The September 9 car bomb attack outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta is seen as terrorist retribution for Australia's military back-up for the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq.in Singapore
THE timing and the transparent motive of the "car bomb" attack outside the Australian Embassy premises in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta, on September 9 indicate an evolving political dimension - that of a polarisation between the amorphous anti-terror brigade from some states on the Asiatic side of the Pacific, and those seeing themselves as the victims of this campaign. The death of nine persons and injuries to about 200 may not have stirred the conscience of the international community on the same scale as the terrorist mayhem at Manhattan and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001, or the explosions in Bali, Indonesia, in October 2002, or indeed the more recent train bombing in Madrid, Spain. But its impact was just as poignant.
The blast, carried out by presumably three "suicide bombers" occurred just two days before the third anniversary of the "9/11" terrorist strikes. And, because the "suicide bombers" obviously missed their main target, the Australian Embassy, there was no claim of responsibility. Nonetheless, the Australian authorities suspect the hand of the Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.), widely regarded in East Asia as the regional affiliate of Al Qaeda. Indonesian investigators, who have accepted the Australian offers of help, are likely to probe this possibility.
The J.I's existence has often been denied by its presumptive patron, Abu Bakr Baasyir (Bashir) of Indonesia, and, in any case, its operations still remain shrouded in some mystery. It has already been blamed for both the Bali bombings, which claimed the lives of over 200 people, including 88 Australians, and the explosion at the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, which claimed 12 lives.
Several persons, all believed to be the prime movers within the J.I. and lieutenants of Baasyir, have been convicted in the Bali case. The legal case of Baasyir's battle with the Indonesian state, traditionally a liberal society with an adherence to moderate Islam, impinges on the Bali cases.
Those killed in the car bomb attack, which occurred some four metres outside the Australian Embassy gate in Jakarta, included two local security guards at the Australian Embassy premises, while the injured included at least four Chinese nationals. The Australian diplomats and other staff at the embassy remained safe; the building, reinforced with bomb-proof material, remained intact too, save for some minor damage.
Given the preponderance of Indonesians among the victims, official Jakarta emphasised that Indonesia was as much a target in the terrorist strike as Australia seemed to be. Indonesian Police chief Dai Bachtiar was quick to point out that preliminary investigations pointed to the striking similarities between the modus operandi of the terrorists in this case and that of those behind the Bali blasts and the hotel bombing. The car bomb was either deliberately blown up or exploded inadvertently when the vehicle, with suicide bombers in it, approached the gate of the Australian Embassy from the "slow track" on the road outside, he explained. The Australian view has matched this line of investigation, and the two sides have begun to cooperate closely, as they did after the Bali carnage.
However, Australia's move of publicising the attack with a terrorism-related short-message service (SMS) flash to mobile phones did not please the Indonesian authorities. However, this did not cause a breakdown in the bilateral cooperation on the anti-terrorism front.
Marty Natalegawa, the Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman, told Frontline on September 9 that the new "heinous act" was only "reinforcing our conviction to crush this terrorist threat". According to him, Australia, far from being critical of the level of security alert in Jakarta on that day, expressed its determination to "stand side by side with Indonesia" in the anti-terror battle.
Australian Prime Minister John Howard said Canberra would work "shoulder to shoulder" with Jakarta in fighting the terrorists. He said the two countries, working together, had succeeded in "degrading" the capabilities of the J.I. as a terrorist outfit. This, he argued, was the reason why the suicide bombers were unable to penetrate the fortified Australian Embassy.
Responding to the initial "unverified" reports of two Australians being kidnapped in Iraq by a terrorist group, which wanted Canberra to pull out its troops from the West Asian country, Howard said in Sydney on September 14 that there was no question of negotiating with terrorists.
More importantly, he dismissed suggestions that the recent blast was a terrorist retribution for Canberra's act of positioning its military personnel in aid of the U.S. occupation forces in Iraq. Howard's reasoning was that the Bali carnage, which was patently plotted to kill Australian tourists, had indeed occurred before he deployed troops in Iraq.
AUSTRALIAN political pundits, however, tend to see an "Islamist terrorist plot" at work to influence the outcome of the parliamentary elections in the country slated for October 9. A parallel is drawn between the current debate in Australia on the locus standi of its troops in Iraq and the recent Madrid train bombings, which were seen to have influenced Spaniards to vote for the party that pledged to withdraw Spanish military personnel from Iraq. The blast outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta is equated with the Madrid train bombings, although Jakarta is not on Australian territory. Viewed in this context, a critical aspect of the current election debate in Australia centres on the pledge by Howard's main opponent, Mark Latham of Labour, to bring its troops home by putting an end to the `misguided' mission in Iraq. For Howard, though, it is a matter of "principle', not just political prestige, that the Australian troops stay on in Iraq until "the job is finished" - the "job" is that of aiding the U.S. to re-shape post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and its politics to suit Washington's perceptions of its global strategic goals. The "job", however, is packaged as a totally Iraq-friendly venture with little or no extraneous aims, save for a stated agenda of making the world terror-proof.
As for the possibility of a coded political signal from the terrorist, in the context of Indonesia's presidential poll run-off on September 20, the official view in Jakarta was that the blast, while killing and hurting Indonesians, did not impinge on the poll process itself. It was underlined that the straight contest between President Megawati Sukarnoputri and her challenger, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, was being fought over a number of domestic issues, the anti-terror issue being only one of them. A relevant question, as yet unsettled with any degree of finality, is whether Indonesia's strong anti-terror laws, passed after the Bali carnage, could at all be applied to the cases relating to it.
In a sense, the U.S. attitude in the case relating to Hambali, a suspected J.I. terrorist wizard of Indonesian origin, has not helped Washington win Jakarta's confidence. Hambali was caught in Thailand in a U.S. operation (Frontline, October 10, 2003) and Washington has, in the first place, regarded him as its own "prize catch'' in the "anti-terror war". Indonesia is now on the lookout for Azahari and Noordin from Malaysia in a bid to crack the terror network in the region.
Two independent strands of thought are relevant to this effort. An Australian view, in the words of researcher Greg Fealy, is that the boundary between "Islamic radicalism" and "the nominally contiguous moderate Islam" is blurred. Radical ideas "can have a surprisingly broad resonance within some mainstream Islamic organisations" in Indonesia too, he feels.
Jusuf Wanandi, an Indonesian strategic expert, had posed a question, in a different context, about China's willingness to see the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Regional Forum (ARF) emerge from its status as "a talking shop" to that of an institution that would "do something" about regional tensions and conflicts. In the anti-terror battle, the question is whether Australia will be similarly inclined towards the ARF. Howard maintains that his priorities in Iraq do not mean an anti-terror disengagement in East Asia.