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Southeast Asian Anti-Terrorism Effort Targets Jemaah Islamiyah Group - 2003-05-09

Seven months after the worst terrorist attack in Indonesia's history, the trial of the first men charged in the case is about to begin. The bombing on Bali last October is believed to have been the work of Jemaah Islamiyah, a regional terrorist group allegedly linked to the al-Qaida network. Concerted efforts by several Southeast Asian governments may be taking a significant toll on the group's ability to operate.

Months before a bombing on Bali claimed 202 lives, and laid waste to part of the island's main tourist district, concern was already growing about the spread of Islamic extremism in Southeast Asia.

At the top of the list of suspect groups was Jemaah Islamiyah. JI, as the group is known, allegedly seeks to establish an Islamic state, using violence, across several Southeast Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore and the southern Philippines.

Both the United Nations and the United States have designated JI as a terrorist organization, and Washington charges that the group is linked to the al-Qaida terrorist network.

Ambassador J. Cofer Black is the coordinator for counter-terrorism at the U.S. State Department. He spoke about JI at a recent discussion on terrorism hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta. "It is multinational," he said. "It has international reach. It is, in our view from afar, one of the premier terrorist groups that has international connectivity and communications, and one that is very flexible and dynamic."

The Indonesian authorities reacted to the Bali bombing with a series of arrests, the swiftness and scope of which surprised many observers. More than 30 people have been arrested in the Bali case itself, as well as another 18 suspected in other plots - all alleged members of JI.

The Bali bombing was not the first attack JI is alleged to have planned. Singapore authorities say they foiled a plot in December 2001, in which JI sought to attack Western targets in the city-state.

In all, Singapore and Malaysia have arrested dozens of suspected JI members, before they could carry out any attacks. And shortly after the Bali bombing, Indonesian authorities arrested JI's spiritual leader, the Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Mr. Bashir, who denies all charges against him, but has spoken favorably of al-Qaida, is currently on trial in a series of bombings and plots other than the Bali bombing.

Sidney Jones is with the private think-tank, the International Crisis Group, and the author of two reports on Jemaah Islamiyah.

She says it is difficult to tell how seriously JI has been affected by the wave of arrests, because so little is known about the extent of the network. But she says it is unlikely an attack as big as the Bali bombing could be planned today, without Southeast Asian governments learning of it. "I think, however, one of the real damaging parts of the arrests is that it's going to become, first of all, more difficult to plan anything really big," she said. "Because I can't believe, at this stage, that there's not enough vigilance around the region, so, if there were meetings planned to discuss something, over a period of time, that someone wouldn't get wind of it and stop it."

But Ms. Jones says smaller terrorist acts are possible, such as bombings that took place last December on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. Three people were killed there, when a bomb was detonated in a McDonald's restaurant in a shopping center, and another bomb was detonated at a car dealership.

The Indonesian government says it has made significant progress in breaking the JI network and groups related to it. But officials acknowledge that some key people are still at large, including the man believed to be al-Qaida's chief operative in Southeast Asia, Riduan Isamuddin, who is also known as Hambali.

Dino Djalal is with the Indonesian Foreign Ministry. "Much as we have made progress in the fight against terrorism, we still don't know where Hambali is," said Dino Djalal. "We still don't know how many terrorist cells are out there. We uncovered the cells in East Java, in Banten; there are those that hid in Poso and so on. But we still don't know how many terrorist cells are out there, 20, 40, 80, 100? We don't know."

Seven months after the Bali bombing, it seems clear that Jemaah Islamiyah has suffered serious blows at the hands of the authorities. But it has not been defeated, and Southeast Asia's struggle to contain terrorism goes on.