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Indonesia: Suspicion Focuses On Al-Qaeda Over Bali Bombings Despite Lack Of Evidence

A bomb blast on the Indonesian island of Bali has terrorism experts scrambling to learn if the attack is connected to Al-Qaeda. The attack, which killed at least 187 people, most of them Westerners, is the largest suspected terrorist operation since the attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001.

Prague, 14 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Indonesia's defense minister today became the first official to publicly link Al-Qaeda with masterminding the deadly bombings on the Indonesian holiday island of Bali on 12 October.

Matori Abdul Djalil said after a cabinet meeting in Jakarta today that Indonesia is positive the bombing is linked to Al-Qaeda, in cooperation with what he called "local terrorists." No group has yet claimed responsibility.

Some 187 people from at least 12 different countries were killed in the blasts. Australia and Indonesia are believed to have lost the most citizens in the Saturday night attack, which destroyed a nightclub at Bali's Kuta Beach resort. Some 300 other people were injured. Another blast which went off in the vicinity of the U.S. consulate in Sanur, about 30 minutes away from Kuta Beach, caused no causalities.

The Bali nightclub bombing -- most of whose victims were Westerners -- is the deadliest terrorist operation since the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, which killed some 3,000 people. It comes a week after a blast gutted a French oil tanker near Yemen and armed attackers killed a U.S. Marine training in Kuwait.

In the wake of the Bali attack, counterterrorism experts are rushing to determine whether the bombing is a homegrown operation or does, indeed, fit the pattern of an Al-Qaeda-organized attack against the West.

One reason many analysts suspect an Al-Qaeda connection is the fact that a key Al-Qaeda operative, Omar Al-Faruq, was arrested in Indonesia four months ago and is reported to have confessed to seeking to organize attacks there.

The U.S. newsweekly "Time" has reported that confidential CIA documents and regional reports show that Al-Faruq was one of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's top representatives in Southeast Asia. He was responsible for contacting the region's disparate Islamic militant groups and urging them to conduct terror attacks against the United States and its allies.

"Time" also reported that Al-Faruq confessed that two senior Al-Qaeda officials ordered him to prepare a plan for car bombing against U.S. embassies in the region around the anniversary of the 11 September attacks. The magazine quoted CIA documents as saying Al-Faruq received assistance in his various activities from Jemaah Islamiah, a regional militant group that seeks to create an Islamic state in Southeast Asia.

Some analysts who know the Al-Qaeda organization well say they are convinced Al-Qaeda is behind the Bali bombing.

Rohan Gunaratna, author of "Inside Al-Qaeda: Global Network Of Terror," says Al-Qaeda and its regional partner, Jemaah Islamiah, are the only groups in the region capable of organizing such a large-scale operation: "The only organization that could have conducted a professional terrorist attack of the scale we have witnessed in Bali is Al-Qaeda and its Southeast Asian network Jemaah Islamiah. There is no other group in Indonesia with the intention and the capability to conduct an attack of this magnitude."

But while police now look for clues, Al-Qaeda involvement remains just one possibility. Another is that a local group inspired by Al-Qaeda's successes conducted the operation using Al-Qaeda methods. Still another possibility is that a local group carried out the operation in hopes it would be identified with Al-Qaeda in order to magnify the attack's impact on the public's imagination.

Indonesia has its own recent history of terrorism that could point elsewhere than Al-Qaeda. The Muslim-majority country has been plagued by attacks on Christian-minority communities living on some eastern islands where Islamic extremist groups are most active. A wave of attacks on Christian churches during Christmas 2000 killed 18 people and injured more than 100. But Bali, a Hindu-majority enclave in Indonesia, has been considered a tourist safe haven.

At the same time, Indonesia fought against a separatist movement on East Timor before a UN peacekeeping force led by Australia landed in September 1999 and restored order. East Timor became a nation in May, but resentment remains among some Indonesians over what they see as Australia's interference.

As analysts weigh the likelihood of Al-Qaeda's involvement, some wonder whether Al-Qaeda would launch an attack in Southeast Asia when the region has been regarded as a relatively safe hideaway for Al-Qaeda members fleeing Afghanistan. U.S. counterterrorism experts have said that they believe Southeast Asia now has the world's highest concentration of Al-Qaeda operatives outside Afghanistan and Pakistan.

So far, many Southeast Asian countries have been slow to join the U.S.-led war on terror. Indonesia, for example, has balked at arresting Jemaah Islamiah's spiritual leader, Abubakar Ba'asyir, even though he is wanted in Singapore for an alleged role in masterminding a foiled Al-Qaeda plot to bomb U.S. targets there last December. Indonesia has declined to arrest the cleric, saying it has no evidence linking him to terrorist activity.

Magnus Ranstorp, an expert at the Center on Terrorism and Political Violence in Edinburgh, Scotland, says that it is puzzling that Al-Qaeda would want to call attention to itself in Southeast Asia at a moment when it needs safe havens. But he says the group -- if it is involved -- may feel its members are sufficiently well-hidden that they can strike with impunity.

"I think the scenario that they are, shall we say, dirtying their own nest and making it more difficult for themselves is certainly something we have to bear in mind. At the same time, we have entered a phase that, if this is indeed Al-Qaeda, then it has entered a phase where they are attacking economic targets, particularly trying to undermine trade and stability, and that may be more advantageous [to Al-Qaeda] than disadvantageous given their ability to conceal themselves [from the police]," Ranstorp says.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says the blasts are a new warning to the international community that terrorist groups can strike at any time: "This incident was a brutal reminder that the world has, in fact, to face the challenge of terrorism. The warnings of the last year or more that terrorism could touch anybody, anywhere, at any time, have been borne out by this terrible event, and I can only say again that the war against terrorism must go on with unrelenting vigor and with an unconditional commitment."

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw says the attacks highlight the danger posed by well-organized terrorist organizations: "What this shows is how we have to be alive to the dangers, the extreme dangers, of very well-organized terrorist organizations which, in turn, base themselves in failing states like Afghanistan or in rogue states like Iraq."

The attack caused several countries in the region to announce heightened security measures today. Malaysia, which has a Muslim majority, says it is stepping up surveillance at nightspots frequented by Westerners. The Philippines, a majority Christian country, says it was instructing police to be on alert against attacks "in case there might be some copycat groups [and] in case this is regional and not local to Indonesia."