Terrorism in Indonesia

Indonesia and Australia: Bali's Blackest Day

Reading the holy Quran in Jakarta
Istiqlal mosque, Jakarta, Nov. 7, 2002 (Photo: AFP).

Just before midnight on Saturday, Oct. 12, as people from across the globe danced at the Sari, a popular nightclub on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, a car parked outside—and packed with explosives—blew up. Flames poured through the island’s Kuta nightclub district, killing more than 180 people and injuring hundreds of others. Indonesia’s Island of the Gods, as Bali had long been known, would be forever changed.

Many in the international press quickly began to speculate that the radical Islamic organization Jemaah Islamiyah—which is based in Indonesia—was behind the bombing. The group had recently been implicated in other attacks against Westerners by an Al-Qaeda detainee in CIA custody. And within days, Indonesian officials, without specifically blaming any local group, began asserting that Al-Qaeda had found a home—and a target—in their country.

Such statements marked a change of course for Indonesia. Just days before the blast, Indonesian officials were fuming about American accusations that any terrorist presence existed on their soil. Indonesia’s Gatra reported (Oct. 5) that Hasyim Muzadi, chairman of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, told U.S. Ambassador Ralph Boyce “that the U.S. allegation is an exaggeration that generates a stigma that Indonesia is a terrorists’ nest.” The U.S. claim “is a slander for all Muslims in Indonesia,” one member of the country’s Islamic party alliance said, according to the same magazine (Oct. 5). Forum Keadilan noted (Oct. 6): “It is not the first time the United States has made such an allegation. The superpower is not only bright in mastering technology but also in making propaganda.”

Indeed, when on the eve of Sept. 11, 2002, concerns about a possible terrorist attack forced the U.S. government to close its embassy in Jakarta, Forum Keadilan called the perceived threat “a paper tiger” (Sept. 23-30). How wrong they were.

Within days, the Bali bombing—the “dark Saturday tragedy,” as Republika called it—changed everything. “Minister of Defense Matori Abdul Dajalil thinks the massive bomb explosion in Kuta...shows that the Al-Qaeda network exists in Indonesia,” Suara Pembaruan explained (Oct. 14). Kompas (Oct. 14) quoted the chairman of the People’s Consultative Assembly, Amien Rais, as saying that the bombing supports “allegations that Indonesia is a fertile site for terrorism.”

Other reports focused on the bombing’s inevitable economic toll. “It really is an attack on our economy. If the exchange and stock index and stock market slide in a short time, it shows the market’s panic over this incident,” Republika quoted Indonesia’s coordinating minister of economy as saying. By Oct. 14, Indonesia’s stock market had plunged 10.4 percent.

In Australia, home to most of the victims, The Australian weighed in about the country’s “single blackest day since World War II” (Oct. 15). Calling the attack a “watershed in Australia’s relations with the region,” the paper (Oct. 15) sent a message to Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri: “The time for inertia and ambivalence is over. Ms. Megawati must make a case to the overwhelming mass of moderate Indonesians that fighting terrorism demands stern action, even if it upsets her political allies or elements in the military who have fostered extremist Islamic groups for reasons of nationalism.”

But some were skepical that the Indonesian government would follow through on such demands. In an editorial titled “Call the butchers of Bali to account,” The Sydney Morning Herald noted (Oct. 15): While “Australia has a right to expect the perpetrators of the Bali bombing to be identified and punished...How much justice Australia can another matter.” The Australian Financial Review was only slightly more optimistic, noting (Oct. 15): “The political challenges facing President Megawati are daunting. She lives in constant fear of being deposed by conservative Muslim forces; she does not control the army, which routinely foments communal violence to show its indispensability, let alone the equally corrupt local police; and Indonesia’s teetering economy faces collapse if Bali tourism dries up. Yet it cannot be assumed that President Megawati is not up to the task, despite past failures.”

Others speculated about whether the bombing could have been foreseen—and possibly prevented. “With the tragic futility of hindsight, the bloody Bali bombings should not have been entirely unexpected,” opined The Sydney Morning Herald (Oct. 14). The Australian Financial Review disagreed, reasoning that (Oct. 15): “Without a deep understanding of local contexts, efforts to prevent or respond to such violence are likely to be at best misguided and at worst counterproductive.”

The attack also fueled debate over whether Australia should support the U.S.-led “war on terrorism” and the possible war against Iraq. The Sydney Morning Herald’s editors questioned (Oct. 14): “whether the present, aggressive direction of U.S. foreign policy is, in itself, proving counterproductive.” But The Australian argued (Oct. 15): “Although Australia’s focus must be on the immediate terrorist threat in our region, that does not imply that we are any less alert to the threat of chemical and biological weapons posed by Saddam Hussein’s regime.”

While the domestic, regional, and international ramifications of the bombing continue to unfold, there is little question that the attack was a national tragedy for Australia. “The 12th of October will for the rest of Australian history be counted as a day when evil struck with indiscriminate and in-describable savagery,” The Sydney Morning Herald quoted Australian Prime Minister John Howard as saying (Oct. 14). He went on: “In many respects...the word terrorism is too antiseptic an expression to describe what happened. It’s too technical.”

weekly magazine, Jakarta, Indonesia
Forum Keadilan
independent, weekly newsmagazine, Jakarta, Indonseia
Islamist, Jakarta, Indonesia
Suara Pembaruan
moderate, Christian, Jakarta, Indonesia
independent, Jakarta, Indonesia
The Australian
centrist, Sydney, Australia
The Sydney Morning Herald
centrist, Sydney, Australia
The Australian Financial Review
centrist, Sydney, Australia