Security officials praised the arrest of Indonesia's most wanted terror suspect, saying Wednesday the senior al-Qaeda operative blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings could provide valuable intelligence about regional militant networks and possible future plots.
Umar Patek, a suspected member of Jemaah Islamiyah with ties to militant groups in the region and beyond, was captured early this year in Pakistan, local and foreign intelligence sources said. It's not clear if Pakistan stumbled on him or if his capture was the result of an intelligence tip.
'Many in the region have heaved a sigh of relief that he has been arrested' —Phillippine military spokesman Miguel Jose
Details about what Patek was doing in Pakistan also remain murky, raising questions about whether he was there to plan an attack with al-Qaeda's top operational leaders as the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks looms over the U.S.
Patek, 40, a Javanese Arabic man, is well-known to intelligence agencies across the world. He's believed to have served as the group's deputy field commander in the Bali nightclub bombings that left 202 people dead, many of them foreigners.
He's also suspected in at least two other, far less deadly suicide bombings, in Jakarta in 2003 and 2009.
The U.S. was offering a $1 million reward for the arrest of the slight Patek — who's known as the "little Arab " — in the Bali bombings. Seven of the victims were American.
News of his arrest came from intelligence officials in Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines. All spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the information.
Indonesia's top police detective, Lt. General Ito Sumardi, said he only received the report a few days ago and was sending teams to Islamabad to make sure they "didn't arrest the wrong man."
He also wanted to know how Patek, the country's most wanted terror suspect, got past immigration officials.
The question of what to do now with Patek — whose exact whereabouts were not immediately known — could become a key indicator of how President Barack Obama will handle major terrorist suspects captured abroad. However, American officials declined to comment on the case.
Under former President George W. Bush, he likely would have been moved into the CIA's network of secret prisons. For instance, one of Patek's accused co-conspirators in the nightclub bombing, Hambali, spent years in the prison system and is now being held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
But the CIA's secret prisons are closed and Obama is trying to empty Guantanamo, not add new inmates.
"As far as I know this is not a U.S. government operation," Scot A. Marciel, the U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia, told reporters Wednesday. "We did not arrest him, we do not have custody of this guy, so I'm not sure there is a U.S. government role in this."
He said he only learned the information himself on Wednesday, after seeing it in the news.
Patek is believed to have been among a group of Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos who travelled to Afghanistan and Pakistan during the 1980s and 1990s for training and fighting.
On their return to Southeast Asia, they formed Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for a string of suicide bombings targeting nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, and a Western embassy in Indonesia. Together more than 260 people have died.
Patek fled to the southern Philippines after the Bali bombings, seeking refuge and training with both the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest Muslim separatist group, and later, the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, security experts have said.
But he is believed to have remained heavily engaged in Jemaah Islamiyah operations at home.
Philippine military spokesman Miguel Jose said Patek's arrest would be "a big blow to Jemaah Islamiyah and of course the Abu Sayyaf because they have a tactical alliance."
"Many in the region have heaved a sigh of relief that he has been arrested," he said.
Maj. Gen. Francisco Cruz, of the Philippine armed forces, said: "The threat from [Jemaah Islamiyah] in Mindanao has diminished because of that."
Patek's arrest in Pakistan is likely to raise questions over how such a high-profile terrorist can travel across international borders. There are also likely to be competing interests among intelligence agencies as each jockey for control over Patek.
In March 2010, Patek was believed to be in Sulu province in the far southern Philippines. According to the Jamestown Foundation, a national security policy institute in Washington, Patek was one of the "last senior JI commanders with significant experience" in the original Afghan al-Qaida camps and long-standing ties to the international jihadist network and its donors.