab on Saturday after he turned himself in for questioning in connection with gatherings last month that allegedly flouted COVID-19 restrictions.
Rizieq arrived at the Jakarta police headquarters to be interrogated about accusations that he violated the country’s health quarantine law.
“He was served an arrest warrant and was questioned as a suspect,” Jakarta police spokesman Yusri Yunus told reporters.
Police said Rizieq faces charges of breaking a quarantine order and inciting people to commit a crime. He could face up to six years in prison if convicted.
Police have 24 hours to decide whether to detain Rizieq, Yusri said.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this story.