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Indonesia Scores High Marks on Bali Attack Investigation - 2003-10-09

Within weeks after the devastating October 12, 2002 attack on a Bali nightclub killed 202 people, Indonesian police - with help from Australian, U.S. and British investigators - had taken a suspect into custody. One year later, with more than 36 men arrested and key plotters tried and sentence to death, Indonesian authorities spared no effort to let the world know they were responding in the war on terrorism.

When the sun rose over Kuta Beach on Oct. 13, 2002, Bali's main bar and restaurant strip was a moonscape of gutted buildings, twisted steel and cars stuck in melted asphalt. The death toll from the bombs detonated the night before would eventually reach more than 200.

Less than a year later, a car bomb exploded outside the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, killing 12 people. Amid the charred debris, clues were hidden that could solve these horrific crimes. But, the question on everyone's minds was whether Indonesia could come up with the goods.

Terrorism had come home to roost in Indonesia - the world's most populous Muslim country - one that had just a year ago denied terrorism could be a problem on its soil.

Both attacks have been blamed on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Islamic militant group that is linked to al-Qaida. JI is believed to have its roots in Indonesia and aims to create a pan-Islamic state across much of Southeast Asia.

Soon after Bali, Indonesia moved quickly to cooperate with foreign experts. The Australians would provide the technical support and analysis. But the groundwork had to be done by the Indonesians. And its police force was plagued by a history of corruption, brutality and incompetence.

But, that perception quickly changed.

Leonard Sebastian is a senior fellow at the Institute of Defense and Strategic Studies in Singapore. He says that Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri quickly recognized the need to act swiftly in the wake of her country being labeled a "weak link" in the United States' "war on terrorism."

"Originally, we were quite concerned as to whether Indonesian security agencies, who were extremely nationalistic, would ask for cooperation of external agencies in resolving these terrorist problems," says Mr. Sebastian. "But they did so, and that's a big plus for me."

But President Megawati faced an uphill battle domestically. She was criticized for lending support to the U.S.-led war on terror soon after the September 11, 2001, bombing in America. Many Indonesians felt the United States anti-terrorism campaign was anti-Islam - including her conservative vice president, Hamzah Haz.

Despite the widespread mood of anti-Americanism among Muslim groups, Ms. Megawati was able to gain the cooperation of Mr. Haz and others, because this time terrorist violence hit home.

James Van Zorge, of Van Zorge, Heffernan Associates, a political risk consultancy based in Indonesia, says that Mr. Haz quickly realized the cost of protecting Islamic militants in secular Indonesia - where the Muslim majority is overwhelmingly moderate. "There are still some politicians - especially Megawati's Vice President Hamzah Haz - there was some denial coming from him. I think that is primarily because Hamzah Haz comes from the Islamic Party, the PPP, and I think that Mr. Haz quickly realized that this sort of denial gets him no where politically," he says.

Harold Crouch, a terrorism expert at Australia National University, agrees that politics did factor in - but the economic costs of Indonesia failing to act decisively would be huge. A collapse of the Bali-centered tourist trade, he says, would have devastated the country's economy.

"I think no government anywhere likes to have tourist resorts blown up, hotels in the center of the city blown up. Possible attacks on airports and that sort of thing, so I think Indonesia will certainly be committed to stopping that, to the extent that it is not able to do that alone and will need outside assistance, especially technological assistance," says Mr. Crouch. "I think that will continue."

It is believed most of the Bali bombers have been caught. Indonesian courts have convicted the four key terrorists. Three of them have been sentenced to death; the fourth got a life sentence after showing remorse. More than a dozen others have been convicted and trials are continuing.

In the case of this year's Jakarta Marriott bombing, more than 50 people have been arrested. But the biggest challenge, analysts say, lies ahead. JI and other terrorist cells are still active - looking to destabilize Southeast Asian governments. Analyst Leonard Sebastian said that these groups still pose a danger in the region.

"Many of these militant groups do have homegrown ideologies and have local grouse that provide a platform for violence. Now the consolidation of these homegrown groups is what worries me more than anything else," says Mr. Sebastian. "Of course, there will be al-Qaida infiltration, no doubt about it. My concern is homegrown militant movements. What path they will take? If they will find a nexus with a trans-national organization like al-Qaida, or whether they will go for it on their own."

Despite Indonesia's progress in the Bali case, there is still some perception that the police force is not up to Western standards. Hambali, an Indonesian arrested in Thailand in August and believed to be the operations chief for JI, is being held in U.S. custody at a secret location. Indonesia has requested that the United States extradite Hambali to stand trial. So far, the United States has refused.