Friday, October 23, 2009

Villagers make living from Noordin Mohammed Top's death

UNTIL his death in a police shoot-out last month he was South-East Asia's most wanted man; an Islamic militant responsible for countless atrocities and hundreds of deaths. But to residents of the grindingly poor township of Kepuhsari, Noordin Mohammed Top has become a saviour.

"Thanks to Noordin, I made two million rupiah in two days," said Adinda, after charging The Times $5 to park our car.

"That's more than I've ever made in my life."

Sitting in her front yard across the road, Yania, in her late twenties, was equally grateful to the dead militant. Charging $2.70 for a bottle of water, she said: "I've never been able to go to visit my family in Yogyakarta. But last weekend Noordin paid for me to fly there."

On September 17, residents of this community, close to a militant Islamist town 300 miles from Jakarta, were woken by gunfire as security forces stormed a nearby house. It was the home of Hadi Susilo, known to neighbours as a kindly religious teacher who taught their children the Koran.What they did not know was that Susilo was an Islamic militant, and a senior member of Noordin's al-Qaeda network.

Noordin - who is blamed for the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people, and attacks on two Jakarta hotels in which seven more died in July this year - was hiding at Susilo's house. With them were two other members of the group who had evaded capture since the Jakarta bombings.

Efforts by security forces since July have led to the death or capture of many Noordin lieutenants. In August, police celebrated when they thought they had killed Noordin himself in a day-long gun battle - only to later find that DNA tests showed that the dead man was not the leader but one of his allies.

Noordin finally met his end in a shoot-out after scores of police and anti-terror officers flooded Kepuhsari, evacuating residents before the firing started.

A month on, the spot where he died has become a tourist magnet. The house remains cordoned off, but scores of people line the earth banks behind it to gaze silently at the spot of the militants' last stand.

Residents are making the most of the area's sudden notoriety. On the approach to Kepuhsari is a hand-painted cardboard sign. Above a blue arrow pointing to the right it reads: "Location of terrorist Top's death."

A little further on is another sign: "The closest sign to terrorist Top's place of death."

Driving into the village, cars are shepherded to the side of the road, with drivers charged to park on the mud track.

Every house has turned into a street stall, offering water, soft drinks and home-cooked snacks.

Outside one house, a menu of local delicacies is illustrated with photo-copied pictures of Noordin and his allies. More signs advertise a unique variation on the national rice dish - "nasi goreng Noordin" - while another offers "tumpeng terrorisi Top".

There had been fears that after the shoot-out Kepuhsari would become a place of pilgrimage, or even a jihadist recruiting ground.

The area is known as a militant centre: Solo, the nearest large town, is the home of Abu Bakar Bashir, spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, a hardline group Noordin once worked with.

However, many people here appear tired of the militants. After the Bali bombers were executed in November, the funerals were marked by parades and demonstrations by their supporters. By contrast, the demonstrations held after Noordin's death were protests at plans for a local burial.

Thousands took to the streets after his death, waving placards demanding that the dead militants be buried elsewhere. "We are tired of the terrorists," said Chokol, a paramedic who had come to view Noordin's place of death. "It's good that he's dead. He was not a good Muslim."

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