Despite a string of successes against allies of Al Qaeda, Indonesia is on alert for fresh attacks as it hunts an escaped extremist and braces for possible retaliation if it carries out the execution of three men convicted in a 2002 bombing.
Last week, Indonesian anti-terrorism police arrested 10 suspected militants linked to Jemaah Islamiah, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Southeast Asia. The raid on a house in South Sumatra also uncovered 10 completed bombs, six others that were partly assembled, 110 pounds of explosives and electronic detonators.
Police said the bombs were packed with buckshot and bullets to maximize their effect.
Although the intended target apparently was a cafe in the popular tourist town of Bukittinggi, in West Sumatra, Jakarta Gov. Fauzi Bowo warned the capital’s 8 million residents to strengthen neighborhood security and be alert for suspicious activities.
It was a chilling reminder of the terrorism threat Indonesia faces after almost three years without a significant bombing. In the last major attack, in October 2005, three suicide bombers killed 20 people and wounded 129 at restaurants on the resort island of Bali.
Since then, Jemaah Islamiah has focused more on radicalizing potential recruits and training those who join in order to rebuild for future operations, Singapore-based terrorism expert Rohan Gunaratna said.
“Today it’s a much stronger and larger organization than it was before,” added Gunaratna, author of “Inside Al Qaeda.” “But most of the J.I. leaders are investing more into propaganda and building their strategic, long-term capabilities. In the past, whenever they had the capability, they would launch the attack.”
The group may be learning new tactics from militants fighting U.S. and allied forces in Iraq, Gunaratna said.
Two alleged leaders of Jemaah Islamiah were arrested in January in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The Indonesian men had traveled there from Jakarta, where an Algerian operative allegedly supplied them with false passports, airline tickets to Syria and contacts in the Middle Eastern country, a key underground route into Iraq.
“J.I.'s capabilities will improve, and it is occasionally working with Middle Eastern terrorist organizations,” Gunaratna said.
Other factors may be raising the risk of new attacks, including the looming execution of three members convicted of the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people and injured 209.
The Supreme Court is reviewing the convictions for the third time, after ruling that they had exhausted all appeals. The prosecution says that if the executions are carried out, they will be by firing squad.
One of the bombers, Imam Samudra, recently warned in a magazine interview that Al Qaeda is “very likely” to retaliate here if he and the other convicted bombers are executed.
Gunaratna said it would be better to keep the Bali bombers in custody and isolated from all other prisoners for the rest of their lives instead of turning them into martyrs in the eyes of extremists who could seek revenge with new attacks.
About 200 suspected Islamic militants have been imprisoned by the Indonesian government.
The February escape of another J.I. leader, Mas Selamat Kastari, from a Singapore jail is also worrying authorities here. The Indonesian-born Singaporean was being held without trial for allegedly plotting to hijack an airliner in Bangkok and crash it into Singapore’s Changi Airport.
He fled a Singapore detention center by climbing out the window of a men’s room after telling guards he needed to use the toilet before visiting with relatives. He had escaped prisons in Indonesia twice before.
Calling Mas Selamat a very capable and committed terrorist leader, Gunaratna said it was likely he had reached Indonesia by now, “and it is critical that the Indonesian authorities capture him.”