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Muslim Extremism in Indonesia Causes Concern - 2001-09-26

During a visit to the United States this month, Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri pledged cooperation in the fight against terrorism. But the leader of the world's most populous Muslim nation faces difficult challenges ahead. The rise of Muslim extremism in Indonesia in recent years is raising fears that some groups may already have links to wider terrorist networks. Police in the Indonesian capital Jakarta wave on traffic past the Atrium Mall, the site of the city's most recent bombing. No one was injured in the incident earlier this week, but it is the second time this particular shopping complex has been struck and part of a growing problem. In the past two years, Indonesia has been plagued by a series of largely unexplained bombings at dozens of churches, the national mosque, the Attorney General's office, the Stock Exchange building, and at an ambassador's residence. Government officials believe most of the incidents are linked to Indonesia's own political turbulence. Some may be linked to a handful guerrilla separatist movements.

But with the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, focus has shifted to the question of whether the bombings are actually somehow connected and whether radical Indonesian Islamic groups are linked to other militant Islamic groups overseas. Analysts say Indonesia, with the world's largest Muslim population and sprawling geography, could easily be used by Islamic terrorists. Ken Conboy is an analyst with Control Risks Group, a British security consultancy firm. "Indonesia is a great target," he said. "Very porous borders, easy to get in. You've got sympathizers you can probably count on in a pinch. You've got no capital controls, so money can come in and out. You've got a law enforcement organization that probably doesn't look as close as it should." The Laskar Jihad, or "the Holy War Force" is one group that has observers concerned. Months of fighting between Christians and Muslims in Indonesia's province of Maluku intensified dramatically when the group went to fight on behalf of the region's Muslims last year. Now, both Indonesian and international newspapers are filled with reports suggesting links between the Laskar Jihad, a Malaysian extremist group, and Muslim separatists. Mr. Conboy says while there may be some links between Malaysia and the Philippines, he believes Indonesia is out of the loop. "I've heard that there might be some finances passing through here," said Ken Conboy. "There's been charges of cells operating here. Again, there's no smoking gun."

Indonesia's largest Islamic organizations have condemned the terror attacks in the United States and urged their members to exercise restraint.

But anti-American sentiment may be growing. There have been small demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy in recent days. Nine small radical groups have even pledged to launch a "holy war" against America if it strikes at Afghanistan for harboring terrorist suspects. One of these groups has set up registration centers to sign up young Indonesian men to go to Afghanistan to fight alongside Muslims there.

Many experts point out that Indonesia's Muslim population - under a secular government - tends to be moderate and is unlikely to broadly support cooperation with militant Islamic groups in other countries.

Komaruddin Hidayat is with Paramadina, an Islamic intellectual organization. Dr. Komaruddin believes that the small but vocal radical element in Indonesia is more talk than action. He says for example the registration drive to recruit fighters to go to Afghanistan is simply a gesture of Muslim solidarity and that no one actually expects to go and fight. "It's just pretend," he said. "Pretend - as if I am ready but actually, basically in the bottom of their heart, it's a political joke, it's a game, using religious rhetoric." Still problems await Indonesian President Megawati when she returns from the United States, where she promised to support U.S. efforts to act against terrorism. Analysts say Ms. Megawati will find herself walking a fine line between honoring that pledge and respecting the sympathies of thousands of Indonesians who have shown that they are linked to other Muslims around the world in spirit, if nothing more.