Militant group threatens Indonesian peace

Laskar Jihad is believed to be responsible for yesterday's bombing near a Christian hotel.

The Dutch sailors who arrived here 500 years ago to barter for spices have long-since abandoned Kebon Cengkih, a village named for the clove trees that still line its lush slopes.

Today, this tidy hamlet tucked into the hills above Ambon, the hub of Maluku province, is home to a new breed of invaders: Laskar Jihad, armed Muslim militants from Java. Their arrival two years ago to defend Muslims battling Christians here added fuel to a bloody interfaith conflict that has claimed more than 5,000 lives since January 1999.

A fragile peace had descended here after an accord was signed Feb. 12. But it was shattered yesterday by a bomb blast outside a Christian hotel in Ambon that killed four people and injured 43. An angry mob of Christians responded by torching the governor's office, underscoring the simmering tensions here.

No one claimed responsibility for the blast, but analysts and diplomats point to the Muslim paramilitary group Laskar Jihad, which has promised to disrupt the peace process. "Laskar Jihad's self-justification for its presence in Ambon depends on continuation of the conflict," said a recent report by the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank.

The peace accord called for "outsiders that bring chaos" to leave the region, though even moderate Muslims signatories are reluctant to see Laskar Jihad go, saying they don't feel secure. "A guarantee of security for our community is very important, and Laskar Jihad is one force that can make us safe," says Nasir Rahawarin, a Muslim leader in Ambon.

The explosion comes days after Gov. Saleh Latuconsina said he would extend by one month a March 31 deadline for disarming civilians, and amid fears of resistance by Laskar Jihad, whose well-trained troops number between 500 and 800 men.

"As long as [the government doesn't] deal with the hard-liners, it's going to be very difficult to move forward," says a Western diplomat in Jakarta. "That's been the problem from Day 1."

But just as the spice-hungry Dutch proved hard to oust from these islands, Laskar Jihad is refusing to leave its stronghold in Kebon Cengkih, a virtual no-go area for security forces.

No weapons – apart from the rifle held by Osama bin Laden in lurid posters plastered on a bamboo checkpoint – were on display in Laskar Jihad's compound, a neat row of one-story houses behind a large mosque.

In contrast to the casual attire of local Muslims, the young men in the compound wore knee-length tunics and white prayer hats above Javanese faces. All visitors are required to register and surrender identity cards; a sign on a door warned that anyone who left it open must immediately do 10 push-ups.

In a subsequent interview in Jakarta, Laskar Jihad leader Jaffar Umar Thalib, a 40-year-old Afghan war veteran, denounces the peace deal as a betrayal of Muslims and insists that Laskar Jihad won't abandon its 'humanitarian' mission (it runs a clinic and school in Kebon Cengkih).

Analysts say how Indonesia deals with the challenges presented by Laskar Jihad and other militants will be a crucial test for its newly won democracy. It also poses a problem for mainstream Muslims who have dithered over how to counter extremist views, particularly after Sept. 11. "To reject Jaffar or denounce his policies risks alienating people," says John Brownlee of the Asian Foundation, a US nonprofit. "Politicians are afraid it will cost political capital to speak out against extremists."

Despite his bloody record, Mr. Thalib has plenty of influential friends in Jakarta. He speaks regularly at seminars, including a recent talk on 'Islam and the West' that included US Ambassador Ralph Boyce. Last month, he dined privately with Vice President Hamzah Haz, who heads the country's largest Muslim party.

Thalib also dined with Abu Bakar Bashir, who Singapore and Malaysia say is the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terror group with links to Al Qaeda. Indonesian authorities have questioned Mr. Bashir, who denies the any links to terrorism.

Some US officials have aired concerns that Al Qaeda could be aiding Laskar Jihad and other Indonesian groups. Diplomats in Jakarta point out that Laskar Jihad has a domestic agenda that only targets Christians in conflict areas. "Laskar Jihad is not the same as Al Qaeda. They have different goals," says another Western diplomat.

Those goals include introducing Muslim sharia law in Indonesia, a multifaith nation in which Muslims represent around 85 percent of the population of 210 million. Sharia has already been tried in Ambon: a 27-year-old follower of Laskar Jihad was stoned to death last year after confessing to adultery.

Thalib denies having links with Al Qaeda, although he met Mr. bin Laden in Pakistan in 1987. Thalib says that bin Laden sent an emissary to Ambon last year to offer support to Laskar Jihad, but was sent packing. "He offered to cooperate with us, but we refused and told him to leave," Thalib says.

Analysts say this is plausible, given the group's choice of targets and its nationalist rhetoric against Christians in Maluku, whom it accuses of wanting their own homeland, just as Catholic East Timor broke away from Indonesia in 1999.

This puts Laskar Jihad squarely on the side of Indonesia's secular Army, which has often used proxy militias to wage war. Some diplomats say that disgruntled generals helped fund and train Laskar Jihad as a destabilizing tool after the fall of the military-backed Suharto regime in 1998.

Peacemakers in Maluku have long blamed outsiders for stirring up local tensions. With Laskar Jihad hunkered down in its hillside redoubt, and Ambon still plagued by terror attacks, the peace deal is looking increasingly fragile.

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