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Indonesia's Terrorism Battle Still in Early Stages - 2003-10-09


A year after the devastating attacks on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, Indonesia is getting praise for arresting and convicting those directly responsible for the country's worst terror attack. But while Indonesia has made a major turn around in addressing the terrorist threat to the region, some analysts believe the country still has a long way to go.

It took a bomb blast in Bali on October 12, 2002, and 202 deaths for Indonesia to finally face the problem of terrorism.

A secret terror network, called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has been identified as responsible for the deadly blasts, as well as several other attacks in Indonesia and Southeast Asia in recent years. JI - believed to be a regional arm of the al-Qaida terrorist network - wants to establish a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Many of its followers, including some of the Bali bombers, were students at an Islamic school in East Java run by Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir - the alleged spiritual leader of JI.

Neighboring governments had already exposed the presence of the JI network in Indonesia even before the Bali bombings. But unlike its Southeast Asian neighbors, Singapore and Malaysia, Indonesia responded slowly to neutralize the terrorist group.

Critics say, while Indonesia has been successful in prosecuting the Bali bombers within a few months after the attack, it has yet to come up with a systematic strategy against the group.

A recent report by the independent, International Crisis Group, warns that although more than 200 JI members - including the top operative known as Hambali - have been arrested, the group is far from destroyed. In fact, the report says JI is bigger and more sophisticated than initially thought.

Andrew Tan, a professor at Singapore's Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies, says Indonesia faces quite a challenge. "If we recall, before the 12th of October, the Indonesians were quite clearly dragging their feet and denying that there is a problem with terrorism," he says. "They've come a long way. But there are a number of weaknesses in the sense that the problem of JI is somewhat more extensive and more dangerous than we knew. Obviously the majority the members of JI are still out there."

While Indonesia has prosecuted members of JI for terrorism, the group itself remains legal and still has access to funding - which appears to be channeled through Islamic charities.

Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book Inside al-Qaida, says Indonesia's strategy against JI is faulty.

"Indonesia has responded to the JI organization in a manner where JI is still able to survive and conduct terrorist operations," he says. "The approach of fighting terrorism is not to go after individual leaders. The approach of fighting terrorism is to designate or proscribe a terrorist organization and then to dismantle its propaganda, fund raising, recruitment, procurement, transportation, safe houses, all that infrastructure."

But Indonesia faces complex challenges in tackling terrorism. It has the world's largest Muslim population, where many believe the U.S.-led global anti-terrorism campaign unfairly focuses on Islam. Analysts say this leaves President Megawati Sukarnoputri - who has not shown strong leadership skills - having to navigate carefully among political, religious and diplomatic interests.

A hardline approach against religious extremism would make her government vulnerable to political backlash from Muslim groups ahead of next April's elections. To compound problems - Ms. Megawati faces resistance in her own cabinet - especially from her Islamic conservative Vice President Hamzah Haz, who has lashed out against the Western war on terrorism.

Greg Barton, an Indonesian expert at Australia's Deakin University, says the government has to show more political will. "The problem is the government is behind the people, not out in front leading. It is taking its cue from public sentiment and not exercising any degree of boldness in standing up to the public and saying it's wrong, there is really a problem we have to face up to," he says.

Terrorism expert Mr. Gunaratna warns it is only a matter of time before JI strikes again. "It is a question of time that JI will mount another terror attack in Indonesia," he says. "And that may perhaps, force the Indonesian leaders to be more decisive in their response."

In a bloody reminder of the terrorism threat, a car bomb exploded outside the JW Marriott hotel in downtown Jakarta in August, killing 12 people. JI is believed responsible.

To underscore the continued threat from JI, Indonesian police this month said they are hunting for several people suspected of planning fresh attacks.

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