Indonesia Faces Its Own Bin Ladens

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Abu Bakr Bashir is thought to be linked to a regional network suspected of planning the Bali bomb blasts

Until now, fear of a devastating domestic backlash has restrained Indonesia's President Megawati Sukarnoputri from cracking down on her nation's increasingly vocal and active supporters of Osama bin Laden. Now, she may have no choice but to bite the bullet. The weekend bomb blast in Bali that killed 189, mostly foreign revelers at two local nightclubs could force Megawati to choose between Washington and the mainstream Muslim political parties on whose support she has been partly dependent.

Bush administration officials have left no doubt that Megawati's hour of decision has arrived. "I hope I hear the resolve of a leader that recognizes that any time terrorists take hold in the country, it's going to weaken the country itself," President Bush said Tuesday of his planned talks with his Indonesian counterpart. Secretary of State Colin Powell was even more pointed: "We can see now that you are not exempt from this, you cannot pretend it does not exist in your country," said Powell, reflecting longstanding U.S. frustration over what Washington sees has been Jakarta's denial in the face of a growing menace. "I hope this will reinforce Indonesian determination to deal with this kind of threat."

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 Jemaah Islamiah: Still a Danger
 Confessions of a Terrorist
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 Asia's War on Terror
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U.S. officials also helpfully (for Megawati) referred repeatedly to al-Qaeda, and the idea that foreign terrorists were using Indonesia as a safe haven — a line enthusiastically embraced by some Indonesian officials, and certainly helped by forensic evidence suggesting the blast had been caused by sophisticated C4 plastic explosive, suggesting the perpetrators had international links. Still, the problem for the Indonesian president is that her country's radical Islamist movement is mostly homegrown, despite strong links with al-Qaeda to the highest level.

The Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) organization, which has been named as the prime suspect in the attack, is a case in point. The secretive body accused of involvement in scores of terrorist attacks and attempted strikes against Indonesian Christians and Western interests in Indonesia, the Philippines and Singapore, has roots that date back to the 1970s. Islamist groups who dreamed of an Islamic state centered in Indonesia — whose 90 percent Muslim population makes it the world's largest Muslim nation — stretching from southern Thailand and Malaysia all the way to the southern islands of the Philippines eventually found their way into a global "jihad" movement when some went to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. By the mid-1990s, Jemaah is believed to have made common cause with al-Qaeda. Now that the U.S. offensive in Afghanistan has cost the bin Laden network its sanctuaries and scattered its leadership, security officials believe al-Qaeda may become more reliant on the independent organizational structures of allied groups all over the world.

Extremist currents remain on the fringes of Indonesian Islam, but they appear to have been tolerated by a mainstream increasingly suspicious of U.S. intentions — an inclination shared by many Indonesian nationalists long hostile to agendas emanating from Washington. Megawati, like every Indonesian leader since the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, has a tenuous grip on power maintained through balancing the interests of rival political parties and the military. That has left her reluctant to engage in a battle that might turn even moderate Muslims against her.

While U.S. and Asian leaders have grown increasingly alarmed at signs of al-Qaeda-linked activity in Indonesia, they've tended to avoid publicly challenging Megawati. And when U.S. sources have pointed to links between JI and al-Qaeda, the mainstream Muslim parties have cried foul and demanded that Megawati stand up to this American "propaganda." A recent TIME report caused consternation in Jakarta by revealing that the CIA interrogation of confessed al-Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti whose role was to liaise with Indonesian groups, had linked JI and specifically Abu Bakr Bashir, a charismatic cleric alleged to be JI's spiritual leader (a charge he denies; in fact he denies that JI exists) with terror plots. Bashir denies any connection with violence, but is openly supportive of bin Laden and al-Qaeda. And he blamed the Bali blast on the U.S., accusing it of trying to implicate Indonesians in terror. Even if they don't agree with him, Bashir has some defenders in high places — including Vice President Hamza Haz, who echoed Bashir's accusation that the Bali blast had been "engineered."

But Haz is one voice among many in Megawati's divided cabinet, where some ministers have been urging a crackdown on extremist groups. The Bali bombing is likely to strengthen their case by alienating the Indonesian public, for whom the impact of the catastrophic blow to the nation's all-important tourist industry will be felt most acutely in their pocket books. It's also a direct challenge both to Megawati's own regime and its relationship with the West, as well as to the military's ability to maintain domestic security.

The military may, in fact, benefit from Washington's concern to crack down on Indonesia's radicals. Human rights abuses in the course of East Timor's recent struggle for independence had forced the Pentagon to curtail its longstanding ties with the Indonesian military, but there is mounting pressure in the U.S. defense establishment to restore those links in order to more effectively fight terrorism in Indonesia. Australia lifted its own human-rights-inspired curbs on military ties this week.

Foreign and even domestic pressure may now leave Megawati no choice but to order a crackdown, and the resulting political fallout will likely make her more dependent than ever on the military. Indeed, her situation begs comparison with Pakistan's General Pervez Musharraf, who was forced by September 11 to choose between the U.S. and his regime's Taliban proteges — a strategic choice challenged by increasingly influential Islamist parties. But from the point of view of those seeking efficient curbing of Indonesian extremism, the laxity shown by Megawati until now may be a symptom of the often volatile diffusion of power in Jakarta that began in 1998 with Suharto's ouster, when a nation deeply riven by political, social and ethnic divisions began moving awkwardly towards democracy. Now, as in Pakistan, terrorism, and the fight against it in Indonesia, may slow that transition.