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Terrorist Attacks Changed Public Opinion in Indonesia in 2002 - 2002-12-26

In Southeast Asia, the specter of international terrorism has evolved during the past year from warnings by a few lone voices into an undeniable threat.

The year began ominously, with the arrests in Singapore and Malaysia of dozens of Islamic militants accused of involvement with international terrorism.

Singapore announced it had uncovered a plot, based in part on documents seized at an al-Qaida house in Afghanistan, to blow up Western embassies and attack government installations. Singapore and Malaysia said many of those arrested belonged to a previously unknown group, called Jemaah Islamiyah, which was described as the Southeast Asian ally of the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Singapore's interior Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng said the group's leader is a religious teacher living in central Indonesia, named Abu Bakar Bashir. "In the case of Abu Bakar Bashir, his name surfaced rising from the investigation of the group detained by Singapore," he announced. "They have called him the emir, which is the chief of their group... From the information given, it is clear that he is their leader."

Singapore and Malaysia wanted Mr. Bashir arrested. Indonesian authorities summoned the aging cleric for questioning, but said they could not detain him for lack of evidence.

Mr. Bashir denied the accusations against him, but did not hide his opposition to U.S. policies in the Middle East and the war on terrorism. "I hope God will move the hearts of Muslims to avenge Islam." he said.

Further investigations led the Philippines to arrest several suspects. One of them, Fathur Rahman al-Ghozi, confessed to planting bombs one-year before that killed more than a score of people in Manila. Another was linked to the plots in Singapore and to Jemaah Islamiyah. Washington, the European Union, regional governments, and the United Nations have recently designated Jemaah Islamiyah an international terrorist organization.

In August, Indonesia arrested and handed over to U.S. authorities a suspect named Omar al-Farouq, who said he was al-Qaida's representative in the region. He later confessed to involvement in bomb attacks in Jakarta and other plots, which he said were authorized by Mr. Bashir.

Indonesia came under further pressure to arrest Mr. Bashir, and crack down on what was believed to be numerous terrorist cells in the country. But the Indonesian government, under domestic political pressure, said it needed further proof. Most Muslims also doubted the terrorist threat, noting that a moderate form of Islam predominates in the region.

On October 12, amid embassy closings prompted by security concerns and travel warnings by Western governments, three bombs exploded on Indonesia's Bali Island. They destroyed two popular nightclubs and killed nearly 200 people.

Nearly one half of the victims were from Australia. Australian Prime Minister John Howard echoed the nation's shock before a somber session of Parliament. "It was a terrible reminder that terrorism can strike anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Nobody, anywhere in the world, is immune from terrorism." Mr. Howard said.

The bombings also provided the long-awaited evidence that highly organized and well-funded terrorist groups were active in Southeast Asia.

While residents of Bali held religious ceremonies for the victims, the Indonesian government drafted an emergency decree to allow detention without trial for suspected terrorists.

Indonesian Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa tried to reassure Indonesians, who still remember decades of authoritarian rule under former President Suharto, that the law was within the democratic framework. "We are trying to combat terrorism from the democratic pedestal. And now that we have this decree, and the Parliament is very much on board, they want us to act quickly, and we will," he said.

The Indonesian government subsequently arrested Mr. Bashir, who still maintains his innocence. It also detained nearly a dozen other suspects with alleged ties to international terrorism.

Muslim leaders such as Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad condemned the killing of innocent people as un-Islamic, but also warned against blaming all Muslims for such acts. "Where states are behind the acts of terrorism, the whole government must stand condemned," the prime minister said. "But no race or religion should be condemned for, or discriminated against, simply because people of the same race [or the same religion] have been involved in terrorist activities."

The author of a book on al-Qaida, Rohan Gunaratna, said many terrorist groups that originally fought the Soviets in Afghanistan, and subsequently moved to the Middle East, have since spread to Southeast Asia. "Now, we are seeing, with U.S. military action in Afghanistan, a diffusion of this threat to the Southeast Asian region," writer Gunaratha said. "So, we would expect an increase in terrorist support and operational activity in this region in the next one to two years."

As the year closes, people of the region are seeking to celebrate holidays, but many hesitate to travel to tourist destinations or attend large celebrations. Their governments, meanwhile, are bolstering intelligence and surveillance, and worrying about the effects of the terrorist threat on tourism and foreign investment in their countries.