Shortly before midnight on Saturday, 12 October 2002 a devastating attack was launched at the beachside town of Kuta on the island of Bali. Two bombs exploded in quick succession in Paddy's Irish Pub and outside the Sari Club. The blast and subsequent fires left more than 190 people dead and several hundred injured, most of them young holiday-makers from Australia and other Western countries.
Mainstream media reports quickly pointed the finger of blame at the international terrorist network al-Qaeda and its local operatives. Little attention was given to the national let alone local socio-political context in which this attack took place. Attacks of a similar kind, if not scope, have occurred with increasing regularity since the collapse of Suharto's military dictatorship in 1998. As a consequence, the tragedy of October 12 was co-opted prematurely and uncritically into the global political agenda and rhetorical paradigm of the United States government's 'War on Terror'.
The task of addressing the issue of terrorism, or of assessing whether or not the Indonesian and Western governments are addressing it appropriately on our behalf, is made difficult by the secret nature of terrorist and counter-terrorist operations. At the time of writing (late October), no verifiable evidence of al-Qaeda involvement in the Bali attack has been made available to the public.
Even when it comes to the general question of al-Qaeda's presence in Southeast Asia, the evidence is scanty and often impossible to verify. On 15 September 2002, for example, Time Magazine claimed to have seen 'secret CIA documents' stating that the Kuwaiti militant and alleged al-Qaeda operative, Omar al-Faruq, recently arrested in Indonesia and delivered to the US military, had confessed to the CIA, perhaps under torture, how he had been ordered to coordinate a series of attacks on US and other foreign interests in Southeast Asia. Many Indonesians do not accept the claims based on such intelligence leaks, not surprisingly given that the US government by its own admission considers it legitimate to spread misinformation for strategic purposes.
Al-Qaeda should not be considered as a singular organisation with an international agenda and a central authority. It is able to maintain a power base in numerous parts of the world because it is a network of rather loosely affiliated national or local extremist groups. What needs to be explored are the reasons for its successful expansion into countries like Indonesia and Malaysia, where the vast majority of Muslims have been consistently classified as moderates by generations of Western scholars.
While a unitary organisation's expansion conceivably can be halted by pursuing a smallish group of key culprits through intelligence or military operations, a bottom-up process can be expected to self-perpetuate unless underlying political and socio-economic causes are removed. The implications for foreign policy are serious and far-reaching.
This is not to deny that an internationalisation of terrorism has been taking place. Radical Islamic groups in Indonesia have had international links for at least two decades. The now-infamous leader of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI, Council of Indonesian Mujahideen), Ba'asyir and many of his closest associates had established such links on their own initiative after having participated in the armed struggle against the Soviet occupation in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a struggle for which the US was the major backer. The Iranian revolution of 1979 was also a watershed in that it provided the model case for establishing an Islamic state. Nevertheless, the main focus of political consciousness among such groups has been the Indonesian state itself.It may be safe to assume that a network of radical Islamic groups with international links is present in Indonesia today, and that elements in some of these groups at least are willing to use terrorism as a political tool - with or without help from their affiliates and donors abroad. The political ambitions of these radicals most likely are still focused firmly on national objectives, even though their discourse may reflect an international rhetoric of fighting for the glory of Islam and against the great Satan America.
The problem in allocating blame for the Bali blast is that radical Islamic groups like Jemaah Islamiyah are not the only groups in Indonesia today who may be willing and capable of committing or supporting acts of terrorism. There are many causes and perpetrators of violence in contemporary Indonesia. Inter-religious conflicts, vigilante-style killings of petty criminals and other undesirables, institutionalised protection and extortion rackets, and the alarming spread of paramilitary groups are all part of this phenomenon. Different groups even within the government's own security forces have been fighting turf wars. This diffusion of violence makes it difficult to pinpoint a single person or group as the likely perpetrators in any particular case.
In Bali itself, there has been increasing tension between Hindu Balinese and Muslim labour migrants from neighbouring islands. Many fear this wave of spontaneous immigration could marginalise the Balinese as an ethnic and religious minority on their own island, as has been the fate of other peoples in the outer islands. More immediately, however, the problem is one of competition for jobs, and also social envy. Some of the migrants are not economic refugees at all, but wealthy Javanese investors who have established major businesses in Bali, ranging from hotels and restaurants to taxi companies.
As early as April 1999 there have been violent attacks on Javanese street sellers. Several Javanese informants residing in Bali told me only a few weeks before the attacks how they no longer dared to be seen outdoors after 10pm for fear of being abducted and murdered, following threats and a spate of mysterious disappearances in their circle of friends and acquaintances. In turn, my Balinese informants told me that the Java-based Laskar Jihad (LJ, 'Holy Warriors') had begun to build a presence especially in northern Bali, allegedly to 'protect our down-trodden Muslim brothers in Bali' (from an undated LJ propaganda pamphlet distributed in Central Java in late 2001). Days after the Bali blast, this militant group disbanded or went underground, depending on how one chooses to look at it. LJ, in any case, has rarely acted on its own. In Aceh, Ambon and West Papua, for example, the group appears to have enjoyed extremely cordial relations with the army, and there is wide speculation that LJ has been encouraged to cause trouble in order to maintain a sense of crisis throughout the country.
In recent years, the Balinese have also responded to a number of serious security issues in relation to organised crime. My informants claim that the illegal drug trade, prostitution as well as extortion rackets, particularly in Kuta and Sanur, are firmly in the hands of immigrants, who are in turn protected by elements within the official security forces. In Sanur, for example, traditional Balinese community organisations have been fighting a pitched battle against the prostitution industry and its patrons. Note in this context that the main reason why the destroyed Sari Club had a policy of barring entry to Indonesians was to keep out sex workers, who had already swamped and changed the character of most other major bars and nightclubs in the area.
A key indicator of the state of the tourism industry, Bali's hotel occupancy rate had dropped from over 70 % before the attack to just 5 % by 29 October. This shows that that the main losers in the attack on Bali, apart from the victims themselves and their families, are the island's residents, irrespective of whether or not they are ethnically Balinese. The Hindu Balinese majority seem to have realised this and, until now, have shown restraint by not lashing out at Muslim immigrants in their midst.
Already destabilised by the attack, President Megawati has been under enormous pressure from Washington to take stern measures against terrorists. How is she to do this without the military, or with it, given that it is widely suspected in Indonesia that the military could have been implicated in the attack? Are the Indonesian police and intelligence up to the task? Could wanton arrests trigger a Muslim backlash? We may have to be patient. Too much pressure now could help to derail Indonesia's emergent democracy. The US and Australia, considering their interests in Indonesia now, should be aware of this peril. We should move forward by supporting the reform of the Indonesian military and the engagement of the mass of Muslim Indonesians in the democratic process.
Thomas Reuter (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Queen Elizabeth II Research Fellow of the Australian Research Council, located at the School of Anthropology, Geography & Environmental Studies, The University of Melbourne.