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Arrest of Bombing Suspects Boosts Indonesia's Image for Fighting Terrorism - 2002-11-21

Indonesian police have arrested the man they believe was the mastermind behind last month's explosions in Bali that killed nearly 200 people. Has Indonesia's aggressive pursuit of the perpetrators in the Bali bombing put to rest earlier criticism that Jakarta is not doing enough to stop international terrorism?

Indonesian authorities have captured Imam Samudra, who they say was one of the leaders of the bombing in Bali on October 12. Another suspect, Amrozi, has been in custody for a few weeks and has admitted his involvement with the attack. Police are searching for several other suspects - all of them believed to be Indonesian nationals.

Some Indonesian officials reportedly say Imam Samudra is a member of Jemaah Islamiyah, an extremist Muslim group suspected of links to the al-Qaida terrorist network that was planning attacks against western interests in Asia. But the government in Jakarta has not officially made a connection between the Bali bombing and international terrorism.

After the September 11 attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Singapore and Malaysia eagerly joined the effort to arrest people suspected of links to al-Qaida. But Indonesia was slower to respond.

"The United States in particular had been very, very frustrated for a long time after 9-11 with the response of the Indonesian government," said Jeffrey Winters, a specialist on Southeast Asia at Northwestern University in Chicago.

He says Indonesia was slow to tighten its banking system to block terrorists' money, and slow to improve its border control to keep terrorists from using the country as a safe haven.

"And now, after the Bali explosion, there is much greater impetus at the highest level from [President] Megawati, her security minister and even people in the military and the police to try to do something," he said.

But Professor Winters says President Megawati faces big obstacles. He says Indonesia's government is weak, after decades of degradation under former President Suharto. Moreover, he says Islam has become increasingly politicized in Indonesia and President Megawati is seen as secular and not strong on Islam. Therefore, he says, she moves gingerly on any Islam-related issues.

Indonesia specialist Donald Emmerson agrees the Bali bombing was a wake-up call to the government in Jakarta. But because Indonesia has more Muslims than any other country, he says it is not possible for President Megawati to declare "war" on Muslim terrorists, without triggering a massive backlash.

Therefore, Professor Emmerson says the government has tried to use a balanced approach - going after Muslim extremists, while at the same time punishing military officers responsible for violence against local Muslims.

Even though the prosecutors of the Bali bombing are moving rapidly, Professor Emmerson says the Indonesian government has not made that part of the war on terrorism.

"One has to credit them with speed and with at least so far preliminary results," he said. "But this does not mean that they have taken ownership of the war against Jihadism, in the sense that they believe this is a purely Indonesian problem that needs an Indonesian response, regardless of what the west says."

Pressure from the United States, Australia and other countries adds to the complicated picture, analysts say, putting President Megawati in the middle.

Professor Winters says Indonesians do not feel there is enough specific evidence linking extremist Muslims in Indonesia with al-Qaida, as western countries have said. He says Indonesia experiences many bombings each year and the culprits may be local people upset with the government in Jakarta.

"Many, many Indonesians are convinced that the folks involved in the explosions, including in Bali, are very likely connected to their own military, to the leftovers of Suharto's regime, and people who have an interest in destabilizing Megawati's government," he said.

Professors Winters notes that hundreds of Indonesian Muslims went to Afghanistan to fight against Soviet troops in the 1980s. But he says that does not prove the Indonesians who returned home are taking orders today from al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Donald Emmerson says the terrorists in Indonesia may be people inspired by extremist Muslim leaders but acting on their own.

"I don't know of anyone who denies the possibility of a link to al-Qaida, an organizational link that is, but perhaps what we are more likely to be confronting in the years to come is unfortunately a kind of spontaneous, autonomous, inspired violence which is going to be much harder to deal with than if indeed somebody at the top of the chain sent out an instruction," he said.

Professor Emmerson criticizes the Indonesian government for not taking the terrorism problem as seriously as other countries. But he says the United States and others must also see the problem in the Indonesian context, where there are Muslims inspired by feelings of rage and impotence who turn to violence.