Bombs in Bali, despite crackdown
Islamic terrorists are suspects in three bombings that killed at least 26 people, officials say.
JAKARTA, INDONESIA AND CAIRO — After three years of major successes against Southeast Asia's deadliest terror group - including dozens of arrests, prosecutions of key figures, and improved intelligence sharing across the region - Indonesia was hit again on Saturday. Despite doing many of the right things, experts say the bombings in Bali indicate how difficult it is to root out Islamist terrorism once it's established in a society.
Indonesian officials said Sunday they suspected two fugitives linked to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) had masterminded the suicide bombings of three restaurants on the tourist island, which killed at least 26 people and injured more than 100.
In countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, a decade of counterterrorist operations have not entirely removed the threat in those societies, suggesting a long road ahead not only for Indonesia but for countries such as Iraq, where Islamist terrorism has become endemic in the past two years.
JI has historical and ideological links to an older Indonesian militant group, the Darul Islam, notes Sidney Jones, one of the world's leading authorities on the militant group, in a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG). "Darul Islam's ability to adapt and survive over the past five decades suggests Indonesia is unlikely to eradicate JI completely," she wrote.
While Indonesian efforts against the terror group haven't been perfect, they have scored many successes. Dozens have been arrested or prosecuted in connection with JI terrorism, including Abu Bakar Bashir, the group's spiritual leader, and Riduan Issamudin, who under the alias of Hambali served as the organization's principal planner and recruiter for nearly a decade.
But many other JI operatives have remained at large, and Indonesian officials in recent days warned that the group was adapting and regenerating its ability to carry out attacks. The latest attacks on Bali demonstrate how accurate those concerns were.
"It's very difficult to stop three guys from strapping on suicide belts, getting some ammonium nitrate, and then walking into a cafe,'' says Zachary Abuza, a political scientist and specialist on Southeast Asian terror groups at Simmons College in Boston.
While most Indonesians find such attacks abhorrent, and don't favor the sort of ultrareligious caliphate that JI wants, in a country of 230 million people, if only 0.5 percent of the population are sympathetic, that amounts to over 1 million potential supporters.
The blasts come nearly three years after bombings on Bali carried out by JI left 202 dead. Since then Indonesian, Singaporean, Malaysian, and Australian police have worked closely to track down dozens of people tied to the bombing.
If JI was responsible for the blast, the Bali attack would be the first time, since Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, that Al Qaeda-linked groups have staged a major second attack in the same location, raising concerns that London, Madrid, and other cities may not be immune.
The attack also confirms that once the taboo of suicide bombings has been broken within a country, follow-up attacks become much more likely. One of the attackers in 2002 was a suicide bomber, though at the time many Indonesians had trouble believing that an Indonesian was capable of such an act, mirroring similar disbelief in Iraq when suicide tactics began there, and suggested his bomb may have simply exploded prematurely.
This time, there seems to be little doubt about the mode of the attack. Indonesian officials say that initial forensic evidence points to suicide bombers in all three locations. Amateur video footage released by police also shows a man walking into one restaurant with an apparent bulge on his back, and then exploding.
"I received information at the time that terrorists were planning an action in Jakarta and that explosives were ready," President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said late Saturday. Mr. Yudhoyono and other antiterrorists officials had expected any attacks to be in the capital, Jakarta, and before the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which begins on Oct. 5.
To be sure, some analysts thought the threat might be past. Just last month Gareth Evans, a former Australian prime minister and chairman of the International Crisis Group think-tank, said that the JI network was no longer a serious threat.
"The JI regional division that covered Australia has been effectively smashed by Indonesian police and intelligence operations, well supported by Australian agencies," he said. "JI itself no longer poses a serious threat in Indonesia or elsewhere."
The Bali blast brings the number of bombings or attempted bombings in Indonesia since April 1999 to more than 50. The attacks include bombings at 19 churches on Christmas Eve of 2000 that killed some 19 people, and a suicide attack on Jakarta's Marriott Hotel in August 2003.
Since then, Indonesian courts have convicted and sentenced more than 50 people over the Bali, Marriott, and other attacks, including five death sentences. Hambali, JI's main recruiter, has been held incognito and without charges by the US since his arrest in Thailand in 2003.
But police say that some of JI's top militants and bombmakers are still at large, including Malaysians Azahari Husein and Mohammad Noordin Top. The two are suspected of key roles in the 2002 Bali blasts and in attacks in 2003 and 2004. Mr. Husein, a former Malaysian professor, wrote a bombmaking manual for the JI and is believed to have helped build the car bomb that did most of the damage in the first Bali attack.
JI is also suspected of involvement in bombings in the Philippines, where followers attended training camps, and plotted bomb attacks in Thailand and Singapore.
Accounts from jailed JI members have given authorities a detailed picture of the organization and its goals. Nasir Abas, a former JI member now in jail, provided organizational charts of JI in a recent book, along with extensive descriptions of its recruitment methods and leaders. JI, he wrote, is seeking to create a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia, aiming to unite Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and the southern Philippines.
He also wrote of JI's roots in Darul Islam, a group that fought for an Islamic state in Indonesia in the 1950s, but was defeated by government troops the following decade.
According to court documents, another senior JI member is Abu Bakar Bashir, a 66-year-old Indonesian cleric. Mr. Bashir, the alleged spiritual leader of JI, was sentenced in March to 30 months in prison for involvement in a criminal conspiracy for the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings. Bashir denies terrorist links.
Southeast Asian police say that Bashir founded JI in Malaysia in 1993, and assumed leadership of the organization in 1999. He also is alleged to have helped to develop the organization while he was in exile in Malaysia in the 1980s, after fleeing Indonesia. Police say that he was helped by Hambali - a veteran of the anti-Soviet campaign in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s - who helped to build JI into a terrorist organization. He drew on lessons from Afghanistan and also drew inspiration from Al Qaeda.
Mr. Abas told interrogators that "Hambali and Bashir issued the fatwa, or religious edict, from Osama bin Laden," saying that Muslims must defend themselves and strike Westerners. Ms. Jones of the ICG says there have been splits in JI between supporters of such attacks and those who wish to minimize casualties among Indonesian Muslims.