Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terror group linked to al-Qaida, purportedly claimed responsibility for a deadly car bomb attack outside the Australian Embassy in Indonesia, saying it was punishing Australia for supporting the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
Indonesian investigators, meanwhile, said Friday that they believed the car bombing was a suicide attack, and were investigating if three of the nine people who died were the bombers. They had also blamed Jemaah Islamiyah soon after the attack Thursday.
In Australia, Prime Minister John Howard said another attack in Jakarta was a “distinct possibility.” Militants have repeatedly struck foreign targets in Indonesia, the deadliest when they bombed nightclubs on Bali Island, killing 202 people including many Australians.
“There has been a lot of ’chatter’ as the intelligence agencies call it and a lot of evidence coming forward suggesting it (another attack),” he said. “The number of people they believe to be operatives would support the fear that there could be another attack.” He did not elaborate.
The claim of responsibility was posted on an Internet site known for carrying extremist Islamic content. Its authenticity could not immediately be verified.
“We decided to call Australia to account, which we consider one of the worst enemies of God, and God’s religion of Islam,” the statement said. “Here we were able to call it to account today in Jakarta, where one of the mujahedeen (holy warriors) was able to execute a martyrdom operation with a car bomb in front of the embassy.”
The attack in Jakarta killed nine people and wounded 173 and came ahead of next month’s general elections in Australia. Howard, a conservative, has angered many in the region for running on a pro-American, anti-terror platform.
“We suspect that it is a suicide bombing,” said Lt. Gen. Suyitno Landung, the national police force’s chief of detectives. “We are trying to determine whether the parts of bodies of three men at Kramat Jati hospital were part of a suicide squad.”
He said the vehicle used in the attack was a green Daihatsu minivan.
If the claim of responsibility is legitimate, the blast would bear echoes of a far deadlier strike, a series of train blasts in Madrid in March that killed 191 people. That was timed to parliamentary elections in which pro-U.S. Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s party was considered the front-runner but eventually lost to opponents who had promised to withdraw troops from Iraq.
'Indonesia is crying'
Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer, who flew to Jakarta after the blast, walked to the damaged embassy through streets strewn with shattered glass and metal. Bouquets of flowers lined the front of surrounding buildings along with posters with handwritten messages saying: “Today, Indonesia is crying,” and “Curse the terrorists!”
The attack also came ahead of Indonesia’s presidential elections and two days before the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on the United States.
After meeting with President Megawati Sukarnoputri, police chief Dai Bachtiar said authorities were hunting for two Malaysian fugitives — Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Top — and that they had discovered a safe house near the international airport that the suspects may have used last month.
Forensics experts sifted through scene of the explosion, marking evidence on the road by putting small orange flags on bits of bomb debris. The head of the anti-terror unit, Brig. Gen. Pranowo, said detectives were collecting pieces of the car used in the blast — a vital step in catching the bombers.
Australian post-blast analysis experts were helping in the investigation.
“These terrorists need to know that Australia and the Indonesian government and others as well, will hunt down terrorists until we catch every single one them,” Downer said.
Australian Federal Police commissioner Mick Keelty, who is accompanying Downer, said experts believed that the car bomb consisted of about 440 pounds of potassium chloride.
Jemaah Islamiyah has been blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings and the Aug. 5, 2003, suicide bombing at the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed 12 people.
Australia, a key supporter of the U.S. war on terrorism, sent 2,000 troops for last year’s invasion of Iraq and still has more than 850 military personnel in the country. The Iraq war is deeply unpopular in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
Analysts were divided on how the bombing would affect Australia’s Oct. 9 election. Howard is considered stronger on national security than Labor challenger Mark Latham — who has pledged to bring the troops home before Christmas — and could benefit from the perception that Australia is under attack.
Financial analysts said the bombing was not expected to significantly affect Indonesia’s stock and currency markets, although overall sentiment remained cautious. On Friday, the Jakarta Stock Exchange opened only slightly lower, indicating that investors aren’t panicking over the attack.