JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) _ The purported new military chief of a Southeast Asian terror group is among a handful of Indonesians in direct contact with al-Qaida and is now considered the most lethal terrorist in Asia, plotting fresh attacks in the region, officials told The Associated Press.

Known as Zulkarnaen, the highest ranking Jemaah Islamiyah leader still on the loose is believed to head an elite squad that helped carry out a suicide bombing at a Jakarta hotel that killed 12 people, in addition to helping prepare bombs that killed 202 people in Bali, U.S. and Indonesian officials told AP.

Zulkarnaen held a meeting last March on the tiny island of Sebatik with two other senior militants to plot upcoming attacks against Western hotels and banks in Indonesia, a senior intelligence adviser said. The adviser and the U.S. and Indonesia officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

``He's considered to be the most dangerous guy that's out there,'' said terrorism expert Ken Conboy, who runs Risk Management Advisory, a Jakarta-based security consultancy, and has written several books on Indonesia.

``Not only did he excel on the demolition side but he also has a proven ability on the leadership side. I guess he's got a spark of charisma,'' Conboy added.

Zulkarnaen, whose real name is Aris Sumarsono, is called Daud by fellow militants and is thought to be hiding in Indonesia. He became operations chief for Jemaah Islamiyah several weeks after the August arrest in Thailand of his alleged predecessor, Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, U.S. and Indonesian officials said.

He's now among al-Qaida's pointmen in Southeast Asia and is one of the few people in Indonesia who have direct contact with Osama bin Laden's terror network, said the intelligence adviser. The International Crisis Group think tank recently issued a report also listing Zulkarnaen as having direct contact with al-Qaida's leadership. No details were available on the contacts.

Zulkarnaen studied biology at an Indonesian university. In the 1980s, he was among the first Indonesian militants to go to Afghanistan, where bin Laden operated, for training _ becoming an expert in sabotage.

Officials said Zulkarnaen now leads a squad of militants called Laskar Khos, or special force, whose members were recruited from some 300 Indonesians who trained in Afghanistan and the Philippines.

Asmar Latin Sani, an alleged bomber whose severed head was found in the wreckage of the Marriott Hotel blast in Jakarta in August, was believed to have been a Laskar Khos militant working for Zulkarnaen.

Thought to be about 40 years old, Zulkarnaen is described by those who know him as a small man of few words, slightly built and thin.

Before he became a fugitive, he refused to be photographed and often kept his head down at public meetings, said Mahendradatta, the leader of a group of Muslim attorneys who are defending suspects in the 2002 Bali blasts.

Zulkarnaen's veiled 32-year-old wife, Rahayuningtyas, described her husband in a February interview with the Surya daily as a simple textile merchant whom she hadn't seen or spoken to since December 2002.

``You need to know that my husband is a quiet man. Even at home, he is just calm. If we don't ask, he never talks,'' she was quoted as saying.

Zulkarnaen's quiet demeanor, officials and peers say, belies a ferocious commitment to radical Islam and a determination to wage violent jihad to replace Indonesia's secular government with an Islamic one.

The intelligence adviser said Zulkarnaen and others have hatched plans to bomb a tourist hotel between December and January and a U.S. bank in February or March.

Indonesia's police chief, Gen. Da'i Bachtiar, said last week that handwritten notes found in a rented room used by another top Jemaah Islamiyah fugitive, Malaysian Azahari bin Husin, revealed plans for a bombing in February.

Azahari, a British-trained engineer and former university lecturer, and another Malaysian, alleged bombmaker Noordin Mohammed Top, narrowly escaped a police dragnet in the West Javanese city of Bandung on Oct. 31 and are the target of a manhunt in Indonesia.

But Zulkarnaen is a bigger fish than either of them, and his nondescript looks and Javanese ethnicity should make it easier for him to hide.

``He can be everything and anything _ a waiter, a beggar,'' said Mahendradatta. ``It'll be difficult to catch him.''

Zulkarnaen was a protege of Abdullah Sungkar, founder of Jemaah Islamiyah and the Islamic boarding school al-Mukmin, where Zulkarnaen and other senior militants studied.

Before Sungkar's 1999 death, Zulkarnaen was often seen by his mentor's side, organizing conferences and helping arrange the agenda of the elder radical.

In the mid-1980s, Sungkar sent a small group of Indonesians to Afghanistan to train in a camp led by mujahedin commander Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

According to the International Crisis Group, Sungkar was ``highly selective'' about who to send in the first group, choosing top students like Zulkarnaen who could translate the training materials and later become instructors themselves.

According to the Crisis Group report, Zulkarnaen was a ``particular protege'' of camp instructor Muhammad Sauwki al-Istambuli, an Egyptian whose rigorous instruction caused ``even the toughest among the Indonesian mujahedin'' to faint and vomit.

Zulkarnaen became a key player in Jemaah Islamiyah's training and recruitment, officials say, at one point sending militants to Camp Hudaibiyah in the southern Philippines and running an Islamic boarding school in Malaysia for a year.

Officials say he also helped organize fighting against Christians in the Maluku islands in the 1990s, in addition to organizing a meeting among militants who trained in Afghanistan at different times, enabling them to join forces.

More than 200 Jemaah Islamiyah members have been arrested in five countries since the Bali blasts and other attacks. But with Zulkarnaen and other leaders at large and recruiting going on, authorities view the group as strong. About 2,000 of its estimated 3,000 members are believed to be in Indonesia.