The Lessons from the Latest Bali Bombings
The Lessons from the Latest Bali Bombings
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia

The Lessons from the Latest Bali Bombings

Terrorists have struck again in Bali, with all-too-familiar scenes of death, panic, and grim-faced officials vowing to find the perpetrators. At the top of the list of possible suspects are Noordin Mohamad Top and Azhari Husin, two Malaysians, the two Jemaah Islamiyah members who are believed to have masterminded the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta last September. But it will take painstaking work by investigators and forensic experts to establish exactly who was involved. In the meantime, it is important to avoid drawing the wrong conclusions from this latest tragedy:

This is not a sign that the Indonesian government has failed in its counterterrorism efforts. Over the last three years, Indonesia has stepped up security around the country and increased intelligence sharing with its neighbors. It has arrested, prosecuted, and convicted well over 250 men (and one woman) for involvement in terrorist activities. Police have far more knowledge of how the terrorist network operates than they did at the time of the first Bali bombings, which killed 202 people in Oct. 2002. They have repeatedly chased down operatives and the people who help them. Those outside Indonesia who would like to see a massive round-up of anyone with ties to JI or other jihadist groups need to understand that Indonesia is now a democracy, with a strong aversion to any hint of a return to the bad old days of arbitrary detention. The only reason the police have had the political space to do as much as they have is that, for the most part, they have been scrupulous in ensuring that arrests are based on strong prima facie evidence. While the inability to capture Noordin and Azhari is an embarrassment, it does not discredit that broader effort.

This is not a sign that terrorist groups are stronger than ever in Indonesia. In fact, JI and other groups are almost certainly much weaker than they were at the time of Bali I, in terms of personnel, finances, and support base. Not only have the arrests damaged the organization, but there are strong signs of dissension within their ranks, particularly after so many Indonesian Muslims were killed by their previous attacks -- and perhaps by this latest bombing as well. The problem is that all it takes are a few operatives and a little cash for a determined team to carry out an attack, particularly when suicide bombers are involved. Moreover, men like Noordin and Azhari can draw on a complex web of personal contacts with other radical Muslims outside JI. Of those detained in Indonesia for terrorist activities, only about half are JI members with the rest belonging to other jihadist groups. Even if JI closed up shop tomorrow, the terrorism problem would not go away.

This is not a sign that stability in Indonesia is in danger. There is little chance that Bali II will have any major impact on the stability of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's government. The bombings took place just after the president ordered unpopular fuel price hikes that the opposition thought they could use to undermine him. So, in political terms, he may benefit from the fact that Bali II will divert attention away from the fuel hikes to an issue where he can project himself as a firm leader. Mr. Yudhoyono has far more credibility on this issue than his opponents, many of them associated with the previous government of Megawati Sukarnoputri, who refused to acknowledge the extent of the terrorism problem.

The attack will undoubtedly hurt Bali and the tourism industry, and another economic blow is the last thing Indonesia needs. As one tourist departing Bali Sunday morning said, "I came back after the first one because I didn't think it would happen again. I'm not coming back now." But Bali recovered faster than many expected after the 2002 bombings and it may yet do so again -- the reactions in the Asian tourist markets, such as Japan and Taiwan, will be particularly important to watch.

This is not a sign that donors should make counterterrorism efforts their top priority. A huge amount of donor money, from the U.S., Australia, Japan, and the European Union among others, has already gone into fighting terrorism, with a particular focus on training the police. There's a limit to what Indonesia can absorb on this front and, in any case, it would be a mistake to focus exclusively on terrorism at the expense of the other important issues currently at stake in Indonesia. These include the peace process to end the 30-year insurgency in tsunami-hit Aceh, which is going remarkably well. Serious anti-corruption efforts are also now underway in Indonesia, although there's a long way to go. Democracy has taken root, even if the pace of reform in the security-sector remains glacial, and the legal system is still a shambles. It is not just that there is more to Indonesia than terrorism -- it's that addressing some of these other issues may, in the long run, contribute as much to containing the problem as more directly targeted programs.

Bali II is another terrible tragedy, and the culprits need to be found and punished. But the fact that Bali was struck again does not mean Indonesia has been lagging on the counterterrorism front. It is just a reminder of the immense complexity of fighting terrorism in Southeast Asia.

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