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Indonesia car bomb echoes Bali

A group linked to Al Qaeda is fingered in a deadly blast Tuesday at a Jakarta hotel.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / August 6, 2003



JAKARTA, INDONESIA

A car bomb ripped through the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta at lunchtime Tuesday, killing more than a dozen and dealing a harsh blow to an economy and a people that were only just getting over last October's terrorist attack in Bali.

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Surveying the scene, Jakarta governor Sutiyoso said it was "probably" a suicide attack. "This is clearly terrorism,'' he said, adding that it was too soon to say who was responsible.

But there have been only three previous car-bomb attacks in modern Indonesian history - the most recent in Bali - and all have been tied to the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group that US officials say acts as Al Qaeda's franchise in Southeast Asia. Tuesday's car bomb also follows more than a month of heightened US warnings about the increased risk of Al Qaeda attacks, particularly on so-called "soft targets."

The US State Department had issued specific warnings of possible attacks in Indonesia. US and Indonesian officials say American interests were the likely target.

"This was almost certainly the JI,'' says Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert and author at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies. "Car bombs are a sophisticated weapon, and JI is one of the only terrorist groups in Southeast Asia that can conduct this kind of operation."

The business district that houses the hotel was swarming with bomb-sniffing dogs and soldiers as rescue workers combed through the wreckage of cars and plate glass at the hotel's front. The blast left a blackened hole in the ground and blew windows out at least two-thirds of the way up the 33-story building.

At press time, Reuters put the number of injured at 150, including two Americans, two Australians, four Singaporeans, and a New Zealander. A Dutch banking executive was among the dead.

Economic blow

Though there's no conclusive proof who was behind the attack, the damage that terror can do to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, was starkly apparent. The main Jakarta stock-market index tumbled 3.1 percent after the attack and its currency, the rupiah, lost as much as 2 percent of its value against the dollar.

"Terrorism is the devil,'' Indonesian House Speaker Amien Rais told reporters shortly after the attack. He warned that panic caused by such attacks could "destroy our economy." The Bali attack last October left 202 dead and drove tourists - one of Indonesia's most important sources of foreign money - out of the country.

Indonesia's neighbors and allies expressed outrage at the blast. "If, as it appears likely, it is a terrorist attack, it is yet another reminder that the fight against JI and other groups goes on," Australian Prime Minister John Howard said.

Coincides with trials

The attack came just two days before a Bali court is scheduled to hand down the first verdict in the trials of the alleged Bali bombers, and also coincides with the ongoing Jakarta trial of alleged JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir.

Mr. Bashir and another Indonesian cleric founded JI in the early 1990s. The group is dedicated to the creation of an Islamic theocracy to unite the Muslim arc in Southeast Asia - a region stretching down from southern Thailand and across Borneo to the southern Philippines.

Many of the group's members trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s, and investigators allege that Al Qaeda has helped pay for most of JI's operations. Riduan Isammudin, the fugitive operations head of the JI, is alleged to be a full member of Al Qaeda in his own right.

Though Indonesia has received plaudits from the US and others for the arrest and prosecution of roughly 30 militants in connection with the Bali attack, analysts like Mr. Gunaratna say the Marriott bombing is evidence of how deeply entrenched terrorists have become here.

"So far, they've only been going after people tied to the Bali attack, or apprehended with weapons, but there are many more members,'' he says. "This kind of attack will happen again and again until a more proactive approach is adopted."

An embassy favorite

Indonesian and US officials say the bomb could have been targeted at the US. The hotel is a favorite for US Embassy and American Chamber of Commerce functions, and has hosted the embassy's July 4 party since it opened in 2001. When the US ambassador to Indonesia, Ralph Boyce, called a town-hall meeting for citizens after the May terror attacks in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the event was held at the Marriott.

"The JI has strong ties to Al Qaeda. And we know they have the means and motives to carry out more attacks," Mr. Boyce said during the meeting. The embassy's chief security officer also warned of a "fundamental change in targeting" that was making targets like five-star hotels and nightclubs more vulnerable than ever, and urged residents to avoid places where foreigners were known to gather.

That prompted a joke from one of the American executives in the audience that the meeting was a violation of the embassy's own advice. Everybody laughed, but it brought home how difficult it is to take every bit of antiterror advice.

"It's a little early to be making authoritative statements, but it's certainly possible that we were the target,'' says a US official. "But who are the big victims? They're the Indonesian drivers, the hotel staff, [and those] who died. Indonesians have been hurt the worst here."

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