Feature

Indonesia: Terrorism’s new frontier

A thunderous bomb blast leveled a Bali nightclub last month, killing nearly 200 people and thrusting Indonesia into a war with Islamic terrorists.What lies ahead for this troubled nation?

Who planted the bomb?U.S. intelligence believes the deadly explosion was the work of Jamaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian extremist group, with technical assistance from al Qaida. This week, Indonesian intelligence officials arrested two men they suspect may have planted the bomb. The bombers, authorities say, received their training at al Qaida camps in Afghanistan. Until the Bali bombing, the administration of President Megawati Sukarnoputri had assured the U.S. that al Qaida had no operatives hiding out in the sprawling archipelago’s 17,000 islands. Now her government admits what U.S. officials have been telling her for months. “We are sure al Qaida is here,” says Indonesian Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil.

How does he know?There were several telltale signs. Shortly before the Bali bombing, the CIA received warnings that an al Qaida terrorist attack on Indonesia was imminent. This intelligence came from interrogations of al Qaida operative Omar al-Faruq, who was arrested in Indonesia in June and transferred to U.S. custody. After the Oct. 12 bombing, investigators found traces of C-4, a highly volatile explosive, in the charred ruins of the Sari nightclub, where hundreds of foreign tourists had been dancing. C-4 has been a favorite of al Qaida bomb makers.

Why has Indonesia become a target? It serves as a perfect battleground for terrorists. Most of Indonesia’s 225 million people are scattered over several main islands and dozens of smaller ones; though 85 percent of the population is Muslim, the nation seethes with separatist movements, resentment of Christians and Hindus, and anger toward the central government. Poverty is rampant, and the country’s experiment with democracy is new and uncertain. A corrupt dictator, Suharto, ruled the country through military force from 1965 to 1998, when popular uprisings forced him to resign. Megawati was elected as part of the fledgling process of democratic reform. But she faces strong opposition from Muslim parties and is unable to exert much control over outlying islands. Her own vice president, Hamzayh Haz, is a fundamentalist Muslim with ties to radical groups.

What do the extremists want?An Islamic state in Southeast Asia, encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the southern Philippines. Though Indonesia is now primarily Islamic, it is a secular nation and does not follow sharia, or Islamic law. This offends Jamaah Islamiyah and other fundamentalist Islamic groups. They want Indonesia to be freed of Christian, Hindu, and Western influences. Haz, for example, has said it is wrong for a Muslim nation to have a woman as its president.

Who runs Jamaah Islamiyah?Its spiritual leader is a Muslim cleric named Abu Bakar Bashir, who runs an Islamic boarding school in central Java. Bashir denies any involvement in the bombing. He even denies the existence of Jamaah Islamiyah. But he makes no secret of what he thinks of George W. Bush’s war on terrorism. “I support Osama bin Laden’s struggle because his is the true struggle to uphold Islam, not terror,” he said. “The terrorists are America and Israel.”

Why isn’t he under arrest? He is, but not for the Bali bombing. Bashir, 64, was a free man until shortly after the recent attack. Under mounting U.S. pressure, the government ordered him to submit to questioning. Bashir then checked into a hospital for exhaustion, where police charged him in connection with a church bombing spree in 2000 in which his group had long been suspected. But the government said Bashir was not considered a suspect in the Bali bombing, lauding him as a “gentle person.”

Did Bashir plan the Bali bombing?Probably not. Investigators believe the mastermind was al Qaida operative Riudan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali. Hambali has ties to both bin Laden and Bashir. An Asian intelligence official told The New York Times that if you consider al Qaida “the McDonald’s of terrorism,” Hambali is the managing director for Southeast Asia. Hambali recruits fanatics and sets up franchises, sending jihadis back to al Qaida camps for training. Jamaah Islamiyah, intelligence services say, is one of Hambali’s franchises.

Was this Hambali’s first attack?No. U.S. intelligence believes he’s had a hand in a string of recent terrorist bombings in the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as participating in several plots against the U.S. In 1995, Hambali was a principal planner in a plot to blow up 12 passenger jetliners in the air on the same day; that plot was foiled. Hambali also helped plan Sept. 11. He arranged for two of the hijackers to meet in Malaysia, and one of his front companies wrote a letter that enabled Zacharias Moussaoui to enter the U.S. Eagerly sought by U.S. authorities, Hambali is currently in hiding.

How will Indonesia respond?Very cautiously. Putting an Islamic cleric like Bashir in jail is risky business for Megawati. She is now trying to push through an anti-terrorism law, but she’s unlikely to use the military and police to conduct a major crackdown on extremist Muslim groups. “Indonesians are leery about giving too much authority to the military,” says Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz. “Americans need to understand that we’re dealing with a country that only recently became free after 50 years of dictatorship.” That leaves Megawati in a delicate balancing act. If she does too little, Islamic terrorists will almost certainly strike again, with devastating consequences for Indonesia’s already struggling economy. If she cracks down too hard, her government could fall, and the Islamic parties take power.

A tourist paradise lost

The Jakarta Post

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