Monday, October 03, 2005

The Bombers Return to Bali

Australia’s former foreign minister Gareth Evans must wish he could retract his words. Only a week ago Evans had informed a group in his home country that, the terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) “no longer poses a serious threat in Indonesia or elsewhere.”

A few days later three bombs exploded in Bali, killing 32 people and wounding more than 100. The explosions went off only blocks from the site of the more deadly bombings that took place almost three years ago this month, killing some 200 people. It bore the hallmarks of a JI operation.

Evans, who now serves as chairman of International Crisis Group, an anti-terrorism think tank in Singapore, can be forgiven his pollyanish outlook. Until this past weekend it was beginning to look like Indonesia was a success story in the Global War on Terrorism. In many ways, despite the bombings, it still is.

He isn’t the only one to think so. One month before the attack Sidney Jones, ICG’s Southeast Asia project director, told a meeting of editors: “There won’t be another attack as big as the Bali bombing. JI’s alive, consolidating and actively recruiting, but most of the leadership is no longer interested in bombing Western targets as it’s wasting time, funds, and human resources.”

I guess the operative word is “most.”

Indonesian authorities quickly pointed the finger at two JI operatives, who undoubtedly are still interested in bombing Westerners. They are Azhari bin Husin and Noordin Mohamed Top, the two most-wanted men in Asia. It was a logical assumption to make since they are also suspected in being behind the 2002 Bali bombings, the attack on the Marriott Hotel in 2003 and the Australian Embassy a year ago.

Azhari looks, in his old university mug shot anyway, exactly like the mild-mannered lecturer he once was until he became a professional terrorist. He may have been in Bali since he has a penchant for being close to the scene of operations. It is said that he was seen sketching the interior of the Marriott shortly before it was bombed. During the attack on the embassy, he drove the suicide car close to the hotel, then got out and fled on a motorcycle while his accomplice plowed into the embassy grounds killing himself and a dozen others.

Until the Bali outrage, it seemed as if the bombing wing of JI was turning its attention more to Indonesians rather than Westerners. Two terror incidents in Sulawesi last May, one of which killed 21 civilians, went largely unreported outside Indonesia, presumably because no Westerners were involved and the locations didn’t have instantly recognizable names.

Ms Jones seems to have had a premonition that the Bali attack was coming. In the Asian Wall Street Journal in June, she wrote: “It could be a three-act drama – in which case there is one more attack to come. After the Ceram attack targeting police . . . and the Tenena attack targeting Christians, it’s possible that the mujahidin might turn their attention to a Western target for the third attack.”

The Indonesian authorities have been effective in tracking down, arresting and convicting many JI terrorists over the past few years. In September a judge in Jakarta sentenced Darmawan Mutho to death for his part in the Sept. 9, 2004, bombing of the Australian embassy. “I’m grateful to God to die a martyr,” he shouted after the sentence was read.

Many of the other leading jihadists in Indonesia are now in custody. They include Riduan Isamuddin, better known by his nom de guerre as Hambali, who was Osama bin Ladin’s deadly lieutenant in Southeast Asia. He is held by the Americans. Others include the radical Islamic preacher Abu Bakir Bashir and al Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq.

The remaining jihadists are said to be lowering their sights. Where once they dreamed of creating a Southeast Asian pan-Islamic caliphate that stretched from southern Thailand to Mindanao in the Philippines, they now concentrate on establishing an Islamic Republic in Indonesia, said Ms Jones.

“The bathwater in which Jemaah Islamiyah once floated is slowly starting to drain. Crippled by arrests, loss of leaders, and racked by internal divisions over the wisdom of attacks on civilians and Westerners, they are looking for more tangible goals.”

“Compelling Success Story”
American officials have not always been very complimentary about Indonesia, but Eric G. John, Deputy Assistant Secretary of state, East Asian and Pacific Affairs, was effusive in praising what he called a “compelling success story,” in his Sept. 15 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Said John: “the Indonesian Government has done an admirable job of pursuing, arresting and prosecuting terrorists. Since the Bali bombings in October 2002, Indonesia’s police and prosecutors have arrested and convicted more than 130 terrorists. Indonesia has established an effective counter-terrorism police force that is working hard to bring terrorists to justice.”

But while Indonesians have been effective in apprehending and convicting actual terrorists, they have been reluctant to attack terrorism’s roots. Jakarta has never banned Jemaah Islamiyah or moved seriously to close down the 18 known JI religious schools. Washington, too, was slow to declare JI a terrorist organization out of deference to Jakarta.

Jemaah Islamiyah means “the community of Islam,” and officials in every Indonesian administration have been reluctant to ban the group, saying since it would look as if they are attacking all Muslims. At least that is what they claim. The latest outrage may push the President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyano, Indonesia’s first freely elected president, to act.

But President Susilo has other things on his mind at the moment. The bombings took place on the very day that his government cut subsidies that effectively boosted the price of gasoline 88 percent overnight. This is always a sensitive issue in Indonesia, and one wonders if the bombers timed their attack precisely when the government would be on the defensive.

The jihadists’ dream of turning Indonesia into an Islamic state is not going to fade, of course. But recent developments suggest that it will move into the political arena, much as in Malaysia. Indeed, a fully democratic Indonesia means that Islamists can express themselves more freely and work toward their goal through the ballot box.

But first the government has to capture Azhari bin Husin and his sidekick.

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