When at a loss to explain anti-Western opinions and activities, American agencies routinely blame Usama bin Ladin. Since the Bali bombing on October 12, Indonesia has identified its own equivalent: the well-known alim Abu Bakar Basyir, who was arrested on October 19 after months of a campaign to assassinate his character, although officials admitted there was no evidence to link him with the bombing or any other offence.
Basyir’s demonization and arrest are part of a familiar pattern. Singapore has discovered a ‘terror network’ operated by its Malay-Muslim citizens that it calls ‘Jemaah Islamiah’, Malaysia now claims to have something called ‘Kumpulan Militan Malaysia’, and the Philippines has the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayyaf. These regimes find it convenient to blame such tiny (and in some cases possibly non-existent) groups, linking them to Indonesian Muslim groups which have emerged in the post-Suharto era to address the terrible moral and social decay left by decades of plunder, persecution and Christianisation.
Now, thanks to a hastily passed ‘anti-terror’ bill that has resurrected the worst aspects of the Suharto era – despite Indonesians having paid in blood to overthrow him – Jakarta need not be apologetic about seizing anybody whom it (or its American allies) want. Indonesia abolished its draconian internal security act in 1998 after Suharto’s fall (1997), and until now had refused to succumb to western pressure to arrest Basyir because there was no evidence against him. Few Indonesians believe the allegations against Basyir; even the security minister, Susilo Bambang, has said there is no indication that ‘Jemaah Islamiah’ was involved.
But Islamic organisations in Indonesia are not taking accusations of ‘terrorism’ lying down. Judging by the experiences of Muslims in the west since September 11 last year, Muslim groups in Indonesia and elsewhere expected the aftermath scenario. Furthermore, on October 13 Bali police chief Budi Setyawan promised that he would arrest the perpetrators within a month or step down. Offering to resign is atypical of Indonesian politics, prompting fears that harsh measures and swift arrests will be the outcome of the investigation.
Through Singapore and Manila, its regional allies, the US had apparently been preparing the stage for some such event. Australia, whose funding of Christian militias and ‘separatist’ groups is well documented, is finding itself in a position similar to Britain’s: the US’s official spokesman on terrorism in the area. It cost Australia more than 100 citizens to fulfil its dream of establishing a physical presence in the archipelago: on October 20 it announced the establishment of its ‘intelligence’ in Jakarta, something that a few weeks earlier had been unthinkable.
It is therefore hard not to notice that the incident in Bali on October 12 provides a golden opportunity for the US and its allies to batter the walls of suspicion in a region that has so far taken the ‘findings’ of the CIA and FBI with generous pinches of salt. The main aim of these ‘investigative reports’ is to pressure governments in the region into letting the US have its way; the chief victims are newly emerging groups that approach ‘Islamic radicalism’ in Indonesia. But people in the archipelago have refused to be cowed, thanks to a post-Suharto climate characterised by demands for greater transparency and accountability. This helps to explain why suspicions that could once have been dismissed as paranoia have gained credibility not only among Muslim groups but also in the secular mainstream.
The more one looks at the Bali carnage, the more the official explanations look plain wrong. Far from al-Qa’ida and JI being the culprits, events since then point to other groups. There is the Indonesian nationalist movement, with a bone to pick with Australia for its role in extracting East Timor from the Indonesian republic. The Indonesian Armed Forces are still smarting from the secondary role that they have been forced into since 1997. What about the groups that lost power when President Megawati Sukarnoputri took office, and which want to isolate her? The truth is that since Suharto’s demise many explosions have occurred in Indonesia, reflecting the turmoil in a huge country that is reeling from the effects of Suharto’s 32-year tyranny (see box). The only difference is that the Bali carnage happened at the height of the US’s obsession with terrorism, and that the victims were mostly westerners.
One theory that immediately did the rounds is that it was a CIA-inspired mission, to give credence to the so-called investigative reports that claim that Indonesia is a haven for terrorist groups linked to Usama bin Ladin. On the day of the explosion, the US embassy warned its citizens of terrorist attacks against them. Hours earlier the US even announced its intention of withdrawing American personnel from Indonesia. Articles and commentaries in Indonesian and Malaysian dailies, for example, have not accepted US reports as authoritative: American ‘experts’, they point out, have not been able to solve the WTC and Pentagon attacks, nor even managed to find or pin down a lone sniper in their own backyard. When pressed, the US and its allies try to drown such points by concentrating on al-Qa’ida’s alleged presence, also unsubstantiated except by the ‘confession’ of a Kuwaiti detainee reportedly in a locked cell in the US.
Another theory links Bali with the attack on a French ship some days earlier, suggesting that it may not be a coincidence that France and Australia—both reluctant allies in the US’s war—have been targets of ‘terrorist’ attacks, perhaps to persuade them to cooperate fully. There may also be a link with the “cleansing” drive of Muslim civil-action groups in Indonesia: these groups’ members have targeted vice-dens and nightclubs. But the Bali incident was more sophisticated and required access to explosives; groups such as Laskar Jihad and Islam Defenders Front (FPI) only have weapons like sticks to empty beer-bottles.
A more plausible explanation is provided by those who understand the social conflicts in Indonesia, bearing in mind the fact that Bali is a tourist resort that attracts westerners and their pleasure-seeking paraphernalia. The two nightclubs attacked on October 12 have a history of not welcoming locals, and charging them 50,000 rupiahs for entry, while foreigners could enter free. Such discrimination did not please local pleasure-seekers. A columnist in the Malaysian dailyNew Straits Times on October 16 wrote: “[The bomb] didn’t have to be much more than a large grenade: it exploded outside a flimsy...wooden firetrap stocked with cylinders of cooking gas and wadded with human beings soaked in flammable liquids.”
Whoever the perpetrators were, and whatever their motives, the fact remains that the Bali night-club incident will be used as a pretext by the US to get itself reinvited into a country that for decades has been plundered through the CIA-installed Suharto. The US has first to remove ‘radicals’ who have sprouted in Indonesia as an alternative to the politics of opportunism long practised by the ‘mainstream’ and ‘moderate’ Muslims. Thus it is no surprise that the first casualty of the post-Bali war on terror is Abu Bakar Basyir, leader of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (MMI). He is the first victim of the ‘anti-terror’ bill, and has maintained his innocence. Among the many Muslim leaders in southeast Asia Basyir is perhaps the only one who had no qualms about sympathising publicly with Usama’s struggle and dismissing the accusations against him as propaganda.
This stands in contrast with the more opportunistic opposition groups in Indonesia and Malaysia. Nahdatul Ulama and Muhammadiyyah, hailed in the west as ‘moderate’ and often described as the “largest” or “most influential” Muslim organisations, immediately backed Megawati’s anti-terror bill, forgetting their own earlier fears of abuse. Similarly, when a UN report was based on the findings of a little-known think-tank that accused the Malaysian regime of having links with al-Qa’ida, the Malaysian opposition alliance saw it as a political issue to be exploited, and demanded that Mahathir ‘explain’ the allegations, instead of using them as more evidence of lies against Muslims. Clearly electoral gains are craved, but the result is an endorsement of US propaganda.
How little homework the CIA and other anti-terrorism ‘experts’ have done can be seen from the clumsiness with which accusations are made. The US has continuously linked the Laskar Jihad to al-Qa’ida, ignorant of the fact that the group is opposed to al-Qa’ida’s brand of Islamic activism, as are most Muslim groups, although they empathise with the frustrations expressed in many of Usama’s statements. Similarly, the US has linked al-Qa’ida to Saddam Hussein and Islamic Iran: clearly deliberate ignorance.
Meanwhile, Washington says that al-Qa’ida has regrouped to be even more deadly. Indeed, the ‘war on terrorism’, at least in southeast Asia, shows that every statement about al-Qa’ida since September 2001 only adds to its seeming invincibility. This is obviously necessary, in order to show that the Western allies are confounded not by a small, mobile, lightly-armed group but a large, effective and resourceful organisation: by a lion rather than a mouse, as it were.
Bomb blasts in Indonesia
|4 July 2000||Bomb blast at the Attorney General office in Jakarta|
|1 August 2000||Bomb blast at Philippine ambasaddor's residence, killing two.|
|28 August 2000||Grenade explosion outside Malaysian embassy.|
|30 August 2000||Bomb explodes inside a vehicle near the site of Suharto's trial.|
|30 September 2000||Car bomb explodes at Jakarta Stock Exchange, killing 15.|
|During December 2000 (‘Christmas Bombing')||Bomb explodes at church in Pekanbaru.|
|Blasts at five churches across Jakarta, killing six.|
|Explosions at three Batam churches.|
|Explosions at churches in Sukabumi, killing three.|
|Explosion in Bandung, killing three.|
|Bomb goes off in Ciamis, killing one.|
|Bomb blasts in four churches killed two.|
|Explosion at a church in Mataram.|
|10 May 2001||Explosion at Aceh Students Boarding House, Jakarta.|
|22 July 2001||Explosions at two churches in south Jakarta.|
|31 July 2001||Explosions at a church in Semarang.|
|1 August 2001||Blast at a shopping mall in Jakarta|
|13 August 2001||Blast in Surabaya killed one|
|23 September 2002||Grenade explosion in Menteng, Jakarta|
|13 October 2002||Explosion at Philippine Consulate, Sulawesi.|
|13 October 2002||Blast at discotheques in Bali, killing 182|
|Source: Tempo, October 21, 2002.|