Who are the terrorists in Indonesia?

Conspiracy theories over the Bali bombing are rife in


Sidney Jones

Sunday October 27, 2002 


In the aftermath of the 12 October bombing in Bali,

Indonesians are convinced they have terrorists in

their midst. They're just not sure who they are.

Absurd, as it may seem, if talk shows and media

commentaries are any indication, the most likely

candidates in most Indonesians' minds are the U.S.

government and the Indonesian army. Al-Qaeda is a

distant third.

Only these three, the thinking goes, have the

expertise, the contacts, and the motivation to carry

out an attack on the scale of the Bali attack.

The first theory, which has gained wide currency and

not just among conservative Muslims, goes like this:

The U.S. embassy issued a warning to its citizens to

avoid public places in Indonesia twelve hours before

the explosion. The C.I.A. picked a place that few

Americans frequented. It supplied the materials for

the bomb. It then tried to blame al-Qaeda and radical

Islam in an effort to win support for a war against

Iraq, and offered to help with the investigation as a

way of infiltrating American troops into Indonesia so

they can eventually establish a new foothold in

Southeast Asia. 

The second theory, particularly prevalent among

Indonesians who live in conflict areas, suggests that

the Indonesian military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia,

TNI) is the culprit. The TNI has been trying since the

fall of Soeharto to reassert its role in government by

provoking conflict and then coming in to establish

order, proponents of this theory assert. Look how the

army backed the creation of Laskar Jihad, the armed

militia in the Moluccas, they say, or at the

involvement of the army special forces in the death of

Papuan independence leader Theys Eluay. The struggle

between the army and police for control of internal

security has become increasingly bitter and violent in

the last year, and a blast on the scale of Bali could

swing support in favour of the army. Acehnese and

Papuan activists are convinced that the new

anti-terror decree will be used primarily against


The al-Qaeda theory seems to have a much smaller

number of supporters for several reasons. The

relentless U.S. pressure on the Indonesian government

to act against Indonesian nationals linked to the

shadowy Jemaah Islamiyyah network appears to have

convinced many Indonesians that their own security

agencies would be forced to accept the U.S. version of

events. Thus when an Indonesian team returned from

interviewing Umar al-Faruq, the man arrested in West

Java in June this year whose startling revelations,

leaked by U.S. intelligence sources to Time magazine,

included a plot to kill Megawati, there was little

surprise that the team's information confirmed the

details in the Time article.

Likewise, many members of the liberal intelligentsia

in Jakarta are worried about the arrest of Abu Bakar

Ba'asyir, named by al-Faruq as a key figure in a

series of bombings in Indonesia and as a close

associate of Hambali, the Indonesian considered a top

operative of al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia. 

"All the evidence against Ba'asyir comes from people

in detention," one journalist told me. "We know all

about forced confessions in this country. Why should

we believe any of it?"

Another man is willing to believe in an al-Qaeda

presence in Indonesia but not in its involvement in

the Bali bombing. "Why would al-Qaeda want to blow up

Bali?" an Indonesian friend with an American PhD asked

me. "They had a safe haven here at a time when things

were too hot for them in Singapore, Malaysia, and the

Philippines. Why wreck it all in this way?" 

The two sides of the popular Indonesian response -

acceptance of a terrorism problem but scepticism about

al-Qaeda - present some serious policy dilemmas for

the Megawati government.

It will be politically difficult to use the

anti-terror decree to round up terror suspects unless

it can present strong evidence to the Indonesian

public of their likely culpability, and yet it will be

under continued pressure from Western governments,

particularly the U.S. and Australia, to demonstrate

determination to combat terror. The easiest way to

prove determination is to make arrests; the danger is

that the arrests could become, or be seen as,


The pressure for quick results is already leading to a

restructuring of intelligence agencies. Better

coordination between the police and military is highly

desirable, especially with contradictory statements

coming out of the two nearly every day. (On Friday

morning, an army special forces spokesman announced

that the identities of the bombers had been

determined, whereas a police spokesman in Bali said

the perpetrators were still unknown.) The danger is

that the army will take the lead role and undermine

all the work that has been done in the last three

years to build up the police as a civilian agency

responsible for internal security. The more the army

benefits, the more the theory that the TNI was somehow

involved in the bombings in the first place will gain

credence - and the more the scepticism about an

al-Qaeda role will grow.

As long as many Indonesians believe the U.S. was

responsible, there will be no incentive for radical

Muslims attracted to Ba'asyir-style teachings to

disassociate themselves from jihadist views. The

horror at the casualties in Bali is deep, and if it

could be conclusively proven that a few Indonesian

Muslims were involved, condemnation of those

individuals and what they stand for would follow. But

Western pressure on Indonesia for results just deepens

the conspiracy theory and makes acceptance of

Indonesian involvement all the more difficult. 

The presence of so many foreign police and

intelligence specialists helping with the

investigation in Bali has been received thus far with

more gratitude than suspicion, but the mood could

easily shift. A war in Iraq in particular could ignite

all the nationalist fears that in fact, the Bali

bombing was only the precursor to serving a larger

U.S. agenda. Before Bali, the backlash in Indonesia of

a war in Iraq was probably manageable. Now, it could

be much worse.

 Sidney Jones is Indonesia Project Director,

International Crisis Group


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