What Indonesia Must Explain
What Indonesia Must Explain
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

What Indonesia Must Explain

Less than a month ago, foreigners in Jakarta were wondering aloud whether Jemaah Islamiah was a spent force because more than a year had gone by since a major bombing. A day after the Australian embassy was attacked on September 9, some were wondering whether JI was stronger than ever. The interesting question is not which was closer to the truth. It's why Indonesians themselves were hardly wondering at all.

Terrorism has not been an election-year issue in Indonesia, and stories on JI don't sell newspapers in Indonesia the way they do in Australia and the United States. Most Indonesians have far more pressing things to worry about in terms of their day-to-day existence than when the next explosion might occur, and that's understandable. But even after the bomb attack last Thursday, many Indonesians don't believe that an organization called Jemaah Islamiah exists, and many of those who do aren't willing to admit it in public. Why?

The fact remains that up until now, many Indonesians have seen terrorism as a Western obsession that has driven all other issues off the table. They have tended to see the "war on terror" not as something that Indonesia should join to make the streets in Jakarta safer, but as a thinly disguised plot to safeguard U.S. interests that has led to the persecution of Muslims around the world.

This may have changed after last Thursday, because this time, there's real outrage. There was anger after the J.W. Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta last year, when mostly Indonesian taxi drivers and hotel staff were killed. But it didn't translate into any sense that terrorism writ large was a domestic issue that needed to be tackled with more gusto. If anything, conservative Muslim groups and ultra-nationalists half-succeeded in twisting the issue into one of police persecution of "Muslim activists," with the U.S. as deus ex machina. President Megawati Sukarnoputri's government made no serious effort to intervene to set the record straight, and the Marriott attack passed into history.

This time around, there is both more anger at those responsible and an outpouring of support for Australians, the intended victims. But there's still no real understanding of who the perpetrators are, because the government has never had the courage to spell it out.

We've heard vigorous condemnations of terrorism and violence, but the words "Jemaah Islamiah" have hardly been mentioned by anyone in authority. And if you can't name it, you can't fight it. This is a problem that goes beyond the police tracking down criminals. We aren't dealing with a few psychopaths. We're dealing with an organization -- a large organization -- that may have been so disrupted by the arrests of the past two years that it's broken into several parts, each capable of mounting a low-tech, high-impact operation with one or more suicide bombers. In the short term, its very weakness may have made it more dangerous. Not only may we be dealing with different commands, but we may also be dealing with new kinds of alliances between remnants of some JI cells and other like-minded groups that have nothing to do with JI.

The government needs to explain this to its own people. This is not a problem that's going to go away any time soon, and it's not one that's going to be solved by the purchase of some hi-tech equipment or the passage of a new law. Someone is going to have to think about how to prevent young adults from being attracted to martyrdom and how to channel the energies of would-be jihadists into more constructive pursuits than making bombs. Someone's going to have to convince top religious leaders from across the ideological spectrum that their help is needed to root out jihadism.

Many commentators have pointed to the relative equanimity with which the business community treated this latest blast. But when the next one comes, it could be aimed at a luxury housing complex, a crowded shopping market or a school, and in a way that could send expatriates packing. Almost certainly, most of the victims would again be Indonesians, but the economic ripple effect of a major exodus would cause even more misery for the Indonesians left behind.

Now is the time, while the anger over the embassy attack is still fresh, for the government to spell out to the Indonesian public exactly what it knows about JI, how extensive it is, what expertise it has and what steps are being taken to fight it. This doesn't mean that terrorism has to become an obsession for Jakarta; it just means more focus from the top on an issue that can't be wished away.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.