Terror in Indonesia is strand of extremist political web

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Throughout the bloody American involvement in Vietnam, the most perceptive anti-insurgency experts in the West always understood that the aim of the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese was political - the establishment of a communist regime in Saigon - and that military operations were but a means to that end.

For instance, the US Embassy in Saigon had no military significance for Hanoi, but had high symbolic value. The costly Viet Cong attack on it in the Tet offensive of 1968, though actually a failure, was a brilliant political ploy, designed to shock the American public and undermine support of the war.

So it is with terrorism today. The hapless suicide bombers and truck-bomb drivers who are dispatched on missions of hatred and murder are instruments of terrorist leaders with distinct political agendas.

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So horrified will Russians be at the slaughter of their children in Beslan that they will get out of Chechnya, goes the reasoning. Kill enough morning commuters in Madrid and you may topple a government that has aligned itself with the US war against terrorism. Kill enough Americans and behead enough other foreign nationals in Iraq and they might go away and cede the country to the extremists who despise democracy.

And so it was in Indonesia last week. The suicide bomber who set off the explosion outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta was the pawn of a terrorist cell with distinct political aims. Australia has been one of the sturdiest supporters of the United States in Iraq. Its US-supporting Prime Minister John Howard is facing a lively election Oct. 9 against a Labor Party that has frowned on the dispatch of Australian troops to Iraq. Clearly, although no Australians - only Indonesians - were killed in the blast, it was intended as a message of deadly political warning to Australian voters.

It was not an Australian embassy in Singapore or Manila that was targeted, but the embassy in Indonesia. That choice, too, is significant and points to a clear political design behind the planning. Indonesia is one of those countries - like Pakistan and Turkey - that are Muslim but not Arab. In fact, Arabs make up less than a fifth of the Muslim world. The observance of Islam in Indonesia - with a population of 216 million, the largest Muslim country in the world - is far less radical than it is throughout the Arab world.

This has been a bone in the throat of a radical minority in Indonesia, a violent terrorist arm of which has sought to destabilize the governing order and subvert Indonesia's current movement toward democracy. It is probably no coincidence that last week's explosion took place just 11 days before Indonesia's first direct presidential election, set for Sept. 20.

Indonesian voters have hitherto been underwhelmed by the efforts of the radical minority parties to gain legitimate political traction, but the militant Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which Indonesian police say is responsible for last week's terror attack, is nonetheless seeking to stir extremist fervor.

The organization - whose fingerprints were on a 1995 plot to bomb 11 US commercial airliners in Asia and the 2002 bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed many Australian tourists, as well as the 2003 bombing of the Marriott hotel in Jakarta - is believed by some terrorist experts to have links to Al Qaeda. Its alleged spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian of Yemeni descent, denies this, but has expressed support for Osama bin Laden.

The political agenda of Al Qaeda, the principal terrorist organization confronting the US today, is clearly the crushing of any democratic tendencies in the Muslim - and especially Arab - world, and the establishment and consolidation of Islamic radicalism.

Indonesia, and other moderate Muslim countries like it, and the legions of moderate Muslims around the world, are irritating obstacles to Al Qaeda's ambitions.

Even in those Arab lands where extremists are at their most vocal, brave but often lonely voices are speaking out on behalf of freedom. The recent slaughter of Russian schoolchildren has spawned some unusual criticism and introspection in the Arab world. Particularly significant was a commentary by Abdel Rahman al-Rashed, who heads the influential Al-Arabiya television network.

In a newspaper column he wrote: "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but it is exceptionally painful that almost all terrorists are Muslims. What a pathetic record. What an abominable achievement. Does this tell us anything about ourselves, our societies and our culture?"

It is a question that sets moderate Muslims apart from those who fuel their political agenda with terror.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, won the 1967 Pulitzer prize for his coverage of Indonesia.

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