A drive against terrorism

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

The court verdicts in cases of terrorist acts, especially the Bali bombings, bring Indonesia's anti-terror campaign to global focus but apparently fail to secure the country U.S. recognition as a frontline state in the `war on terrorism'.

in Singapore

IS there a frontline state in East Asia in the United States-led "global war on terrorism"? The question assumes significance with the U.S. losing faith in Pakistan's role as a frontline state against terrorism. The U.S. now perceives Pakistan not only as a part of the terrorist problem but also, and more essentially, as a part of the solution itself in another region of the world. There is no ready answer to the U.S.' search for a frontline state in East Asia on the anti-terror front. In a limited sense, Thailand, Washington's key ally in East Asia, might qualify for this role.

However, it is Indonesia that has in fact activated the judicial process in trying to bring suspected terrorists to book. Yet Jakarta is not on the same political wavelength as Washington on the wider international stage, and this aspect is already in evidence as a complicating factor in the fight against terrorism in East Asia.

The Indonesian judiciary registered a significant degree of activism on September 16, when a court of appeal reportedly found no grounds for altering the death sentence imposed by a district court in Bali on Amrozi bin Nurhasyim for his role in the terrorist carnage in the island-resort in October last year. The technical point at issue is that the Bali High Court, at this stage of appeal in the case, had scrutinised the relevant files to come to this conclusion. A formal pronouncement by the judges had not been made at the time of writing. In any case, there is still room for yet another appeal in the case, this time to the Supreme Court of Indonesia.

Earlier, on September 10, the Denpasar District Court in Bali found another accused, Imam Samudra, guilty of playing a critical role in masterminding the Bali blast and awarded him the capital punishment. A few days prior to this, a court in Jakarta sentenced Muslim cleric and alleged leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.) terrorist group Abubakar Baasyir (Bashir) to a four-year prison term on charges of treason. The verdicts in the independent cases relating to Bashir and Imam Samudra have also been submitted for further judicial scrutiny.

INDONESIA'S judicial activism, in the specific context of the anti-terror laws that were passed after the Bali carnage, has come in for considerable international attention. This has in fact raised Indonesia's value to the U.S. as a potential ally in solving the incrementally complex issue of international terrorism. Nonetheless, the general attitude in the West towards Indonesia is to wait and watch how it would deal with the "terrorist network" of the J.I., which is suspected to be a South-East Asian affiliate of Al Qaeda. Western as also several South-East Asian intelligence agencies suspect Bashir of being the `spiritual' leader and perhaps even the political master of the J.I. For his part, Bashir denies that he plays any such role. The Indonesian authorities have not yet come to a definitive conclusion about the J.I. and Bashir's hidden agenda, if any.

Not inexplicably in these circumstances, Jakarta and Washington have not managed, by mid-September, to sort out their respective interests in the anti-terrorism campaign. The focus of attention in this context rests on Riduan Isamuddin, an Indonesian terrorist-suspect who is better known as Hambali. The Thaksin Shinawatra government of Thailand played an important role in the successful efforts of the U.S. secret services to catch Hambali from a town in Thailand in August this year. Thailand thereafter acquiesced to the decision of the U.S. to take Hambali under its own custodial jurisdiction. With that, Jakarta took little or no time to realise that it would now have to depend entirely on the U.S. to gain access to the terrorist suspect, who was wanted in connection with the Bali bombings and other acts of violence in other parts of Indonesia, notably the bombing of a luxury hotel in Jakarta in early August this year.

At one level, the judicial trial of over 30 suspects in separate cases relating to the terrorist outrage in Bali, which claimed over 200 lives, mostly of foreigners, has made conspicuous headway. This should explain Indonesia's sense of urgency to question Hambali, one of its own citizens. At another but related level, though, the Joint Declaration that the U.S. and the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed in 2002, especially for fostering "cooperation to combat international terrorism", has been of no immediate avail to Indonesia. While both Indonesia and Thailand are members of the ASEAN, the need to look at Hambali through the prism of this Joint Declaration did not, until the third week of September, appeal to the U.S. as a matter of priority.

With U.S. President George W. Bush himself announcing on August 14 the capture of Hambali a few days earlier, the U.S. move to display the Indonesian as its `prize catch' in the "global war on terrorism" in South-East Asia became apparent.

That Bush himself went public over Hambali's capture had its reasons. By doing so, he not only sought to signal the importance of the case to Washington's own anti-terror calculus but also tried to divert international attention from America's deepening crisis in Iraq. While he may not have been very successful in achieving this, Washington's own anti-terror calculations will mean that several South-East Asian countries, which have cases pending against Hambali, will have to wait for their turns to interrogate him, perhaps only after the U.S. completes its investigations.

The U.S. obviously wants to unravel Hambali's presumptive links to a suspect who was recently caught in Pakistan, also under Washington's overall auspices, in connection with the terrorist attacks on targets on American soil on September 11, 2001. Also under the U.S. spotlight is Hambali's alleged preparations, at the time of his capture, for a major terrorist thrust in Thailand to coincide with Bush's planned participation in a summit there of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in late October.

From the U.S. standpoint, the Hambali case might help unravel the extent of Al Qaeda's reach across East Asia, especially in the context of lingering evidence that might prove that Osama bin Laden, the Al Qaeda chief, is still alive. For several South-East Asian countries, on the other hand, the prime interest is how far the U.S. might be willing to be mindful of the anti-terror interests of the regional players. A relevant but general view in South-East Asia is that the absence of any instantaneous reprisals, in the form of terrorist acts, following Hambali's "arrest" should not be taken as any definitive sign that the J.I. might have lost its "direction" after Hambali's disappearance from the organisation's `war room' as its "operations chief".

Analysts like Syed Rifaat Hussain of Pakistan tend to believe that the Bush administration is prone to "throwing the baby out with the bath water", in the sense that Washington is not very discriminating in its judgment of terrorism linkages across the world. Other regional observers like Rohan Gunaratne draw attention to the connectivity between Al Qaeda and the J.I. This perception heightens the perceived significance of Hambali's capture to the U.S.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Hassan Wirajuda, spoke to this correspondent in early September about his country's sense of urgency to gain "access" to Hambali in order to interrogate him. Its demand that he be handed over to Indonesian custody itself was a matter of relative priority, the Minister indicated. This may reflect Indonesia's realistic assessment of the U.S. desire for primacy as the self-styled global supercop. However, Indonesia has not allowed its diplomatic tussle with the U.S. over the Hambali issue to hamper the judicial processes concerning the trial of terrorist suspects. One political reason for this, according to regional diplomats and analysts, has to do with Indonesia's desire to showcase the ASEAN summit, slated to be held in Bali on October 7 and 8, as a slap in the face of the terrorists. The ASEAN leaders would also hold important meetings with their counterparts from China, Japan, South Korea and India during the summit.

Indonesia's anti-terror campaign is based on less cosmetic reasons, too. The Bali blasts might have served as a "wake-up call", but the political class in the world's largest Muslim majority state has really hit the fast track in legislating new anti-terror laws. This political activism has also been matched, on the ground, by the efforts of the security agencies in catching terrorist suspects, especially in connection with the Bali mayhem and the August bombing at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta. These two aspects have set the stage for the judicial activism.

The key point being made by the Judges, while awarding capital punishment in the Bali cases, is that the terrorist act should be seen as "a crime against humanity". By raising this as the basis for punishment, the Judges seem to have provided for a defence, during the appeal process, against any argument that the laws enacted after the Bali tragedy could not be applied in spirit or in letter to the suspects in relation to that terrorist crime itself.

On a different plane, an issue that is being taken seriously in Indonesia itself is the manner in which both Amrozi and Imam Samudra rejoiced over the prospect of becoming "martyrs" even as they heard the judicial pronouncements against them. Even Bashir's demeanour, in the face of a relatively less severe verdict against him, has attracted attention, but there is as yet no consensus in political and social circles about what this might presage. The Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 may have laid the foundation of the modern state. Is an international covenant needed to lay the foundation for the post-modern anti-terror state?

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