WASHINGTON — A senior Indonesian al-Qaida operative wanted in the 2002 Bali bombings has been arrested in Pakistan, a rare high-profile capture in the war on terror that could provide valuable intelligence about the organization and possible future plots.
Umar Patek, a suspected member of the al-Qaida-linked militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, was arrested earlier this year in Pakistan, foreign intelligence sources said Tuesday.
It's not clear if Pakistan stumbled on Patek or his capture was the result of an intelligence tip. Details about what he was doing in Pakistan also remain murky, raising questions about whether he was there to plan an attack with al-Qaida'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 nightclub bombings that left 202 people dead, many of them foreigners.
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 attack that killed seven Americans.
News of his arrest came from two intelligence officials in Indonesia and Philippines. Patek's exact whereabouts were not immediately known. Both spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of the information.
The question of what to do with him 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.
Patek is believed to have been among a group of Indonesians, Malaysians and Filipinos who traveled 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-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf, security experts have said.
But he is believed to have remained heavily engaged in Jemaah Islamiyah operations at home. His 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 the 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 (Jemaah Islamiyah) commanders with significant experience" in the original Afghan al-Qaida camps and longstanding ties to the international jihadist network and its donors.
Associated Press writers Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines; Chris Brummitt in Islamabad, Pakisan; and Matt Apuzzo in Washington D.C. contributed to this report.