Indonesia’s Terror Alert Overdrive
Wave of warnings increasingly seen as smokescreen to create confusion.
AZAHARI is here. Azahari is there. Azahari is everywhere.
Wanted posters and mugshots of terrorist bomb-maker Azahari Bin Husin and his notorious Malaysian accomplice Mohd Noordin Top are popping up all over the country, in airports, shopping malls and hotels.
He is also appearing in text messages, on the Internet and in documents threatening major terror attacks in Indonesia.
It is not surprising that Indonesia’s public enemy No. 1 is being blamed for all the terror alerts that have been declared over the past few months.
But senior Indonesian police investigators are now privately dismissing many of these warnings as a smokescreen created by Azahari and his lieutenants to sow confusion among security forces.
They have also attributed some of these alerts to the work of pranksters.
‘Azahari is probably having a good rest in some kampung, telling himself what a great job he has done without even needing to carry out a bombing,’ said a counter-terrorism official.
‘The rumour mill is on overdrive. It is psychological warfare. Azahari and his men have done what most terrorists try to do: strike fear and chaos.’
Indeed, Indonesia has seen a series of alarming terror alerts this year.
In March, security and intelligence operations were stepped up in the country during the Easter holiday, given concerns that there would be a bombing raid by the Al-Qaeda linked Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network.
During that period, The Straits Times reported that planning was well under way for a terrorist strike in the capital that could be as devastating as the 2002 Bali bombings.
A letter obtained from a Sumatra-based operative tells of 12 militants being trained to be ‘martyrs’. The document was addressed to Azahari.
Speculation of an impending attack gathered even greater ground from May.
Australia urged its citizens to avoid travelling to Indonesia because of a warning by Jakarta police of possible suicide bombings, particularly at embassies, international schools, office buildings and shopping malls.
Several days later, the United States shut down all its diplomatic missions in the country amid heightened fears that they were being targeted by extremists.
American officials had reportedly discovered a floor plan posted on an Internet website that gave instructions in Bahasa Indonesia on how to attack what was labelled a US diplomatic facility.
Another alert from the Americans more than a week later warned of a possible bomb attack in an unnamed hotel lobby and the Plaza Menteng mall in Jakarta.
A police operative told The Straits Times: ‘There is growing frustration with these alerts because most of the information comes through the SMS or Internet. Sometimes it is impossible to verify these sources.’
Indonesian intelligence officials explained that the US was ‘more sensitive to any terrorist information they got now’, especially after the recent fiasco over the purported desecration of the Quran by American soldiers at the Guantanamo Bay prison.
‘The Americans are suffering from a siege mentality,’ said an intelligence source.
‘So they are going to lengths sounding warnings and taking whatever precautions necessary.’
The spate of US alerts takes place against a backdrop of other foreign agencies, particularly from Australia and Britain, coming up sometimes with alerts based on separate intelligence that identifies different targets.
Individual governments might be bound by ‘duty of care’ to release travel alerts, but it all adds to the growing confusion in Jakarta.
‘The information is sometimes blurred because they all have different sources,’ said a regional security expert.
‘The police and intelligence agencies in Indonesia can’t seem to work together because they are rivals. The Western alliance is also not exactly one big happy family.’
Some observers argue that it is hard to believe Azahari is single-handedly masterminding the disinformation campaign – and that some of it might be emanating from pranksters.
This has been the case several times before, when police arrested several people who spread rumours of impending attacks in the capital.
Significantly, they noted that the JI leadership is split, making it difficult for Azahari to orchestrate a nationwide operation against security forces.
‘The truth probably lies somewhere in between,’ noted security consultant Martin Hughes, who advises foreign businesses in Indonesia.
‘Whatever the arguments, there is one incontrovertible fact. Azahari and his followers are still at large. As long as they are not caught, Indonesia faces a serious terrorist threat.’