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Indonesia Uses 'Soft Approach' to Contain Terrorist Threat

Terrorism tied to Islamic fundamentalism seems to be on the rise in many parts of world -- from Yemen and Pakistan in the Middle East to Southern Thailand and the Philippine island of Mindanao in Southeast Asia. But, in Indonesia -- a country that security experts worried might become a base for training and exporting al-Qaida recruits -- terrorism has significantly declined in the last five years. The Indonesian government's response to terrorism was to take a soft approach, to treat it as a crime and and not a war, and that this approach seems to be working.

In July of 2009, terrorists again struck in the heart of Indonesia's capital. Suicide bombers linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesian terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaida, detonated explosives in two Western hotels in Jakarta, killing nine people and injuring more than 50 others.

This deadly bombing was a reminder that terrorism remains an active threat in Indonesia. But the reality is that terrorism in Indonesia has significantly declined, in the last few years. The Jakarta bombing was the only major terrorist attack in 2009. In 2008, there were no terrorist-related fatalities.

Anti-terrorism analyst Sidney Jones says there are only about 2,000 J.I. members in Indonesia, out of a population of 250-million people. Improvements in the social and political conditions in the country have made it harder for terrorist recruitment.

"We don't have a repressive government. The country is not under occupation. We don't have an alienated minority. And, we don't have any hostile neighbors stirring up trouble or having the inclination to stir up trouble," Jones said.

Still, she says, as far back as the late 1990's, terrorism was on the rise Indonesia and, in 2001, there was legitimate concern that the terrorists were gaining public approval, as a wave an anti-American sentiment spread across the Muslim world.

"Immediately after 9/11 and immediately after the invasion of Afghanistan, there was at least passive support in a number of circles in Indonesia for some kind of retaliatory measures against the United States. And, there was a sense that the invasion was not justified," Jones said.

The Bali bombing in 2002, which killed 202 people, brought world attention to the growing terrorist problem in Indonesia. Rather than responding to these terrorist acts with massive military force, the Indonesian government decided to take a softer approach, to treat terrorists as criminals and not as enemy combatants captured on the field of battle.

History Professor Azyumardi Azra, with the State Islamic University in Jakarta, says that, by trying the terrorists in open court, the government was able to convince a skeptical public and ambivalent Muslim organizations that these terrorist acts were indigenous Muslim-on-Muslim crimes and not a Western plot.

"After bringing some of the perpetrators of the Bali bombing one to justice, then it is clear that they did this suicide bombing by themselves, not because of engineering by external intelligence powers," Azra said. "This is one of the reasons moderate Muslim organizations changed their attitude."

Jones says outside of Indonesia there was criticism that some of the sentences for the terrorists were too lenient. For example, Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir -- an accused J.I. leader -- received only a 30-month sentence after being convicted of conspiracy related to the Bali bombings. He was released after serving a little more than a year. Later, the Indonesian Supreme Court overturned his conviction. Jones says, although the justice system was not perfect, the transparency of the process helped build public confidence and support.

"There has been almost a strengthening of the rule of law," Jones stated. "Because of the way the terrorist cases were handled."

Azar says Indonesian Muslim groups are also playing a more prominent role in promoting multiculturalism and tolerance and preventing outside fundamentals groups like the Wahabi and Salafi sects from gaining a foothold.

"In the last two or three years, moderate Muslim organizations -- like particularly N.U. [Nahdlatul Ulama] and Muhammadiyah -- have come to realize there should be very careful, there should be, pay more attention of the infiltration of these Wahabi or Salafi-oriented muslims, that they try to control the mosque," Azra said.

Involvement from Western powers like the United States remain in the background, mostly sharing intelligence and providing anti-terrorist military training. Jones says the millions of dollars in post-tsunami aid provided by the U.S. government and private organizations did little to enhance America's image in Indonesia, in part because it was not highlighted by the local media. But she says the election of U.S. President Barack Obama has won a huge number of Indonesian hearts and minds.

"The switch from Bush, who was so universally reviled, to someone who grew up in Indonesia and who talks about his favorite Indonesian food and still remembers some Indonesian language, I think that made all the difference," Jones said.

Although the threat of terrorism remains, Jones says Indonesia has contained the problem by not declaring a war on terror.