Solving Bali blasts turns police image around

Nailing the masterminds of the plot has helped change the view that they are a corrupt and flatfooted lot.

After a series of embarrassing gaffes, Indonesia’s police has boosted its credibility by unravelling the plot behind the country’s worst terrorist attack with old-fashioned detective work and foreign help.

Within two months, they have caught the masterminds of the Oct 12 Bali bombings and hauled up a total of 29 suspects.

Indonesia’s police has suffered from a reputation for corruption and lack of professionalism.

But Bali proved to be a turning point.

Observers said the devastating bombings gave the police a ‘solid political cover’ to carry out investigations.

Under international pressure for failing to crack down on extremist elements, Jakarta was left with little wriggle room and had to produce results.

Said a one-star police general: ‘It was much easier for us to carry out the investigations because of support from the

‘We never got 100 per cent from the government previously because they doubted our ability. Bali was a wake-up call.’

President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s husband Taufik Kiemas, who played a key role behind the scenes in Jakarta’s response to the attack, told The Straits Times in an interview that unlike in previous investigations, the chain of command was streamlined to avoid thorny inter-agency rivalries.

The police were able to call the shots on the ground, he said.

He also credited Major-General I Made Mangku Pastika, who headed the investigation, for his leadership.

The 51-year-old Major-General, one of Indonesia’s most respected policemen, served as a commanding officer for the United Nations police in Namibia in the late 1980s.

In his last appointment in strife-torn Papua, he was known for being ‘neutral’ and standing up to hawkish military elements.

Asked recently by The Straits Times why he was selected, Maj-Gen Pastika replied bluntly: ‘I am not a terrorist expert. I don’t come with any baggage or agendas. I just want to get the job done.’

Two lucky breaks early in the investigation, including the discovery of a red getaway motorcycle, combined with old-fashioned detective work, led him to the first key suspect, Amrozi, almost a month after the bombing.

A month later, Imam Samudra and Ali Gufron alias Mukhlas, both key operatives of the Jemaah Islamiah terrorist group, were caught.

Maj-Gen Pastika was quick to note the invaluable help from foreign counterparts, especially the Australians.

The capture of Samudra and Mukhlas, in particular, would not have been possible without their technology and intelligence, he said.

A senior diplomat said: ‘It helped raise the technical expertise of the Indonesian police. Suddenly, terrorists who all along have been roaming freely in the country were caught on the back foot.’

Police were also driven by the need to show not just their foreign counterparts – but rival military and intelligence agencies in the country – that they were up to the task.

Added the one-star police general: ‘This was our chance to show the military and others that we can do the job without them.’

Such rivalry is prevalent across the ranks in the police, which have long played second fiddle to the army generals. But it can be dangerous.

The Bali bombings happened in part because of inter-agency tensions between the military, police and BIN, the state intelligence outfit.

Despite the recent arrests, analysts say the terror threat is far from over.

And senior intelligence officers in BIN warn there could be another wave of attacks in Indonesia as several terrorist masterminds are still on the run, including Riduan Isamuddin alias Hambali.

A senior intelligence source said: ‘There are around 25 of them in the country, all linked to Hambali and all capable of coordinating some kind of attack in Indonesia and the region.

‘This is not a time to give yourself a pat on the shoulder and say job well done’.’

Will the police, who brushed off BIN’s alert to terrorist cells in the country earlier this year, heed these warnings?

In a meeting with Ms Megawati the morning after the blast, police chief Da’i Bachtiar even suggested that BIN had conspired with the CIA to bomb Bali to drag Jakarta into Washington’s war on terror.

But analysts say the police will play ball.

The diplomatic source explained: ‘They have now gained something which is invaluable: pride and the ability to get things done. Why throw it all away and let their rivals gain the upper hand?’

Why probe worked

The Bali blasts gave police ‘solid political cover’ for investigations.

The chain of command was streamlined to avoid thorny inter-agency rivalries.

A ‘neutral’ figure, Major-General I Made Pastika, was appointed as chief investigator.

Help given in areas of technology and intelligence from foreign counterparts, especially the Australians.

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