Evidence accrues in Bali blast

A meeting in Thailand last January confirms the link between Al Qaeda and a regional terror group.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Investigators on three continents are moving closer to definitively tying Al Qaeda and its Indonesian allies to the Oct. 12 bomb blast at the Sari Club on the island of Bali that killed at least 190 people.

In particular, an alleged Al Qaeda operative in US custody has told interrogators that he and members of the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) agreed at a meeting in southern Thailand last January to strike at Southeast Asian tourist resorts such as Bali, according to a regional intelligence official.

Investigators say all of the evidence, while not quite a smoking gun, is pointing them in one direction. But even as it does, some analysts say, the opportunity presented to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri to move decisively against domestic radicals is slipping away. Instead, the convoluted politics of the world's most populous Muslim nation are threatening to protect alleged members of terrorist groups.

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Since the Bali bombing, domestic sympathy for JI – which US and Indonesian investigators strongly believe was involved in the attack – has only increased. At the same time, suspicion of foreign investigators, particularly those from the US, has soared.

Ms. Megawati has been largely silent, failing to try to rally the nation around an antiterror effort. The vacuum has been filled with rumor and speculation, with fingers pointing almost anywhere but at the small, tightknit network of Indonesian militants already linked to JI and implicated in a series of smaller bombings in the past three years.

"This whole discourse of denial and the strange behavior of the Indonesian government is attributable to domestic political realities,'' says Andrew Tan, a professor at Singapore's Institute for Strategic and Defense Studies. "Neither Megawati nor anybody else wants to risk being branded un-Islamic. So I think it's likely that radical groups will continue to flourish in Indonesia."

At present, Indonesia has roughly a dozen radical groups who claim their own militias. Although these are technically illegal, Jakarta has continued to leave them alone.

The government has, however, taken a small risk in the Saturday arrest of Abu Bakar Bashir, a 64-year old cleric. The State Department named Mr. Bashir as the leader of JI when it placed the group on its list of international terrorist organizations earlier this month. Bashir, who has complained of health problems since the police said they were considering arresting him, is currently being held at a police hospital in Jakarta.

He denies any ties to terrorism and claims that the US, a country he deems an "enemy of Islam," has pressured Indonesia to arrest him because of his religious beliefs.

National police say the cleric has not been arrested in connection with the Bali bombings – instead, he's been charged with involvement in the bombing of almost a dozen churches on Christmas Eve 2000. But the two events are far from unconnected.

In a court filing yesterday laying out the charges against Bashir, the police cited a string of evidence against him, all of which is at least a year old. But only now has the government chosen to move against him, leaving a clear impression in the Indonesian public mind that he's being punished for the explosion on Bali.

Still, analysts say he's unlikely to be able to shed any light on what happened in Bali, and warn that the Indonesian government is risking burning political capital on a red herring. They say Bashir's knowledge of operations has been limited since the start of 2001, when he began to emerge as a senior leader in the movement to bring Islamic law to Indonesia as the chairman of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI), a high profile umbrella group for Indonesian militants.

"They're not going to get any information leading them to the Bali culprits from Bashir," says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert who has written a book on Al Qaeda.

According to regional intelligence officials citing interrogations of alleged JI members, Bashir's rising public profile worried the group's principal operations man, Riduan Isammudin – better known as Hambali. To protect the organization, Bashir was apparently cut out of the loop.

"There's no doubt that Bashir's a bad guy,'' says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. "But we don't think he pulled the trigger on Bali."

A string of suspicions

Indonesia's national police say they aren't certain yet who did pull the trigger on Bali. This week, the police announced the arrests of three Indonesian men on suspicion of involvement in the blast – including the alleged owner of the minivan used in the attack. However, they warn that the detainees may eventually be released.

But police do have serious suspicions. Hambali, who is considered to be the JI's principal link to Al Qaeda, remains at large and was a participant in the January meeting in southern Thailand, according to Mohammed Mansour Jabarah.

Mr. Jabarah, a native of Kuwait with a Canadian passport, was arrested in Oman in March for allegedly plotting, along with JI, to blow up the US Embassy and other Western targets in Singapore. That plot was foiled last December with the arrests of dozens of alleged JI members in Singapore and Malaysia.

Jabarah is currently in US custody, and described the meeting to interrogators, according to a regional official. His account is the first in a string of evidence pointing toward JI.

The Singapore government says Jabarah came to Singapore along with another Al Qaeda operative, Indonesian Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, in October 2001 to provide technical expertise for the attack on the US Embassy. But after that plot was foiled, operatives who remained at large decided that traditional targets like embassies were getting too difficult to attack.

Instead, Hambali and the other participants at the January meeting agreed to focus on clubs and bars frequented by Westerners. Most of the victims in the Sari Club blast were Australian. That shift to softer targets is something that Western intelligence agencies allege is happening within Al Qaeda and its loose network of affiliates across the globe.

Mr. Al-Ghozi was arrested in Manila before that January meeting, and is now serving time in the Philippines for a bomb blast that killed 22 at a Manila train station on New Year's Eve 2000. He received training in bombmaking at an Al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, Indonesian and Filipino officials say.

Philippine officials say he's also confessed to building the car bomb that almost killed the Philippine ambassador to Indonesia, Leonides Caday, in August 2000.

That car bomb, in turn, is the only explosion in recent Indonesian history that compares to the style of bomb and skill that was involved in the construction of the car-bomb that destroyed the Sari Club. "The ambassador's house was a smaller blast, but it was quite similar,'' says Prasetyo, the deputy spokesman for the Indonesian National Police.

Terrorism vs. tourism

Nevertheless, with the exception of Bashir's arrest, there has been little effort to round up the literally dozens of leads that the interrogation of Jabarah and another alleged Al Qaeda operative who was arrested in Indonesia, Omar al-Faruq, have yielded, according to the terrorism expert, Mr. Gunaratna.

"They have the knowledge to move against a number of people but they don't have the political will," he says. "It's a terrible mistake."

President Megawati has appeared to misunderstand the impact of the attack on Indonesia's image. Her first meeting with Australian Prime Minister John Howard after the attack came at a Mexico conference of Pacific leaders on Oct. 26. Rather than focus on condolences and promises to catch the killers, she complained that Australia's stark warning to nationals to defer travel to Indonesia, issued since the attack, was hurting Indonesia's economy. Mr. Howard reminded her that his responsibility was the safety of Australians.

"As far as Megawati is concerned, the travel warning, and not the fact that terrorists are running around her country, is the problem,'' says Mr. Tan of Singapore's Institute for Defense and Strategic Studies.

That could create a backlash in Mr. Bashir's favor if evidence connecting him to the Bali blasts isn't forthcoming. Mr. Bashir is already seen by millions of Indonesians as a persecuted and sympathetic figure whose only crime is speaking his mind.

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