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Indonesia: Conspiracy Theorists Blame U.S. Agents For Bali Blasts

  • Ron Synovitz

The bomb blasts that killed more than 180 people in Bali have focused international attention on links between Indonesia's radical Islamist groups and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. But among Indonesians, a conspiracy theory has been gaining popular currency -- one that puts the blame on the United States. RFE/RL examines why some Indonesians are alleging that U.S. agents may have carried out the Bali attack.

Prague, 17 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Before the bomb blasts that killed more than 180 people on the island of Bali last weekend, authorities in Jakarta were reluctant to admit possible links between Islamic groups in Indonesia and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.

After the Bali attack, Indonesian Defense Minister Matori Abdul Djalil took the unprecedented step of announcing that there are, indeed, active Al-Qaeda cells in his country: "I am not afraid to say, though many have refused to say, that an Al-Qaeda network really exists in Indonesia."

But other Indonesian officials, like parliamentary speaker Amien Rais and Vice President Hamzah Haz, say it is still too early to blame the blast on either Al-Qaeda or any radical Indonesian group.

Haz has been telling Indonesians he thinks outside powers were involved. And his deputies have suggested publicly that U.S. intelligence agents had both the ability and the motive to carry out such an attack.

Those remarks reflect a conspiratorial theory that seems preposterous to most Westerners but is gaining widespread currency among Indonesians -- the allegation that U.S. agents may have been responsible for last weekend's Bali bombings.

Sidney Jones, the Jakarta-based director of the International Crisis Group's Indonesia project, has written for "The New York Times" about the reaction of ordinary Indonesians to the Bali blast. In an interview with RFE/RL, she describes the anti-American sentiments many Indonesians share: "The theory that is widely current in Indonesia today is that the United States was behind the Bali bombing, that its motive in mounting the attack was to gain the sympathy of countries that had, hitherto, been reluctant to join in the war on terrorism and therefore support the American plan to bomb Iraq. [According to this theory, Washington] would use the blast in Bali as a way to infiltrate intelligence officers into Indonesia under the guise of helping with the investigation, and those individuals would be the beachhead for a larger presence of U.S. troops."

Jones says those alleging U.S. responsibility for the Bali bombings are not restricted to Indonesia's radical Islamic fringe. She says most expressing the view are associated with mainstream Muslim parties on the center-right of the political spectrum.

Suggestions of U.S. involvement also have appeared in the commentaries of major Indonesian newspapers and the idea has been debated on television and radio talk shows.

Jones says the popularity of the view reflects deep-seated resentment against the United States: "The U.S. is seen as having put extreme pressure on the Indonesian government to go after Muslim targets. And that has been resented not just by the extremist Muslim groups in Indonesia, but also by people who have a very strong sense of nationalism and national identity -- and don't want to see Indonesia pushed around by the United States."

In particular, Jones says the policies of the Bush administration since the attacks of 11 September have angered ordinary citizens of Indonesia -- the country with the world's largest Muslim population: "There has been very, very deep concern over U.S. policy in the Middle East. That has manifested itself repeatedly in articles across the Muslim media [sector]. What the United States has done in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines with the troop presence there, with the proposed war on Iraq and certainly, above all, in the Middle East, is seen as turning the war against terror into a war against Islam."

But Jones notes that strong anti-American sentiment in Indonesia dates back to before the country's economic crisis of 1997: "This idea that the United States is out to hurt Indonesia has been around for a while. The loss of East Timor [as a part of Indonesia] is another issue that is often attributed to international pressure led by the United States and Australia. And it goes back even further than that. But it fits into a thought pattern that we have seen over and over during the last five or six years. And that feeling increased following the economic crisis in Indonesia in 1997, which again, some people blamed on U.S. intervention and U.S. pressure."

Jones says many Indonesians are angered by those who continue to blame the country's problems on outside forces: "There are many people in Indonesia who are appalled by the fact that this view [of a U.S. conspiracy in the Bali bombings] has gained such currency -- people within Megawati's party and within some of the opposition parties. In fact, Megawati's leading political rivals have all denounced this notion as being completely counterproductive. Many of these people include academics, members of the educated elite, and so on. But some members of the educated elite, in fact, subscribe to this view [of a U.S. conspiracy]."

Political analysts agree that the Bali blasts have put Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri in a difficult position. Now more than ever, Megawati must balance her need for U.S. support against popular Muslim sentiments at home.

David Claridge, the managing director of the London-based firm Janusian Security Risk Management, discussed Megawati's difficult position today at an antiterrorism conference in Singapore: "Her predicament is fairly clear. She is relying to some extent on Muslim groups who feel themselves to be within a broad spectrum that is unsympathetic to the U.S. position on Iraq, unsympathetic to the U.S. position on Israel, unsympathetic to the U.S. position in terms of a war on terrorism. So she has to balance up pressure that comes to her from the U.S. and from the broader international community to tackle these groups while maintaining her popular support at home. That's a very difficult position to be in. At this moment in time, there seems little choice but to aggressively pursue these groups because to fail to do so would lead to further attacks of the sort that we saw in Bali on 12 October."

Meanwhile, there is a growing controversy in Washington, London, and Canberra over whether more could have been done to prevent the Bali attack -- or at least give travelers more of a warning about the threat of terrorist attacks against resorts like Bali.

In their defense, U.S. intelligence officials note that the CIA issued a warning to the Indonesian and Australian governments in September about a potential terrorist threat to Bali and other tourist resorts in Southeast Asia.

But the U.S. State Department took no special precautionary measures beyond issuing a general caution against travel to Indonesia. And neither the Indonesian nor Australian authorities passed the CIA's specific warning about Bali on to tourists.

That has angered many of the Western tourists who survived the bomb blasts. Among them is Australian tourist Robyn Quick, who returned to her homeland yesterday from Bali. "The American government knew. The Indonesian government knew. And our [Australian] government knew. And they did not tell us."

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said today that he has ordered a review of all material received by Australia's intelligence services about terrorist threats in Indonesia before the attack on Bali.

Howard has admitted that Australia received recent U.S. intelligence identifying Bali as a possible target, but did not change its advice to Australian tourists: "Look. I have indicated they have made a bona fide assessment according to their judgment, according to the intelligence information available. If you look at the various travel advisories, the Australian one did talk about bombs having gone off and warned of the possibility in the future and did associate that with areas frequented by tourists. It is always possible after a terrible event to say that maybe we could have done this and could have done that. But these assessments are done in good faith and in the absence of anything that could be construed as a specific warning about the bombing that did occur."

Western leaders have voiced suspicions that the attack was planned by Al-Qaeda -- possibly together with an Islamic group that is active in the region called Jemaah Islamiyah.

Indonesia's coordinating minister for political and security affairs has named the elderly Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir as one of the leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah. The minister, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, says legal action would be taken against Bashir if the investigation shows that he or his followers were involved. Bashir has denied involvement in the attacks.

Indonesian authorities say they have detained at least seven Indonesians and one foreign national, reportedly from the Middle East, for questioning.

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