It was not the first, nor the most deadly terrorist attack in Indonesia, but the bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta on Tuesday was a major blow to counterterror efforts. Like the 2002 Bali bombing that killed more than 200 people, the attack was apparently aimed at Westerners. Unlike the attack on Bali, Tuesday’s attackers struck in the economic and political heart of the sprawling island nation. It signaled that Jakarta’s battle with terrorists has only just begun, despite a series of high-profile arrests and trials.
The militant Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah, blamed for last year’s deadly nightclub bombing in Bali, has allegedly claimed responsibility for the hotel bombing, which killed 10 people and injured 150 others in and around the hotel, part of a U.S.-based chain.
And Indonesia experts say signs point to the group. Suspicions were raised even further Wednesday when police said that documents seized during the arrests last month of seven alleged members of Jemaah Islamiyah hinted at Tuesday’s bombing.
To be sure, there are other groups with possible motivation to make an attack, including the Acehnese rebels at war with Indonesia’s military over Aceh’s independence — the Free Aceh Movement, which goes by the acronym GAM.
It also can’t be ruled out that a wing of Indonesia’s own military might commit such an act, made to look like a militant attack. Historically, factions of the country’s military have intentionally stirred up chaos and violence as a way to justify expanding their own powers over the populace, though never on this scale or at the obvious expense of foreigners.
Other factors also point to Jemaah Islamiyah. The way the attack was carried out, at face value, is very much like the blast in Bali. According to a report by UPI, National Police Chief Dai Bachtiar said the bomb was “exactly the same” as the ones used in Bali — a simple fertilizer-based bomb delivered by an Indonesian-made Toyota Kijang car. As in Bali, the attack apparently targeted Westerners — which is in line with the group’s ideology of driving out the infidel, and setting up a pan-Asian Islamic state. Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population. Although the majority are moderate Muslims, there are pockets of more conservative and militant groups.
Is timing the message?
Most importantly, the attacks come as key leaders are on trial for their roles in the Bali bombing, a trial that has been touted as evidence that Jakarta has overcome its ambivalence and has taken a firm stand against terrorism. Prosecutors have asked for the death penalty against Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, a suspected Jemaah Islamiyah member who has admitted to purchasing the van used in the bombing.
At the same time, a court in Jakarta is trying Abu Bakar Bashir, the alleged Jemaah Islamiyah spiritual leader, who is accused of plotting several bombings against Christian churches in Indonesia in 2000.
The timing is a blow to that effort. “They’re saying in some sense, ‘You might capture these guys … but that we’re out and you have not crushed Jemaah Islamiyah,’” says John Gershman, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, a non-profit think tank.
And by striking in central Jakarta, assuming the attackers were Jemaah Islamiyah, they upped the ante.
“Bali was horrible and so forth, but Bali is on the margins of Indonesia” says Gershman. “When you do it in Jakarta, you’re going after targets that have important military and economic symbolism.”
This attack, and a growing body of information about Jemaah Islamiyah have suggested that they will not be easy to defeat.
In spite of arrests in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Singapore, a handful of important Jemaah Islamiyah operatives remain at large. Among them are Fathur Roman al-Ghozi, who escaped from a high-security Philippine jail in early July, marking what American, Philippine and Australian officials called a major setback in counterterror efforts. (The escape was also intensely embarrassing for Manila because it came just as Australian Prime Minister John Howard was in the Philippine capital for a state visit.)
Another key player who is still at large is Hambali, whom some regard as the “Osama bin Laden of the Far East.” The 36-year old Muslim scholar whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin is wanted in four countries in the region, and is believed to have provided $30,000 for the Bali attacks. Regional reports say he’s been spotted in in Cambodia or Thailand. Others have him living under cover as a peasant in Indonesia’s vast island chain.
That he can remain at-large, possibly travel in and out of the country and even, potentially, plan an attack, may be explained in part by sympathy among conservative Muslim groups in Indonesia — giving the relatively tiny group of actual terrorists a far broader base than originally understood. Until the late 1990s, when long-time President Suharto was forced from office, religious and ethnic dissent was held in check by a heavy-handed military dictatorship. Now, it’s relatively easy for these groups to meet and organize. Long bottled-up religious tensions and anger about secular government have inevitably risen to the surface.
Tuesday’s attack, “shows that there is a deeper network than the folks they eventually arrested,” says Gershman. “It’s hard to separate JI from more conservative Islamic groups… There are many movements that are very sympathetic to the claims of JI even if they may differ on the appropriateness of using terror.”
Roots of Muslim anger run deep
According to a July 31 Singapore Straits Times article that predicted more Bali-style attacks, Indonesian security sources said the infrastructure of Jemaah Islamiyah was still intact, in spite of the crackdown. The sources said five rising Jemaah Islamiyah leaders had taken over from Abu Bakar Bashir, the network’s spiritual head. “We might have arrested several of their members, but the network is far from being crippled. JI has shown this ability to adapt to changes by further breaking down the command structure and allowing terrorist cells to operate independently,” one source was quoted as saying.
The Bali attack trials have also firmed up allegations that Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network has supported Jemaah Islamiyah. Key witnesses have acknowledged al-Qaida funding, though most analysts still doubt that al-Qaida was involved operationally or in positions of political control. “I’m not convinced the funding was to make JI as fully on board as part of the worldwide al-Qaida operations. It was probably more of an attempt to support people doing things al-Qaida agreed with,” says Konrad Huber, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Back in 2000, Jemaah Islamiyah was believed to be behind the bombings of several Christian churches. But Huber says that those attacks reflected more parochial tensions — between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia.
“What we’ve seeing the last year is a shift in JI, greater alignment maybe in terms of targets JI is going after and what al-Qaida is doing,” he says.
U.S. offers help
The White House and the State Department roundly condemned the latest attack in Jakarta and offered U.S. help conducting the investigation. The United States has stepped in before, sending FBI agents to Bali following that attack.
The Tuesday blast, in which several Americans were injured but none was reported killed, will nonetheless raise questions in Congress about what form additional U.S. help should take in Indonesia. The Bush administration has been arguing for renewal of military-to-military contact with Indonesia, in the form of a training program to focus on counterterrorism. But critics of Indonesia’s military — pointing to the latest allegations of human rights abuses in Aceh — have successfully blocked its funding. However, a new attack in Jakarta could give the administration new fuel.
Many analysts say that Indonesia’s police are a better target for assistance, as proven by their growing professionalism in the wake of the Bali bombing.
“I would prefer seeing U.S. funding going to strengthening (the) role of intelligence services ... professionalizing police work, and coordinating between agencies, says Huber. “Because clearly there’s a huge gap.”