After a Four-Year Calm, Bombs Hit Jakarta Hotels

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Dita Alangkara / AP

Police officers inspect the damage after an explosion went off at the Marriott hotel in Jakarta on July 17

On the morning of July 17, Zelko Peher was having breakfast on the 29th floor of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta when he heard a blast from downstairs. "We looked out the window down below and saw shattered glass so we knew the bomb had come from inside, probably the lobby," said the German cameraman after running out of the five-star hotel in the capital's Mega-Kuningan central business district. "We were very surprised because the security was so good when we checked in. They checked everything and even opened our suitcases so how could this have happened?"

Questions about the attacks at the Marriott as well as the Ritz-Carlton just across the road, where a second bomb went off just minutes after the first explosion at the Marriott, are still being answered. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has suggested that the bomb blasts on Friday morning may have been related to disgruntled parties unhappy with his landslide re-election victory on July 8 or terrorist groups that the country was not familiar with. In an emotional speech in front of the Presidential Palace, Yudhoyono showed photos of his picture being used as a target by unidentified masked men holding rifles. "This terrorist action is believed to have been carried out by a terrorist group but not necessarily a terrorist network that we have known thus far in Indonesia," he said. "I have instructed law enforcers to put on trial whomever is involved in this terrorist action ... regardless of their political status."

By Friday afternoon, the death toll from the attacks on the Marriott and the Ritz Carlton remained at nine with at least 50 injured, including foreign nationals from India, Norway, the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and South Korea. Police now believe that the bombs may have been made on the 18th floor of the Marriott where they found — and defused — a device on Friday afternoon. "This was very well-planned and it would be really hard to protect against this kind of attack," says terrorism expert and security consultant Ken Conboy.

Public-relations executive Ruby Purnomo was sitting in his office in the building next door to the Marriott when he heard the first explosion around 8 a.m. "It was small but enough to cause panic," he says. "Our whole building was evacuated as we had been prepared since the first Marriott bombing."

Purnomo is referring to a 2003 car bomb at the hotel that killed 12 people. Since then, the security at the hotel has been enhanced: for example, vehicles are no longer allowed to pull up at the lobby. Instead, guests and visitors are dropped off near the street, go through metal detectors, then walk to the lobby. Same with pickups — people have to walk out to the street. At the Ritz-Carlton, which is connected to the Marriott by an underground tunnel, vehicles are still allowed to pull up to the lobby, but security at the front gate will open both the front hood and the trunk and use mirrors under each vehicle to spot any bombs. Since the first Marriott explosion, police have also gotten better at securing a bomb site. While reporters were allowed to get up close to the lobby in 2003, onlookers could not get within 500 feet of the blast on the morning of July 17. While it was difficult to see the damage to the Marriott, the ballroom windows at the back of the Ritz-Carlton were clearly blown out.

Indonesia's Metro TV quoted Nuruddin, an employee at the Marriott, saying that a body with no head or feet had been found. The news station reported that another headless body was found in the Ritz-Carlton, also operated by an American hotel chain and with the same Indonesian owner. "The bombs could have been on timers or strapped to suicide bombers," says Conboy, author of The Second Front, an examination of Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a homegrown, regional terrorist network with ties to al-Qaeda. "If they were suicide bombers it was most likely the work of religious radicals or Jemaah Islamiah ... the hotel security really screwed up."

Indonesia's deadliest bombings took place in 2002 in Bali when 202 people died (the single largest group of victims being Australians); JI claimed responsibility. Then came the first Marriott attack, followed by an explosion at the Australian embassy in Jakarta. The last terrorist attack in Indonesia was in October 2005 when 20 people were killed by suicide bombers, also in Bali. Since then, Indonesia has been pretty safe. With the help of American and Australian counterterrorism experts, and the support of the public, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has rounded up hundreds of militants since he took office in 2004, and killed in shootouts many senior militants. However, Noordin Top, one of the masterminds of the first Bali bombings in 2002, remains at large.

In his press conference, Yudhoyono also lamented Manchester United's cancellation of their planned soccer match with an Indonesian all-star side next week. "If this hadn't happened, the best-known soccer club in the world would have played in Jakarta," he said. The team had planned to stay at the Ritz-Carlton.

The July 17 blasts deal a blow to Indonesia's image. Yudhoyono's resounding re-election on July 8 was widely viewed as a sign of growing stability in the country. Foreign investors had been returning to the country, which is seen as a Southeast Asian success story — a nation where Islam and democracy peacefully coexist. Now that idyll has been shattered.