Remembering an early Jemaah Islamiyah attack in Jakarta

A reporter remembers when the last round of terror attacks began in Jakarta. Is another round coming?

Today’s attack on the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, have put Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) — the militant group presumed to be behind the attack and responsible for the murder of over 300 people in the past decade – back in the headlines ... and I got that old familiar pit in the stomach. (A dear friend of mine was staying at the Ritz, though I’ve since learned he’s OK.)

I was right there on the day the JI began their last campaign.

In August 2000, I was working as a freelance reporter for the Monitor in Jakarta, an opportunity I unfortunately earned when my predecessor, Sander Thoenes, was killed by Indonesian troops withdrawing from East Timor after that country’s independence referendum.

A time of turmoil

It was a time of turmoil and confusion there. Long-time dictator Suharto had been ousted little more than a year before and the presidency of the blind and erratic Abdurahman Wahid was coming apart under pressure from Suharto loyalists, generals angry that the presidency had been placed in civilian hands, and resurgent Islamist groups capitalizing on the increased freedom after Suhatro’s fall to preach, expand, and, in some cases, pursue jihad.

They had sparked a bloody Christian-Muslim religious war in Maluku, the small archipelago once known as the Spice Islands in the West and then of course there were the rumblings of secession emanating from Aceh in Indonesia’s far west and the province now known as Papua, in the far east.

Blast jolted me off the couch

Amid all that, being rousted from my couch on Jakarta’s Irian Street on a sunny day by a window-shattering bomb blast seemed oddly appropriate – if ultimately confusing.

I quickly headed out and followed a plume of smoke over the mango trees a quarter mile to the Philippines Ambassador’s residence, where a group of local Indonesians were pulling a man I later learned was Ambassador Leonides Caday from a burning car, and ignoring an obviously dead man I later learned was a street vendor.

Mr. Caday and his driver survived and, amazingly there was only one other casualty from the bomb that gutted colonial-era mansions on either side of Caday’s house.

In the coming days, the police didn’t seem to have any meaningful leads. Caday told reporters he thought the attack might have been a personal vendetta of some kind. Indonesia’s foreign minister said it was probably soldiers aligned with Suharto seeking to undermine Wahid’s government. The consensus of the reporting contingent in Jakarta, and among Filipino officials, was that it had something to do with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a separatist group in the southern Philippines.

Indonesian terrorists? No way!

But a home-grown Indonesian Islamist terror network? It wasn’t in the realm of possibility. Speculation that it might have been a suicide bomber? “You’re crazy, no Indonesian would ever do such a thing.”

Most folks soon forgot about the incident – though of course it came back to mind the next Christmas Eve, when near-simultaneous attacks were carried out on over a dozen churches in eight different Indonesian cities.

It took years for Indonesian and foreign investigators, academics, and journalists to begin to get a handle on what was going on – that a group called Jemaah Islamiyah, with seasoned operatives who had fought the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, leaders who had reached out to Al Qaeda while there, and a firebrand preacher newly home from an exile imposed on him by Suhatro, were setting up shop. And yes, they had men willing to kill themselves for the cause.

I thought of all this after today’s twin attacks on the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta – which broke a four year streak without an attack.

That streak was largely down to the lessons Indonesia and its neighbors had learned, the improvement of their intelligence and investigatory capacities, public trials of JI militants, and systematic efforts to prevent them from rebuilding their network.

Some of the analyst’s quoted in our story on the Jakarta attacks today speculate that a splinter group of JI veterans and new recruits may be behind this latest attack, and pointed out that rather than ramming a suicide car bomb at a lightly guarded target, as the group had done in the past, they had apparently infiltrated the hotel as guests in the days before the attack, gathered intelligence, and picked a perfect time to strike – during a breakfast meeting of foreign and local business leaders and officials. The death toll may have been paltry by JI’s standards – 9 compared to the 202 killed in the groups 2003 attack on the tourist island of Bali – but the manner of the attack was indeed something different.

Is this a new type of JI, one that will differ significantly in tactics? Was today’s attack a one-off event, as we all hope? I don’t know. But I’m certain that if this is an evolving problem, it won’t take the Indonesians and everybody else anywhere near as long to catch on.

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