Indonesia joins fight against terror


Government officials in the world's most populous

Muslim nation, are beginning to address the problem of

terrorism, says John Aglionby 



Thursday October 10, 2002 



http://www.guardian.co.uk/elsewhere/journalist/story/0,7792,809060,00.html



The United States scored its latest legal success in

its war on terror today when Malaysia deported a

California-born man, Ahmed Ibrahim Bilal, 24, who is

wanted in his homeland on charges of conspiring to

join and help al-Qaida. 

Kuala Lumpur's role in expelling the student at the

International Islamic University's campus in Selangor

state was made considerably easier by Washington

sneakily revoking his passport, thereby making Bilal

an illegal immigrant and leaving him without much of a

legal defence. 



If the United States had not done this, the case would

probably have dragged on for months  an Italian

businessman wanted by India in connection with a

15-year-old arms scandal has been fighting deportation

from Malaysia for more than a year. 



But while bureaucrats in Oregon, where Bilal is

thought to be heading, might be patting themselves on

the back over their triumph, the incident could soon

be eclipsed by events unfolding in Malaysia's southern

neighbour, Indonesia. 



For the world's most populous Muslim nation, which is

witnessing a revival of Islamism and for the most part

has refused to admit is has any sort of terrorism

problem whatsoever, is, in Washington's eyes, at last

starting to come on side. 



In the last few weeks a bevy of high-ranking officials

have finally admitted that foreign terrorists,

including al-Qaida members, have either passed through

or been based in Indonesia. While in the country these

operatives have even trained local radicals and

plotted a variety of attacks, including a couple of

assassination attempts on President Megawati

Sukarnoputri. 



The defining moment in this change of attitude is

considered to be a recent visit by Karen Brooks, a

senior south-east Asia expert at the American

government's national security council. Ms Brooks,

whose relationship with Ms Megawati goes back years,

persuaded her old friend with video evidence and

Javanese exhortations (a language in which she is

fluent) of the reality within the president's porous

borders. 



It was not as if Ms Megawati should have needed much

persuading. After all, Indonesia had already quietly

deported at least two alleged terrorists wanted by

Washington. These included Omar al-Farouq, the Kuwaiti

married to an Indonesian who is thought to be among

al-Qaida's most senior agents in the region. 



It was al-Farouq's testimony that prompted Washington

to shut many of its embassies in the region during the

September 11 anniversary commemorations. There was

widespread consternation in Jakarta at the time as

officials, led by vice president Hamzah Haz, insisted

the closure was unjustified. Their complaints are now

consigned to history and Indonesia's police and

intelligence services are reportedly busy hunting down

other foreign terrorists thought to be in the country.





While Ms Megawati's conversion to the anti-terrorism

cause will greatly cheer Washington and her much more

proactive neighbours, it is, however, far from

complete. There has, crucially, been no public

acknowledgement that Indonesians might be involved in

international terrorism. It costs little political

capital to round up foreigners but in highly volatile

Indonesia, where law enforcement is weak and radical

Islam is gaining strength, taking on domestic groups

is a very different proposition. 



So while Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have

been detaining their nationals without charge on

suspicion of committing terrorist activities, Ms

Megawati has not followed suit. This is in spite of

strong and repeated demands for her to do so. 



Top of the list of Indonesian terrorist suspects is

Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, an Islamic cleric who leads the

Indonesian mujahedin council and the alleged head of

Jemaah Islamiyah, a pan-south-east Asian extremist

group that wants to create one large Islamic state in

the region. Singapore and Malaysia claim Jemaah

Islamiyah is using terrorist methods to do so but no

smoking gun has been produced and Jakarta says it has

no evidence to detain Mr Ba'asyir, who insists he has

no link to the organisation. 



It is hard to say whether the ardent nationalist Ms

Megawati will succumb to the external pressure and

take the next, and much tougher, step of clamping down

on  or at least investigating - radical Islamist

groups. Unless the current relative calm is disrupted

the answer will probably be no. 



But by the middle of next year, when the 2004 general

election will very much be within sight, political

expediency might well persuade her to take another

course. Very little happens in Indonesian politics

without an ulterior motive and the fight in the war on

Islamist terror is no exception.



Email

john.aglionby@guardian.co.uk





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