Bali bombings: 10 years later, progress and some bumps ahead

After the 2002 Bali bombing, Indonesia cracked down on terror. But analysts warn lack of understanding about smaller cells could hamper efforts.

Firdia Lisnawati/AP
People light candles at a beach during a memorial service to mark the 10th anniversary of the terrorists attacks, in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, Friday, Oct. 12. A decade after twin bombs killed scores of tourists partying at two beachfront nightclubs on Indonesia's resort island of Bali, survivors and victims' families on Friday braved a fresh terrorism threat to remember those lost to the tragedy.

A decade after bombs ripped apart two nightclubs in Bali, killing 202 people including 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians and seven Americans, the terrorist organization responsible for those blasts looks weak and fractured. Intelligence warnings that another attack might take place during anniversary commemorations led police to step up security, but by Friday morning they were calling the threat, “not significant.” 

To honor the victims of the 2002 bombings, hundreds of people, including Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, turned out for an early-morning ceremony. Indonesia’s Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa gave a speech calling the attack, “nothing less than an assault on humanity,” and said Indonesia remained committed to strengthening “the voice of moderation … and fighting extremism and intolerance in all its forms.”

After the Bali bombing, the US classified Indonesia as a frontline country in the global war on terror and provided funds and training to an elite counter-terrorism squad, Detachment 88, set up in the wake of those blasts.

The results exceeded many expectations: The last major attack against foreigners was in 2009, and Jemaah Islamiyah, Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian offshoot responsible for the 2002 Bali bombing, has been crippled by a police crackdown and rifts within the organization. And all of the major suspects who participated in the 2002 Bali attack have been killed or imprisoned. In deed, for the past 15 years, since strongman President Suharto stepped down, Indonesia has been a model of stability.

For all its efforts Indonesia has received widespread praise. But analysts say that smaller cells have cropped up in recent years still pose threats, and a lack of understanding about those groups has prevented better counter-terrorism efforts.

“The level of threat has diminished, but it remains persistent,” says Greg Barton, a political scientist who has studied global terrorism at Australia’s Monash University.

Hardline group recruitment

Analysts say disaffected youth are increasingly branching off and starting their own small cells that operate independent of Jemaah Islamiyah or Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid, a hardline group set up in 2008 by JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir, who is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for helping support a paramilitant training camp discovered in  2010 in Aceh, in northern Sumatra.

“They find old groups like the JI and JAT not radical enough,” says Jim Della-Giacoma, the Southeast Asia director of the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based organization that monitors radical activity in Indonesia.

Bashir created JAT, which is classified by the United States as a terrorist organization, after breaking away from JI, which more militant groups felt had abandoned jihad. Now, even that group carries out mostly above-ground activities, exerting its influence through schools and prayer groups.

The latter has become a prime source of recruitment for preachers seeking to inflame anger against the Indonesian state, Christians, the Ahmadiyah or, recently, Indonesia's tiny Shiite minority.

Groups are also using the Internet to tap new members, while poor prison management has created another type of breeding ground, allowing those convicted of terrorism to spread their messages to other inmates.

“The radical groups are smart,” says Bonar Tigor Naipospos, the vice chairman of the Setara Institute, which advocates for pluralism and defends the rights of groups like the Ahmadiyah. “They’re trying to gain influence through speaking in forums, in meeting places, in mosques.”

Despite success in arresting suspected militants and breaking up terror plots, Indonesia has long had trouble countering the ideologies that drive individuals to commit acts of violence, say analysts.

Prevention campaigns

Since 2002, nongovernmental organizations have led small-scale prevention campaigns, reaching out to youths through comics or social media. Some have helped find employment for individuals convicted of terrorism once they’re released from prison. The government has also run ad hoc de-radicalization programs that involve giving economic assistance to the families of convicted terrorists or bringing Islamic clerics into prisons to advocate for nonviolence and peaceful interpretations of the Quran.

Some who have participated in or monitored the programs, however, say it was a half-hearted effort, lacking wider government support.

Some officials recognize these shortcomings. They say the government has been “negligent” in preventing youth from being led astray, but also say they struggle with how to crack down on certain groups without infringing on religious freedoms.

Leaders of the country’s mainstream Islamic organizations have also played a small role, saying it’s the job of the police and the government to enforce the law.

“If religious freedom is given to the free market … tension and conflict are unavoidable,” says Din Syamsuddin, the head of Muhammadiyah, the second-largest Islamic group in Indonesia with about 30 million members out of a total population of 240 million.

Some Muslim scholars say the reluctance within the government to stand up against Islamic groups that preach hatred stems from a fear of appearing un-Islamic.

But as new, small plots have surfaced over the past year –  last month 10 suspected militants allegedly planning attacks on police and lawmakers were arrested – the government seems to have been forced into a corner. It recently announced plans to establish a widespread national counter-terrorism program that would bring together different government ministries focused on religion and education with civil society groups and Muslim organizations.

The national counter-terrorism agency will lead the program once it gets into full swing, but for now it’s still trying to determine how new suspects are tied to old networks. Some are related to militants who trained for jihad in Afghanistan back in the 1980s and ‘90s. A series of arrests last month in Central Java, for instance, drew attention to a group calling itself “Al Qaeda Indonesia.”

Ansyaad Mbai, the director of Indonesia's National Counter-terrorism Agency, says the group is not new, but “newly uncovered.” Many analysts believe it is merely using the Al Qaeda name as part of a global trend of franchising the Al Qaeda brand.

Since these groups are small and lack the skills of earlier cells, they pose little threat at present. "The name is not important, they are bound by their ideology," says Mr. Mbai.

That's why analysts worry about the government's unwillingness to crackdown on radical preachers and vigilante groups and not focus more attention on de-radicalization or rehabilitation. Indonesia has seen worse, but, says Mr. Della-Giacoma of the International Crisis Group, "there needs to be more evaluation on what's working and what's not." 

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