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Evidence accrues in Bali blast

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

(Page 2 of 2)

"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."

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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.