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Analysis: Jakarta attack may show evolution of Islamist terror group

Splinter factions of Jemaah Islamiyah 'might now seek to re-energize the movement through violent attacks,' according to a report issued only 24 hours before Friday's bombings.

By Tom McCawleyCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / July 17, 2009

An Indonesian boy holds a poster as people lay flowers outside the Ritz Carlton hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday.

Tatan Syuflana/AP

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Jakarta, Indonesia

Twin bomb blasts at two luxury hotels popular with foreign businessmen in Indonesia's capital have renewed fears of terrorist attacks after a four-year lull in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

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The explosions present recently reelected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a new set of security challenges and are evidence that medium-term success in disrupting terrorist networks can't guarantee security since small numbers of motivated operatives are extremely difficult to completely eliminate.

Indonesia has been one of the great antiterror success stories of the past five years as it has hunted down and disrupted – often with US and Australian help – the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network, an Islamist group that has murdered hundreds and has in the past had ties to Al Qaeda. The group carried out five mass casualty attacks in Indonesia between 2000 and 2005 and another attack in the Philippines. Now, though, violent splinter factions may be hoping to revitalize JI with more sophisticated attacks, analysts say.

"It is too early to tell for sure," says Noor Huda Ismail, executive director of the Institute for International Peacebuilding and a onetime student at an Islamic boarding school run by Abu Bakar Bashir, the Sunni cleric who serves as the JI's spiritual leader. "But the pattern of attack, target, and method suggests the violent faction [of JI]."

JI's different factions

JI partly responded to the crackdown, Mr. Ismail says, by breaking into separate factions. One is a "mainstream," or nonviolent faction that believes high-profile attacks on Westerners don't advance the group's ultimate goal of a Pan-Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate. The other is a smaller group that prefers a strategy of violent confrontation with the secular Indonesian government and Western interests.

In a report released a day before today's attack, Ismail and Australian analyst Carl Ungerer warned that the group might be revitalized by a number of operatives whose prison terms have ended this year.

They wrote that the philosophical divisions within JI's leadership could drive new young recruits toward the network's violent wing. "We argue that two recent developments – the current leadership tensions and the release from prison of former JI members – at least raise the possibility that splinter factions might now seek to re-energise the movement through violent attacks," the two wrote in a report issued only 24 hours before Friday's attack.

No claims of responsibility yet

To be sure, Indonesia has not publicly named a perpetrator and no group has claimed responsibility. Mr. Yudhoyono said that state intelligence has evidence that terrorist groups are training to kill him, but he didn't name them. Yet there's no question that the four-year lull from attacks Indonesia has enjoyed has been largely due to hundreds of arrests and the killings of about a dozen senior JI operatives.

"The police have done a great job," says Eric Gerstein, a former FBI agent and now security consultant with Assessments Group Indonesia, a security consultancy. "But those [terrorist] elements are still out there."

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