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Indonesia, terror's latest front

Jakarta's defense minister Monday linked the bombing in Bali to Al Qaeda.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / October 15, 2002


Most of the victims of Saturday's bombing in Bali – the deadliest terrorist attack since Sept. 11 – were Australian.

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But the blast that wounded 300 and took the lives of at least 189 people – including tourists from the US, Germany, Britain, France, Ecuador, the Netherlands, and Sweden – is reverberating worldwide, revitalizing official support for the war against terrorists.

Now a critical question hangs over the world's largest Muslim nation: Will Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri take swift, decisive action against radical groups in her country?

In a week that saw Pakistan's hardline Muslim political parties make unexpectedly large gains in elections, Indonesia also now finds itself on the frontlines of a difficult counter-terrorism war – and roundly condemned for footdragging. "You have to hope that she's finally going to meet this problem head on,'' says one Southeast Asian diplomat. "They can't deny they have a problem anymore, and the nation that's going to suffer the most is Indonesia."

Voicing a view seen in capitals worldwide Monday, Japan's leading newspaper Yomuiri wrote: "Indonesia should not be the weak link in the global campaign against terrorism." Japan is Indonesia's biggest aid donor.

The timing of the Bali bombing may indicate its origins. It occurred on the second anniversary of the Al Qaeda-linked attack against the USS Cole in Yemen, and within a week of a suspected bombing of a French oil tanker near Yemen and another attack that killed a US Marine in Kuwait.

"There are groups that have been given ideological direction and training by Al Qaeda, but can take the operational controls for themselves," says terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book "Inside Al Qaeda."

Analysts say it is not clear whether these attacks are all coordinated by Al Qaeda, or being carried out independently by militants with a shared ideology.

Either way, the fear of more terrorist attacks on tourist and oil production sites in Southeast Asia was seen most immediately in the stock markets of the region. In Indonesia, the market tumbled 9 percent, with stocks in Thailand, Malaysia, and the Philippines also sinking. Major markets in Hong Kong and Tokyo were closed for holidays.

As tourists fled Bali Monday, US diplomats in Indonesia were ordered to send their families home and governments worldwide warned citizens against traveling to Indonesia.

The nightclub attack – which coincided with two smaller, less damaging blasts Saturday in front of the home of the US honorary consul on Bali and another nightclub – was the worst terror attack in Indonesia's history.

Though the Indonesian police said they had no early leads, Monday Indonesia's defense minister said "I'm convinced that there is a domestic link to Al Qaeda." Immediate suspicion fell on the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian-led regional terror group with ties to Al Qaeda that the US and its allies have said Indonesia is failing to contain.

"There is no other terrorist organization in Indonesia, other than the JI, that has the ability to carry out this sort of attack,'' says Mr. Gunaratna.

US embassies in Malaysia and Indonesia were closed around the Sept. 11 anniversary because US intelligence indicated the JI was planning car-bomb attacks on US targets. The Singapore government says the group was behind a failed plan to use truck bombs against the US embassy here late last year, and the Philippines says the group was behind a car bomb attack on its ambassadors house in Jakarta two years ago, among other bombings.