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On Point

Jemaah Islamiya (AKA Al Qaeda) Alive and Kicking in Southeast Asia

by Austin Bay
August 6, 2003

Tuesday's deadly terror attack in Jakarta demonstrates that little is quiet in the War on Terror's far-eastern front.

The attack in Indonesia's capital is a dangerous echo of October 2002's blasts on the island of Bali. Those bombs killed 202 innocents.

Unless a bomb rips a city, Southeast Asia -- unfortunately -- slips too easily from major media focus. By one count, the explosion outside Jakarta's J.W. Marriott hotel was the fifth this year in the Indonesian capital, though it was the first to take lives. This terror bomb -- hidden in a station wagon -- murdered at least 14 people and injured 150.

The blast overwhelmed the city's emergency medical response capabilities and spread instant economic panic, as the Indonesian stock market and rupiah (the local currency) both took steep dives. We live in an economically interdependent world. Subsequently, Wall Street took a hit.

Australia told its citizens to avoid central Jakarta. That translates as "stay away from the main business district." The United States renewed travel warnings and told Americans in Indonesia to follow "rigorous personal security practices." That's State Department lingo for don't visit unless accompanied by Green Berets. Few tourists have Special Forces teams. After the Bali bombings, Indonesian trade and tourism suffered drastic losses. This attack will stifle the tourist industry recovery Indonesia anticipated in 2003.

And that's the kind of pain, paralysis and paranoia the terrorists want Indonesia to suffer. Terrorists don't murder economies in the same way they murder human beings. Economies die more slowly, strangled by fear and despair.

Who's the culprit? My candidate is Jemaah Islamiya (JI), Al Qaeda's nom de guerre in Southeast Asia. JI's connections with Al Qaeda run deep. JI terrorists busted in Singapore have trained in Afghanistan and received funds from Al Qaeda financiers.

While JI has yet to drop a videotape off at Al Jazeera taking "credit" for this latest mass murder, intelligence analysts know the bombing has the vicious stench and well-calculated cruelty of a JI operation.

Timing is one indicator. Indonesia is prosecuting and on the verge of sentencing several men involved in Islamo-fascist terror in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia. The group includes Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Bashir is JI's kingpin and is linked to the Bali savagery.

Target selection also points to JI. The Marriott is Western-owned and frequented by foreign business travelers. It's located near several foreign embassies and not that far from one of Jakarta's swankier neighborhoods. An attack on the hotel sends a not-too-subtle geographic signal that Western contacts and Indonesia's moderate Muslim elites are JI targets.

Last December, while researching an article for The Weekly Standard magazine on the counter-terror war in Southeast Asia, several sources told me that until the Bali disaster the Indonesian government hadn't squarely faced the threat posed by JI. One source -- after a guarantee of anonymity -- told me that while Indonesian police understood JI's menace, the government's lack of political will frustrated counter-terror efforts.

Though JI targeted Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, and Jakarata had evidence of JI contact with Islamist separatists in Indonesia's Aceh province, key leaders hoped that if "given some political leeway," JI might spare their country. After all, Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Hope isn't a method for dealing with terrorists. The Bali carnage shattered that political delusion. Not to excuse it, but Indonesia wasn't the first and won't be the last country to think terrorists can be assuaged or that a degree of terrorism can be tolerated. Arguably, the United States had similar notions prior to 9-11.

After Bali, Indonesia got serious, with over 50 arrests of suspected JI jihadis and major busts of weapons and explosives caches. My own sources say Indonesia has damaged JI. That's good news, and regional counter-terror cooperation has improved. The bad news is many JI cells remain intact.

JI's fanatics have large plans for the whole of Southeast Asia. In Singapore last year, I saw a copy of JI's map of an "Islamic state" stretching from south Thailand and Malaysia through the Filipino and Indonesian archipelagoes into Australia. Fanciful? After 9-11 only the willfully hard-headed and the brutally hard-hearted can dismiss the danger of such armed imperial megalomania.

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