Panel questions Al Qaeda link to Bali bombing

by Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

23 October 2002 | A panel of Berkeley Southeast Asian faculty, visiting scholars, and journalists convened Friday, October 18, to discuss the recent Bali nightclub bombings. They urged caution in immediately linking Al Qaeda to the October 12 attacks, in which more than 180 people died. Recent history, they agreed, indicates that the bombers are more likely to belong to either the Indonesian military or domestic insurrectionist groups.

“Why was the [Indonesian] defense minister so quick to blame Al Qaeda?” asked Sylvia Tiwon, an associate professor in Berkeley’s South and Southeast Asian Studies department. “So he can say, ‘It’s not us.’ Once Al Qaeda has been named as a culprit, there are no more questions.”

The panelists first dismissed the fringe theories about the event, such as that the Bali bomb was a U.S. or Israeli plot, circulating among many Muslim Indonesians. They warned that, given the investigation’s early stage, jumping to conclusions about who was responsible was premature.

More likely, they agreed, the bombing was part of the violence that has swept Indonesia since 1998. Several domestic groups could be responsible, as could rogue elements of the Indonesian military. “We must look at all the groups that could be involved, especially those dissatisfied with the current government,” said Jeffrey Hadler, South and Southeast Asian Studies assistant professor.

An archipelago of 3,000-plus islands with the largest Muslim population (170 million) of any country, Indonesia has many ethnic groups fighting for independence and religious groups fighting for dominance in East Timor, Central Sulawesi, the island of Lombok, and the Maluku islands (known in the West as the Moluccas).

The country’s politics are as fragmented as its geography. The Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, took control of most of Aceh’s territory before being suppressed by the Indonesian military; the group is still active. Jemaah Islamiah, the Indonesian group named as the main suspect in this month’s Bali bombing, wants to form a Pan-Islamic state comprising Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Laskar Jihad, an Islamic group that has been linked to attacks in the Moluccas, recently claimed to have disbanded. But Berkeley visiting scholar Thamrin Ely, an Islamic peace activist from the region, said he believed they’ve simply gone underground to avoid punishment for their many human rights abuses.

All of these groups have motives to humiliate the Indonesian government by destabilizing it economically — crippling tourism and foreign investment — and by making the government appear weak and ineffective.

Meanwhile, “an awful lot of what’s been labeled terrorism in Indonesia has links to the Indonesian army,” said Hadler.

There have been a string of bombings, pointed out Harry Bhaskara, an Indonesian journalist with the Jakarta Post and a visiting scholar at Berkeley. But because few foreign nationals have been killed, the attacks attracted little media attention, he said. For example, a September 14, 2000, car bomb in the underground parking garage of the Jakarta Stock Exchange killed at least 15 people and injured more than 30. Two bombers were later apprehended and identified as members of the Kopassus, the special forces unit of the Indonesian military.

And in August of this year, a shooting at the Freeport mine in Papua, Indonesia, left three people dead, including two U.S. schoolteachers. Some evidence suggests that Kopassus soldiers staged this attack in the guise of one of the insurrectionist groups.

“In Indonesia, Al Qaeda has turned into this incredibly convenient organization to blame, like communism during the Suharto period,” said Hadler. “It exists, of course, but what does it mean to say ‘I’m affiliated with Al Qaeda’? Does it mean you’re receiving funds, or just ideologically aligned?”

The most chilling effect of the bombing, the group agreed, was to stall Indonesia’s slow transformation from a quasi-military dictatorship to a democracy. Indonesia’s president, Megawati Sukarnoputri, signed an emergency decree last week that allows terrorist suspects to be detained for up to six months without charge.

“This is all happening just as Indonesia was reaching a phase of real democratization and implementing a rule of law, for which people have fought very hard. The goal was to stop these closed tribunals,” said Tiwon.


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