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Explosive reaction

The serial bomb blasts in Jakarta on July 17 are aimed at the country’s new political awakening.

Terrorism is back with a bang, as it were, on the political agenda of Indonesia’s fledgling democracy. The serial bomb explosions at two adjacent luxury hotels in a fashionable district of Jakarta on July 17, the first major terrorist attack in Indonesia since 2005, have shattered the euphoria over the peaceful Presidential


Noordin Mohammed

election on July 8 in the Muslim-majority nation. The incidents come at a time when the country’s polity was poised to soar on its new democratic wings.

Surely, the democratic exercise, the second direct Presidential election since the fall of Suharto’s authoritarian regime a decade ago, did spark some controversies. The election result had not been announced officially when terrorists struck at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Still in focus then were the ‘quick counts’, or exit polls, which had given President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono much cause for celebration. He was projected to have been re-elected.

The margin of his victory this time was said to have been so huge as to obviate a run-off, unlike in 2004 when he secured his first mandate for the post. In such a setting, Yudhoyono’s challengers disputed the results of the latest ‘quick counts’. The electoral authority’s official result was still unavailable by July 20.

Despite this, the general view among political pundits and other politically savvy sections was that Indonesia’s post-Suharto democracy had come of age on July 8. It was this sense of a political ‘awakening’ that the July 17 terrorist attacks, which claimed nine lives and injured 50 persons, served to undermine, at least for a while. So much so, questions were raised even in official circles about the possibility of links between these attacks and the country’s newly evolving political process. In televised comments, Yudhoyono said those behind the attack should be punished, regardless of their political links, if any.

The main focus of the investigations was on the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a suspected South-East Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. Gaining currency as a key line of probe was the possibility that a ‘breakaway JI leader’, Noordin Mohammed Top of Malaysia, could have masterminded the attack. Indonesian police officials reported that the explosives used on that day were similar to those that the faction had depended on for some earlier strikes.

Meticulous terror plot

Indonesian police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri was of the view that two suicide bombers were involved in the attack. A preliminary picture that emerged, on the basis of on-site forensic evidence and investigations, was that of a meticulous terror plot. The explosive devices were reckoned to have been assembled in a room in one of the targeted hotels. The conspirators, it was surmised, had checked in as guests.

One of the suicide bombers detonated a device at the same hotel where the bombs were made. His co-conspirator, it was suspected, had gone over to the adjacent hotel before the operation began. Once there, he apparently used a computer notebook to detonate another device. These coordinated detonations occurred within minutes of each other.

What, in particular, confounded the investigators was how the conspirators had managed to hoodwink the security personnel at these hotels and, more importantly, fool the terror-alert gadgets that had been deployed. In fact, elaborate security arrangements, including physical searches of baggage as deemed necessary, had been put in place at major Jakarta hotels following the 2003 bombing at the JW Marriott, which killed 12 people.


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono near the blast site at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta on July 18. Pictures courtesy google images

Bali bombers

The other major terrorist strikes in Indonesia were the 2004 attack on the Australian embassy in Jakarta and the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005. Last year the ‘Bali bombers’, who were sentenced to death, were executed, with no immediate terrorist backlash from either the JI, to which those convicts belonged or any other group.

Politically, the relative lull on the terror front in Indonesia since 2005 was being widely interpreted as a result of Yudhoyono’s ‘smart power’. An obvious question in this context is whether the latest terrorist attacks were simply a backlash for the execution of the ‘Bali bombers’ or whether a qualitatively new challenge was now taking shape. Obviously, the answers will take time to emerge.

Not surprisingly, the Yudhoyono administration would not jump to quick conclusions. The President’s Chief of Staff Dino Patti Djalal told this correspondent, in a background comment shortly after the terror strikes, that the investigation would be carried out ‘from the ground up’ and with ‘an open mind’.

The immediate indication, according to him, was that it is open to any possibility’ about what those outside the Yudhoyono administration began to see as a resurgent terrorist challenge.

Courtesy The Frontline

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