Year of living dangerously


The man who was about to blow himself up was getting nervous. Waiting by the roundabout leading to the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel, 28-year-old Asmar Latin Sami grew even edgier when a security guard walked towards his van.

As the guard moved closer, Asmar pushed a button on his cell phone, triggering an explosion so powerful that the severed head of the suicide bomber was later found on the fifth floor of the hotel.

The Marriott bombing in August killed 12 people and injured 150. It was the second major terrorist attack on Indonesian soil, just 11 months after the Bali massacre that forced Indonesia and others to confront the reality of a regional terror threat.

The Marriott blast reinforced that reality as the past 12 months go down in history as Another Year of Terror.

Last year, a Bali nightclub bombing killed 200 young revellers.

In Moscow, Chechen terrorists grabbed hundreds in a theatre before the siege ended in a bloody shoot-out.

The year 2003 was no different. The Marriott attack in Jakarta was just one of several in a year marked by carnage.

Last month, terrorists launched twin bomb attacks against British targets in Istanbul, killing 26 people and injuring more than 400 others. It came days after suicide bombers bombed two synagogues in the Turkish capital, killing 25 and injuring hundreds.

Saudi Arabia has also been a terrorist target this year with a spate of car bombings. A triple suicide attack at a housing compound in the capital Riyadh killed 35 people, including several Americans.

A steady threat has hummed all over the world: shootings, bombings, failed attacks, plots and arrests.

Suddenly, the world seems a very dangerous place. The imaginary wall that stood protectively between South-east Asia and a Sept 11-like terrorist attack lies in ruin.

If a single theme does link the bombings in Turkey to those in Saudi Arabia and Indonesia, it is not a sinister or single world conspiracy. Rather, it is the intoxicating allure in some sections of the Islamic world of the power of terrorism itself.

In South-east Asia, especially Indonesia, the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah terror network appears to be losing its raison d’etre.

It is hard to pinpoint the motivations of a new generation of ‘jihad warriors’, but religious zeal is now just one of several driving forces.

If JI’s original aim was to create a pan-Islamic state in the region, it has lost that battle. The more blood that flows in the streets of Jakarta and elsewhere in the country, the more likely Indonesians are to support a harsh crackdown on suspected terrorists.

If Sept 11 changed the world, the Bali and Marriott attacks certainly changed Indonesia, laying bare persistent denials by Jakarta that the country is a terrorist haven.

There has been steady progress in the battle. At least 70 senior JI members are in custody in the country today. A large cache of explosives has also been seized.

New decrees give Jakarta greater powers. Three perpetrators of the Bali blasts face the firing squad and others are staring at long jail sentences.

Jakarta is now taking the lead in calling for security cooperation – years after refusing to be coaxed by neighbouring countries to join in aggressively weeding out terrorists in South-east Asia.

However, the consensus struck across the political spectrum in fighting terrorism is still fragile. Infighting, especially among the police and intelligence agencies, threatens whatever progress has been made during the past 12 months. One thing, however, unites them: the need for tougher anti-terrorism laws.

At the heart of the problem is how Jakarta deals with Muslim radicals. JI continues to survive in Indonesia even after carrying out two of the bloodiest attacks in its history.

Though the Megawati administration was among the 47 governments worldwide that supported the United Nations’ blacklisting of JI, the group is still far from being proscribed in Indonesia.

Political considerations and concerns over shaking up the Muslim ground ahead of a presidential election next year may be holding back the government.

The recent Bashir verdict is the clearest example of Indonesia sending mixed signals. If the treason case against the 65-year-old militant is seen as a litmus test in the fight against terrorism, Bashir’s light jail term leaves little doubt that the government and courts continue to tread carefully in dealing with radical Islam.

Bashir’s religious boarding school in Solo, Central Java, seduced a generation of young Muslims in Indonesia to pursue revolutionary violence in the name of Islam. One of those who attended his fiery sermons was suicide bomber Asmar Latin Sami.

Bashir’s light sentence sends a clear message to others like Asmar that, in the absence of a decisive stance against extremism, there is still hope for them to kill and maim others.

Ultimately, governments might win battles against militants. But the war can only be won by moderate Muslims.

If the moderates lose the initiative, more militants like Asmar will surface as human bombs acting under the guise of Islam.

And the history books may well reflect Another Year of Terror.


JI chiefs planning another strike (The Straits Times, July 31)
14 dead in JI terror strike (The Straits Times, Aug 6)
Radicals losing moral ground with moderate members (The Straits Times, Aug 8)
Indonesian terrorist bombings : Fact and fiction (The Straits Times, Aug 15)
Jakarta on alert for bloody Christmas (The Straits Times, Nov 25)

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