The scene of the Jemaah Islamiyah terror bombings in Bali in 2002. Photo: AFP

JAKARTA – Indonesian counterterrorism operatives have finally captured Afghanistan war veteran Zulkarnaen, the last of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leaders who carried out the devastating 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists.

Police say the 67-year-old fugitive, the former head of JI’s military wing, was arrested in the southern Sumatran province of Lampung on December 10, more than 18 years after the worst terrorist outrage since the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Zulkarnaen, whose legal name is Aris Sumarsono, is also suspected of involvement in the 2003 and 2009 Marriott Hotel suicide bombings in downtown Jakarta that claimed 21 lives, and the December 2005 Bali blasts in Kuta and the nearby Jimbaran seafood strip that left 23 people dead.

How he stayed on the run so long is unclear, but terrorism expert Sidney Jones says the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit, formed with American assistance after the 2002 tragedy, has rounded up at least 54 JI-affiliated militants since July last year.

Judging from the regularity of arrests, the sweeps have continued all through the coronavirus pandemic, eventually leading police to the December 1 capture of wanted terrorist Upik Lawanga and ultimately Zulkarnaen, who had been hiding him.

Aris Sumarsono (alias Zulkarnaen) is seen in a file photo (L), and following his arrest on Indonesia’s Sumatra island. Photo: Indonesia National Police

Lawanga is alleged to have assembled the explosive devices which suicide bombers used to kill nine people at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in July 2009, and also those employed in a series of blasts in restive Poso, Central Sulawesi.

Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) think tank, said in a briefing that there are still questions whether it will be possible to convict Zalkarnaen under the 2003 Terrorism Law because it is not retroactive and he has never been directly involved in violence. 

But according to the testimony of other JI members, he did play a key role in the planning of the 2002 bombings and was present at meetings with Mukhlas, Amrozi and Imam Samudra, the three men executed for the crime in 2008, as well as other members of the field team.

Achmad Roihan, a JI operative from Palu in Central Sulawesi, told investigators after his arrest in 2003 that Zulkarnaen had also attended a gathering in Tawangmangu, a hill town northeast of Solo, for a post-Bali assessment on October 30, 2002.

A senior intelligence official said at the time he had few doubts about Zulkarnaen’s role in the series of subsequent bomb attacks that put Jakarta and Bali on edge and led to tough new security measures at all hotels and public buildings. They continue to this day.

“Noordin (Mohamad Top) and Azahari (bin Husin) are just his operators,” he told Tempo magazine, referring to the two Malaysian bomb-makers who had eluded police for years and were then on top of the country’s most-wanted list. “Zulkarnaen is the brains.”

Azahari, 47, was killed in the siege of his mountain hideout near Malang, East Java in November 2005. Noordin, 41, and three other terrorists blew themselves up after they were tracked to a village house on the outskirts of Solo four years later.

A native of Sragen, north of the Central Java city of Solo, Zulkarnaen’s association with JI founders Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir began at the al-Mukmin pesantren, soon to gain notoriety as a finishing school for terrorists, which he attended between 1975 and 1981.

Terrorism convict Abu Bakar Ba’asyir is transferred from prison to a hospital in a 2018 file photo. Photo: AFP Pforum via NurPhoto/Dasril Roszandi

He graduated among the top five in his class and was accepted into the biology faculty of Jogjakarta’s respected Gadja Madah University, but later quit to become one of the first Indonesian militants to undergo military training on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

As a member of Darul Islam-Negara Islam Indonesia (DI-NII), the extremist group formed in the 1950s to fight for an Islamic state in Indonesia, Zulkarnaen helped establish a military academy there and stayed on as an instructor, with the additional task of determining which of the recruits was ready for the frontline.

According to former terrorist leader Nasir Abas, it was Zulkarnaen who informed the Indonesian recruits of a split in Darul Islam in 1993, telling them they could either stay with DI or join the newly-formed Jemaah Islamiyah, which most elected to do.

Zulkarnaen managed the Afghan campaign for another two years, but the civil war made training untenable and he sent Abas to southern Mindanao in the Philippines and set up a new camp there under the protection of the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In the late 1990s, he is reported to have lived in the Malaysian town of Raub, 100 kilometers north of Kuala Lumpur, and finally returned to Indonesia in 1999 about the same time as Sungkar and Ba’asyir, who had spent 17 years in exile to avoid Suharto government repression.

JI’s central command had earlier authorized Zulkarnaen to establish a special forces unit, known as laskar khos, which became the spearhead of fighters dispatched to bloody sectarian conflicts raging in Poso and the Moluccan island of Ambon between 1998 and 2002 that eventually claimed 6,000 lives.