Warning to Megawati, message to U.S.

CARNAGE IN JAKARTA

Blast followed the President’s recent vow to destroy terrorism, and fresh Al-Qaeda threat to US.

NEWS ANALYSIS

The message from the terrorists was loud, clear and deadly. The JW Marriott Hotel was the physical target of what appears to be a classic Jemaah Islamiah operation.

But, in broader terms, intelligence officials believe the strike underlies the twin objectives of the militants: to sound a warning to the Jakarta administration, and send a message to the United States.

The attack coincided with two major terrorist trials in Indonesia.

Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, alleged spiritual leader of JI, was back in court yesterday, facing accusations of plotting to assassinate President Megawati Sukarnoputri and being involved in a series of church bombings in 2000.

Tomorrow, a court in Bali is due to deliver its verdict on the first of three dozen suspects on trial for the bombing two Bali nightclubs last year, leaving 202 dead.

Muslim militant Amrozi Nurhasyim could face the death sentence if found guilty.

Jakarta has been growing in confidence as the ground shifts against the radical minority in Indonesia.

Indeed, Ms Megawati reflected the changing mood when she made a rare public admission last Friday that the country was a source of extremism and vowed to destroy the ‘terrifying threat’ of terrorist networks.

Commenting on yesterday’s attack, a senior Indonesian intelligence official told The Straits Times: ‘This has JI’s fingerprints all over and the timing is no coincidence, given the issues at play here.

‘It is easy to understand why Indonesia was targeted again. Very simply, we are the soft underbelly for the terrorists in South-east Asia.’

The bigger message yesterday was for Washington.

The Marriott is part of an American chain, and used regularly by the US Embassy for major functions. At least half its guests are American.

Interestingly, the attack followed a weekend warning by Al-Qaeda No 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, who vowed revenge against the US if any detainees held at Guantanamo Bay were sentenced to death.

The US is holding more than 600 Al-Qaeda and Taleban suspects from 42 countries at the naval base in Cuba.

In an audiotape broadcast by Dubai-based television station Al-Arabiya, al-Zawahiri warned that the real battle against the US had not begun.

His message echoed the JI warning of retaliation if Amrozi and others are executed.

Intelligence officials believe that given the JI’s ideological and financial links to Al-Qaeda via point-man Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, it was very likely it took al Zawahiri’s cue to mount the attack.

The JI was believed to have been planning a wave of terrorist strikes in the region over the last three months.

An operation was foiled in Thailand a month ago.

In Indonesia, police made several arrests and seized a large cache of ammunition, weapons, chemicals and explosives in Semarang, Central Java last month. An intelligence source said then that it was just the tip of the iceberg.

Given the JI’s extensive reach in Indonesia, with its cells operating at provincial, district and village levels, ‘there could be an indefinite number of places in the country storing bombs and hiding terrorists’, said the source.

What is more significant is that the JI is now run by hardliners, overseeing a network that is fast becoming decentralised.

Its leaders and operatives are spread out – mainly in Indonesia, but also in the Philippines and Thailand – and face difficulty communicating, given intensifying surveillance.

But the JI has continued to be dangerous, as much of its infrastructure remains intact.

More importantly, five of its leading members are diehards, driven not just by ideology, but also a desire for revenge for the arrests of about 200 members in the region over the last two years.

An Indonesian intelligence official said: ‘We might have arrested several of their members, but the network is far from crippled.

‘JI has shown this ability to adapt to changes by further breaking down the command structure and allowing terrorist cells to operate independently.’

It seems yesterday’s blast at the Jakarta Marriott will not be the last message from these terrorists.

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