Jakarta on alert for bloody Christmas

Investigations reveal that JI is preparing for a series of bomb attacks in Jakarta, with churches as potential targets.

The countdown to Christmas has begun and it is giving security officials here sleepless nights.

What they fear is that Dec 25 will be ushered in with another terrorist bombing blitz.

There are signs that preparations are under way, and in recent weeks, both security czar Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and national police chief Dai Bachtiar have been sounding the alarm.

What they have revealed so far is that the authorities have obtained – through the interrogation of suspects – a list of targets in the capital.

These include Citibank branches, offices of US-owned oil company Caltex, a suburb popular with expatriates and two international schools.

Churches are not on that list. But they could very well be one of the key targets for the Jemaah Islamiah (JI). On Christmas Eve three years ago, a series of church bombings left 19 people dead.

The Straits Times understands that over the past month, militants have been secretly videotaping at least two Jakarta churches during services on Sunday.

One of the churches in the posh residential district of Menteng in central Jakarta, St Theresia’s, is packed every weekend with expatriates, especially Americans.

A foreign businessman attending services there with his wife and two children said recently: ‘There was this guy on a motorcycle filming the church from across the road. When he realised that I had seen him, he just sped off.’

Intelligence officials investigating the reports said it follows the modus operandi of groups such as the JI.

It is standard practice for JI operatives to survey a target as part of their planning before any attack.

After all, that is what terrorists tried to do in Singapore before they were stopped in their tracks by the Internal Security Department.

The surveillance of churches lends credence to reports of possible bombings in the capital during the Christmas festivities or at least over the next three months.

Despite being emasculated by the arrests of top leaders such as Hambali, JI is alive and well in Indonesia.

Most of its Java-based cells have been smashed, with its key operatives running off to the fringes of the archipelago such as Sulawesi, Maluku, East Kalimantan and the Riau islands.

The network structure has also undergone a radical transformation over the past year.

There is no longer a regional shura (council), with the JI operating as a loosely defined network of cells.

Its new leader, Islamic cleric Zulkarnaen, is also focusing his efforts on a suicide bombing unit, the Laskhar Khos.

Key to his plans is a group of young militants in their 20s being groomed to take over from the captured JI leaders.

At least 12 of them, drawn from six terrorist cells in Indonesia, are believed to be planning attacks in several major cities in the country.

Indonesian police deserve kudos for capturing some 70 Muslim radicals over the past year. More are likely to be nabbed.

But there is no clear-cut end or victory in the war on terror. For every arrest, JI appears to have found new recruits to replenish its ranks. And it still has in its possession about 200kg of bombs.

What is more, two top members – bomb experts Azahari Husin and Mohd Noordin Top, who escaped a police raid last month – are still on the loose in the country, armed with explosives.

Will it be a bloody Christmas in Indonesia? The signs are looking very ominous even if no one can say conclusively when and where the next attack will take place.

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