Indonesia’s response to terrorist threats has grown much stronger since Bali bombings
12 Oct 2022|

The 20th anniversary of the Bali bombings is first and foremost a day to remember those lost in, and those who survived, the worst terrorist attack Australians have ever experienced. It is also an occasion to appreciate the efforts of all the Australians, Indonesians and others who have laboured in the interim to defeat the perpetrators of that atrocity and others, and who have done so with a degree of success that seemed unlikely in 2002.

By the time the bombers struck Paddy’s Pub and the Sari Club on 12 October that year, Indonesians had already felt the brutal impact of the resurfacing of religion-inspired violent extremism in the archipelago. Several bombings had already occurred in Jakarta from as early as December 1998, when a shopping plaza was attacked. Indonesia’s largest mosque, the Istiqlal Mosque, was bombed four months later.

These bombings coincided with an upsurge in communal conflict that claimed thousands of lives across the country, beginning in January 1999 with a conflict in Maluku sparked by a fight between a Christian bus driver and a Muslim passenger that reflected wider social tensions related to transmigration and economic disparity. Many hundreds died in similar conflicts in North Maluku and around the Central Sulawesi city of Poso. The intensity of the violence was heightened by the actions of external militant groups such as Laskar Jihad, an Islamist paramilitary organisation that had joined the fray with the assistance, either actively or passively, of elements of the national police (POLRI) and military.

The first year of the millennium witnessed a significant rise in attacks. One bombing on 1 August 2000 targeted the Philippine ambassador outside his residence, severely injuring him and claiming two lives. Just over a month later, bombers struck the Jakarta Stock Exchange. And on Christmas Eve 2000, 18 people died when churches across Indonesia, including five in Jakarta, were bombed.

Since no one had claimed responsibility for these attacks, who did them became the subject of speculation. Indonesia’s then president, Abdurrahman Wahid, blamed the violence on a destablising campaign by his political opponents. Others blamed elements of the Indonesian military resentful of the 1998 ouster of former president Suharto and the end of his military-dominated New Order regime. Others accused Laskar Jihad or the Free Aceh Movement, a group then waging a separatist insurgency in the northern tip of Sumatra, of conducting the attacks.

At that time, some of these suppositions seemed plausible, especially in the context of the communal violence and the evident complicity in it of some POLRI and military figures. The existence of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group, let alone the links between a subsection of it and al-Qaeda, was unknown to all but the shadowy group’s members.

So, when the Bali bombings—the first specifically aimed at non-domestic targets in Indonesia—occurred barely a year after al-Qaeda’s 11 September 2001 attacks in the US, JI was not immediately identified as the perpetrator. Although by then its existence as an organisation with cells in various Southeast Asian nations, as well as the links at least one cell had established with al-Qaeda, were known in intelligence circles, its involvement in any of the earlier Indonesian bombings was not.

Moreover, while the prospect of a post-9/11 terrorist attack in Indonesia had been considered in Australian intelligence and diplomatic circles, no specific intelligence pointed to Bali ‘as a likely or possible location for a terrorist attack’. The lingering distrust between Indonesia and Australia after East Timor’s independence in 1999, and Jakarta’s unwillingness to view JI as a clear and present terrorist danger, contributed to the lack of visibility of the emerging threat.

Much has changed for the better in the two decades since.

First, both the understanding of the threat and the intelligence picture of terrorist groups in Indonesia and elsewhere in the region are now much clearer, thanks largely to the connections established between the Indonesian police—specifically Detachment 88, the unit formed after the Bali attack whose name reflects the Australian death toll—and foreign counterparts such as the Australian Federal Police soon after the attack.

Those links began tentatively and tensely because of the wider, post–East Timor political climate and cultural differences, both specifically policing related and more general in character. But their value soon became evident in the forensics work that established what had happened and that a JI cell, with members trained by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was responsible. That success went some way towards building greater trust between not just the police forces but also the two nations, which in turn helped increase intelligence exchanges and other forms of cooperation that have led to the killing or capture of the main figures behind the Bali attack and others.

Those connections were made as tangible as bricks and mortar in July 2004 when then-president Megawati Sukarnoputri inaugurated the Australia-funded Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation in Semarang. It soon became an important regional institution for building the capacity of, and cooperation between, regional police forces and others tasked with countering terrorism and transnational crime. It also became a symbol of a much-improved bilateral relationship under Megawati’s successor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

None of this guaranteed an easy victory over JI and splinter groups that emerged from it over the subsequent decades. With further al-Qaeda support, JI cells staged more deadly attacks on targets perceived as Western, including the Marriot Hotel in Jakarta (2003), the Australian embassy (2004), a resort area in Bali (2005) and two hotels in Jakarta (2009). JI operatives also embedded themselves in armed separatist conflicts in the southern Philippines, training fighters in bombmaking.

Concurrently, JI members and affiliates were working to revive the more traditional violence against Christian and Indonesian state targets that the group had earlier waged (and whose antecedents lie in the earliest days of the Indonesian republic and before). JI operatives were prominent, for example, in the resurgence of communal conflict in Poso several years after an October 2001 accord had formally restored peace.

Detachment 88 crushed JI’s Poso operation in 2007, a defeat that helped persuade many in the organisation to pursue their Islamist goals through non-violent means, at least until they were more capable militarily. But others remained wedded to terrorism and violence. For example, led by the notorious former JI leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the JI splinter Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid established a secret military training camp in Aceh, ostensibly with the aim of waging war against the Indonesian government and forming an Islamic state.

More recently, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid and its splinter, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, established loose ties with Islamic State at its height, and JI’s military wing sent foreign fighters to Syria to gain combat experience. Small cells have drawn inspiration from Islamic State in waging attacks, including suicide bombings, on local churches and police targets.

The terrorist threat in Indonesia is therefore not extinguished, and combating it is set to remain a necessity for the next two decades and beyond given the enduring appeal of a radical Islamic state and a martyr’s death to a small fraction of Indonesia’s 230 million Muslims.

But it’s a fight that Indonesia has learned to win, and generally has been winning, over the past decade and more. Terrorist leaders, such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah’s Aman Abdurrahman, are behind bars or dead. As recently as November last year, Detachment 88 arrested 24 people it suspected of being part of two groups affiliated with JI and involved in terrorism-related activities. The local groups’ material ties to foreign terrorists now seem tenuous at best, unlike the days when JI received funds, training and other support from abroad.

The Indonesian government’s efforts have not been flawless. Its security authorities’ counterterrorism operations have at times drawn criticism on human rights grounds, and its increasingly strident invocation of the state ideology, Pancasila, as a counter to doctrinaire Islamism has at times been disturbingly reminiscent of the pre-democratic era in which JI secretly emerged. Its claims for the success of its deradicalisation program—most controversially in relation to convicted Bali terrorist Umar Patek—are perhaps exaggerated. But few could doubt its determination and that of Indonesia’s mass Muslim organisations to stamp out whatever threat remains. That’s a position the vast majority of Indonesians likely support.

A striking illustration of this success was the recent POLRI announcement that it had killed the last armed member of the East Indonesia Mujahideen terrorist group that had formed in 2010 in Poso. The authorities were quick to stress that some radicals and ‘JI sympathisers’ still remained in the place synonymous with the bloodiest violations of Pancasila’s religiously inclusive principles. But at least for the time being, the bloodshed appears to have ceased, promoting calls for the counterterrorism operation there to cease.

Australians remembering Bali should also remember this narrative too. Over the past decade, the role the AFP and other foreign partners of POLRI played in it may have evolved and, in terms of counterterrorism, diminished compared to earlier days, when they contributed vitally to building Detachment 88’s effectiveness. But it has helped ensure that the relationship between the forces is closer and more extensive than it was before Bali. Australians and Indonesians alike are safer for that.