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Berkeley panel questions Al Qaeda link to Bali bombing
21 October 2002

By Bonnie Azab Powell, Public Affairs

BERKELEY - A panel of UC 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.

    Thamrin Ely
Thamrin Ely, Berkeley visiting scholar and Islamic peace activist

"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 who focuses on Indonesia. "So he can say, 'It's not us.' Once Al Qaeda has been named as a culprit, there are no more questions."

The discussion dealt first with the many fringe theories about the event. Many Muslim Indonesians, Tiwon said, believe that the Bali bomb was a U.S. or Israeli plot and not an Islamic one. The panelists dismissed those theories, and warned that, given the early stage of the investigation, jumping to any conclusion about who was responsible was premature — including the rush to link Al Qaeda.

More likely, they agreed, the bombing was part of the violence that has been increasing in frequency and intensity in Indonesia since 1998. There are several domestic groups that could be responsible, and they did not rule out rogue elements of the Indonesian military.


"We must look at the groups that could be involved, especially those dissatisfied with the current government," said Jeffrey Hadler, South and Southeast Asian Studies assistant professor. An Indonesia specialist, Hadler previously taught Indonesian history and historiography to graduate students at the State Institute for Islamic Studies in Jakarta.

A loosely controlled country of more than 3,000 islands with the world's fourth-largest population, Indonesia has many ethnic groups fighting for independence. The country has experienced serious sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in Central Sulawesi, the island of Lombok, and the Maluku islands (known in the West as the Moluccas). Attacks on the Moluccan island of Ambon eventually led the Indonesian government to declare a civil state of emergency in June 2000. The independence movement of East Timor has also been a bloody one.

There have been a string of bombings in recent years, 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 in the previous attacks, they attracted little media attention. For example, on September 14, 2000, a 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 apprehended and identified as members of the Kopassus, the special forces unit of the Indonesian military. The stock exchange bombing happened around the time that Indonesia's former dictator Suharto was being investigated, as did the December 25, 2000, attacks on churches across Indonesia, leading many to conclude that the military was trying to influence politics.

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

"An awful lot of what's been labeled terrorism in Indonesia has links to the Indonesian army," said Hadler.

    Harry Bhaskara
Harry Bhaskara, Berkeley visiting scholar and Jakarta Post journalist

Bhaskara agreed: "The military likes to use these radical groups, like Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiah. Sometimes they groom them; sometimes they beat them."

Indonesia's politics are as fragmented as its geography. Jemaah Islamiah, the Indonesian group named as the main suspect in this month's Bali bombing, wants to form a Pan-Islamic state composed of Malaysia, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. Laskar Jihad, meanwhile, is an Islamic group that has been linked to attacks in Ambon. Although the group claims to have disbanded, Berkeley visiting scholar Thamrin Ely, an Islamic peace activist from Ambon, believes they have simply gone underground to avoid punishment for their many human rights abuses. (Ely has experienced their violence firsthand; his Ambon home has been burned to the ground twice.) And then there is the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, which asserted control over most of Aceh's territory and was then suppressed by the Indonesian military.

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.

"The question is, who will benefit the most from the chaos caused by the bombing?" asked Hadler. "Al Qaeda stands to lose a lot." He explained that President Megawati Sukarnoputri (known to her citizens as Megawati) has been lax about internal security and about cracking down on money laundering. New post-bombing international scrutiny likely will result in much greater obstacles to Al Qaeda's Indonesian operations.

Tiwon and others also questioned the government assertion that Abu Bakar Bashir, the leader of Jemaah Islamiah, is an Al Qaeda operative. The evidence against him comes mainly from Omar al-Faruq, a Kuwaiti now in U.S. custody who is reportedly Al Qaeda's point man in Southeast Asia and who told U.S. officials that he and Bashir had been planning to bomb American embassies in the region. Bashir just checked into a hospital to avoid being questioned about having played a role in the Christmas bombings.

"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 that you're just ideologically aligned?"

Panelists also discussed what long-term effects the Bali bombing and the alleged link to Al Qaeda might have on Indonesia. Many news reports have focused on the peacefulness of Bali's overwhelmingly Hindu population, but Hadler noted that the Balinese do have a historical capacity for violence, as evidenced by the bloody communist hunts of 1965 and 1966. If the Balinese were to rise up and expel the increasing numbers of Muslim immigrants, the backlash could strengthen Muslim movements around Indonesia — perhaps one of the bombers' goals. (Of Indonesia's 230 million people, some 170 million are Muslim.)

But the more immediate and chilling effect of the bombing, the group agreed, was to stall Indonesia's slow transformation from a quasi-military dictatorship to a democracy.

"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," said Tiwon. Megawati signed an emergency decree last week that allows terrorist suspects to be detained for up to six months without charge. "The goal was to no longer have these closed tribunals taking place."

Agreed Hadler, "Megawati is not a positive democratic force. She's been very imperial already, and with U.S. support, she'll get even more military power and carte blanche to curtail democratic rights."