Terror has deep roots in Indonesia

The Guardian
16 October 2002
Al-Qaida is a brand, but we have our own army-backed terrorists
Wimar Witoelar
Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has been blamed for the Bali bomb attacks by the United States, Australia and surprisingly even Indonesia itself. President Bush said he assumed the attack was the work of al-Qaida, while Australia's foreign minister, Alexander Downer, said it was likely the Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah was responsible. We must admire the confidence of faraway world leaders in identifying the culprits even before the investigation has started. But then the Indonesian defence minister Matori Abdul Djalil outdid them all by insisting the bomb blasts were "related to al-Qaida with the cooperation of local terrorists".

However, nobody else in government confirmed his claim. And the National Police spokesman said the defence minister's statement was probably based on logic, not on facts. So perhaps we should use logic to identify other masterminds of the Bali bomb. Never for a moment even thinking to stand in the way of Mr Bush's war on terrorism, I am happy for al-Qaida to top the list of suspects. But if we are serious about dealing with the Bali tragedy, we must look at groups beyond Mr Bush's horizon.

October 12, 2002 is a black day for Indonesia because Bali is the part of Indonesia that is friendliest to outsiders. But the bombing is not by any means the first act of terror suffered by Indonesia. Previous incidents brought more casualties, but did not dominate the world's news pages because the victims were locals.

Terrorism has been an unpleasant reality for Indonesia for decades. General Suharto's regime was based on state terrorism for 30 years. Without the free press we have now in Indonesia, and with a world committed to the investment climate Suharto nurtured, the locations of murderous campaigns such as Aceh, Lampung and Tanjung Priok never became household words. East Timor was known mainly because of Australian involvement, now history.

In the 1970s, Suharto thought the communist danger required the the military and Muslim extremists to work together. This led to the establishment of Jemaah Islamiyah, now mentioned as the local arm of al-Qaida. The military hardliners continued to support radical Islamist militia off and on throughout the years, working in networks on "special operations".

When Suharto fell, his military hardliners had to move their base outside the state, but their networks remained. They became known as the "dark forces", consisting of rogue elements within and outside the military. The May riots of 1998 demonstrated their power, resulting in more than a thousand deaths. The Banyuwangi killings took hundreds of lives and the ethnic conflict in Kalimantan produced gruesome deaths. The conflict in Ambon took many hundreds of lives. As the only victims were Indonesians and al-Qaida was not headline stuff then, the world looked away. But the terror went on, always aimed at destabilising the nation.

Then came the Bali bomb, a year after the US war on terror began to highlight every event in the light of US suspicion of al-Qaida. Al-Qaida elements are probably involved in one way or another. Terror thrives on publicity, and the media is providing 15 minutes of fame to every terrorist group. Bush has made al-Qaida a world brand. It makes it easy for them to franchise terror worldwide as McDonald's franchises Big Macs. But in Indonesia, local terrorists are more significant than the international brand-holders. They have the motive to discredit the effort to democratise and make people long for a return of a Suharto-type regime.

The burden now rests firmly on the Megawati government to be tough on terrorism. The problem is that the government has been soft not only on terrorism but also in other areas, such as law enforcement and corruption. A convicted criminal continues to head the parliament. Military hotheads not only shoot dissenters, but also attack the police. Privatisation fuels corruption. A messy state is sliding into a failed state.

The world thinks President Megawati hesitates in acting against terrorism to maintain a balance with Muslim political groups. This does not make sense, because the major Muslim groups are opposed to terrorism. In fact, the Bali disaster ironically provides an opportunity for the government to gain legitimacy by acting against terror. For that she will have the support not only of Mr Bush (as long as she looks for al-Qaida), but most Indonesians, as long as she uses the momentum to get rid of violence and corruption. Mr Bush can then go on to the next terrorist haven and Indonesians can try to put back together the pieces of our nation.

Wimar Witoelar is a Jakarta-based Indonesian commentator and adjunct professor at Deakin University, Australia. He was spokesman for President Abdurrahman Wahid in 2000-01

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