Marriott bomber blundered’
The man who was going to blow himself up was getting nervous as he drove the Kijang van into the JW Marriott Hotel driveway.
Waiting by the right side of the U-shaped roundabout leading to the lobby entrance, 28-year-old Asmar Latin Sami grew even more edgy when two security guards walked towards his silver-coloured van.
As they got closer, he pushed the button which triggered an explosion that ripped through the hotel, killing 11 people and injuring 150.
It was a major blunder for him and the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorist network.
Investigators believed they botched up the operation by activating the containers of explosives in the vehicle too early.
The kamikaze artist detonated the bomb 6m away from the lobby front – ‘the sweet spot’ that could have inflicted maximum damage.
Security sources said it could have killed at least 200 people, given that the blast would have hit not just the lobby area, but also the adjoining coffee house that was packed with a lunchtime crowd.
Instead, most of the shock waves from the bomb were thrust downwards, leaving a crater 2m wide and 1m deep. Large pillars of the hotel structure also absorbed the blast.
A police general investigating JI’s latest terrorist strike told The Sunday Times: ‘The execution does not reflect JI’s strategy, which was to get the highest death toll possible.’
Much of the blame probably lies with Asmar.
There is little doubt that he was ready for his role as a kamikaze attacker. A week before the bombing, he sent an e-mail to a friend which clearly reflected his state of mind.
In that coded message, intercepted and deciphered by Indonesian police, Asmar talked about getting blessings from JI leaders to ‘carry out this great duty for god’.
But he might have had cold feet before the attack. The police source said: ‘There was no evidence of coordination. Everything was left to him.’
Indeed, investigators argued that the planning and execution of the Marriott bombing lacked the sophistication of the Bali attack. The bombings on the two nightclubs last year in the tourist island resort was timed and synchronised perfectly.
Operationally, JI has become much more ineffective since the capture of some 200 members over the past 18 months.
With communications being curtailed and the network operating in a very decentralised fashion, there is no oversight or control.
An intelligence official said: ‘A lot of the younger militants are hardliners. But they have no field experience, like the Hambalis or the Azaharis.
‘That is why mistakes can happen.’
With Abu Bakar Bashir staring at a 15-year jail sentence and Hambali under US custody, the JI leadership is almost emasculated, with weakening links to field operatives.
But the network is still alive and perhaps even more dangerous today.
Being an amorphous network of independent cells without any control, the possibility of sporadic terrorist attacks in Indonesia and the region could increase dramatically.
It could be another horror story with an unending cast of ‘devout’ kamikaze members.
A one-star police general noted: ‘The cells reproduce very fast. Every time we catch a few, others move up to take over. Hambali is a big catch, but what is to stop the others from continuing their attacks?
‘They are turning into a guerilla outfit. They are driven by revenge and not any religious ideal to create an Islamic state.’
There is a change, not just in strategy, but ideology as well.
The Jakarta-based Van Zorge consultancy noted in its latest report that if the original intent of the JI was to foster support for the creation of a pan-Islamic state in South-east Asia, the group and its disciples had already lost that battle.
‘The more blood that flows in the streets of Jakarta and elsewhere in the country, the more likely Indonesians are to expect, and support, a harsh crackdown on suspected terrorists,’ it said.
‘They will probably do so regardless of the perceived costs to their country’s experiment with democracy, and with little sympathy for those who use holy garb and empty slogans to justify the murder of innocents, most of whom are their own countrymen.’
Whatever the criticisms levelled at the JI for bungling the Marriott blast, one point is clear: The bomb used for the attack was ‘far superior’ to those used in Bali.
The intelligence source said: ‘Their bomb-making skills have improved a lot. It shows that they are more than able to carry out a terrorist attack.’
With or without coordination, the fact remains that there are at least three bombs out there – ready to be used any time.
All these bombs have the signature of Malaysian bomb maker and fugitive Azahari Bin Husin.
The JI botched the Marriott attack. But it continues to be a serious threat. The execution does not reflect JI’s strategy, which was to get the highest death toll possible.’
– An Indonesian police general