JAKARTA, Indonesia – When bomb blasts tore through two luxury hotels in Indonesia’s capital where Andi Suhandi worked as a florist, he tried to phone a colleague to make sure he was safe.
There was no answer. Flower arranger Ibrohim Muharram went missing after the twin suicide attacks at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels on July 17 that killed seven people and wounded more than 50 others. Within days it emerged he had resigned his job the morning of the bombings.
Police on Wednesday disclosed that Ibrohim — Suhandi’s roommate and friend of three years, whom he described as a “polite” man who used to give flowers to their neighbors on Valentine’s Day — had smuggled in the explosives used in the bombings. He allegedly orchestrated the attacks with Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorism suspect, Noordin Muhammad Top.
Indonesian counterterrorism forces thought they killed Noordin during a 16-hour siege last weekend, but DNA results released Wednesday yielded an embarrassing finding. The body was not that of Noordin, but Ibrohim, national police spokesman Nanan Sukarna said.
“I can’t imagine a good man like him would … attack and kill people with bombs,” Suhandi, 47, told The Associated Press in an exclusive interview, still reeling from the news that Ibrohim’s body was recovered from the militant safe house raided in central Java. “Words can’t describe my feelings.”
The bombings, which claimed six foreign victims, shattered a four-year lull in terror attacks in the world’s most populous Muslim nation and showed that militants remain a deadly threat here despite the U.S.-backed arrests of hundreds of militant suspects.
Ibrohim, 37, a married father of four children, was “a quiet, polite and friendly man who gave his neighbors flowers on Valentine’s Day” and never openly expressed radical religious beliefs, although he had a collection of books on violent jihad, or holy war, Suhandi said.
The two shared a house in Jakarta with other colleagues for nearly a year, before Ibrohim packed up his belongings and moved out nearly three months ago saying he was moving to a cheaper location, Suhandi said.
“We never discussed his books, maybe that was because he knew that we had different interests,” Suhandi said. When staff members talked about a 2003 bombing of the Jakarta Marriott that killed a dozen people, Suhandi said he remembered Ibrohim nodding in agreement when they called it a terrible crime.
“I never imagined he could do it: planning a bombing at a hotel where we are — his friends working together with him,” said Suhandi, who was on his way to work when the July 17 bombs went off as guests ate breakfast. “How could he do something that we condemned together?”
Police allege that Ibrohim was recruited in 2000 by the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah, in which Noordin is a key player.
The group has been funded by al-Qaida and — along with its splinter groups — is blamed for five major bombings in Indonesia since 2002 that have killed a total of 250 people, most of them foreign tourists on the resort island of Bali.
Ibrohim started work as a landscaper at the Jakarta Hilton Convention Center in the mid-1990s. He became a florist for another five-star hotel in the capital, the Mulia, before he was hired in 2005 by Cynthia Florist — which operated flower stalls in both the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels, Nanan said.
While investigations into the recent bombings are ongoing and it remains unclear when plotting began, Nanan said that Ibrohim began scouting the targets in April.
At a press conference Wednesday, police showed security camera footage which Nanan said showed Ibrohim smuggling explosives in through a basement cargo dock on July 16, a day before the blasts at the hotels, which are located side-by-side in an upscale district of the capital, also home to foreign embassies.
The grainy images show a man backing up a small pickup truck into the Marriott and Ibrohim unloading three containers that police claim were full of explosives.
“On D-day, Ibrohim had the most important role in the bombing,” Nanan said, “He took the bomber … equipped with the bomb into the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.”
Other security camera footage was said to show Ibrohim leading the suicide bombers — one of them an 18-year-old high school graduate and a 28-year old man whose body has yet be claimed by relatives — through the hotels on July 8, apparently in a rehearsal for the attacks.
Police also showed footage from July 16, with Ibrohim leading one of the bombers to room 1808 of the Marriott, rented two days before the bombings and used as a command center.
Police say the attacks were plotted at two rental houses on the outskirts of Jakarta. Hundreds of pounds (kilograms) of explosives were seized there along with a car rigged with a bomb. Investigators said a third suicide bomber had been recruited to kill President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in an attack that was planned for this week but foiled by the police raids.
At least five suspects in the hotel bombings remain at large, including Noordin, while two others have been shot and killed in police raids.
“The investigation is far from over and there is much left unexplained,” said Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia project director for the International Crisis Group think tank. “Developing a better understanding of who brought him (Ibrohim) into the plot and how he was inducted would help crack this case and strengthen future counterterrorism efforts.”
Ibrohim had resigned his job on the morning of the bombings, the head of security of the U.S.-owned J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, Allan Orlob, told AP.
In a letter to his employer, he requested that his last paycheck be used to reimburse several people who loaned him money. His friends were asked in the short, handwritten note that he left at the hotel reception to forgive him.