Evidence accrues in Bali blast
A meeting in Thailand last January confirms the link between Al Qaeda and a regional terror group.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.