Allies of al-Qa'ida are prime suspects for resort attacks

Bali bombings: Indonesia 'weak link' in war against terrorism in south-east Asia, say experts
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The Independent Online

Possibly the only surprise about yesterday's carnage on the holiday island of Bali was that it had not happened sooner. As the world's security agencies hunt the remnants of the al-Qa'ida terror network, much of their attention is focused on Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Possibly the only surprise about yesterday's carnage on the holiday island of Bali was that it had not happened sooner. As the world's security agencies hunt the remnants of the al-Qa'ida terror network, much of their attention is focused on Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.

Some critics say Indonesia is the weakest link in the war on terror in south-east Asia, partly because the government has concerns about cracking down on radical Muslim groups for fear of upsetting the vast moderate mainstream.

No responsibility was immediately claimed for the bombs which cut through a nightclub in Kuta Beach, but suspicion will immediately fall on Indonesia's many militant Islamist organisations.

The backpackers and surfers who packed the resorts of Bali might have believed they were safe, because the island is unique in the archipelago: its religious traditions are Hindu and Buddhist rather than Muslim. Thanks to clever marketing by travel companies and resort operators, some Western travellers are never even aware that they are in Indonesia.

However, intelligence officials have long feared that if al-Qa'ida attempted to mount a "second front", one of the easiest places to do so would be Indonesia. The country's fragmented territory and political chaos since the collapse of the Suharto regime make it easy for operatives fleeing Afghanistan and Pakistan to hide. Last year a Spanish court investigating al-Qa'ida was told that up to 400 fighters had been sent to Indonesia for training.

Indonesian officials have in the past denied that militants linked to al-Qa'ida are active in the country. However, the authorities in Malaysia and Singapore have claimed that members of a group known as Jemaah Islamiyah ­ said to be seeking to set up an Islamic state in south-east Asia ­ are based in Indonesia.

Singapore has been pressing Indonesia to arrest Jemaah Islamiyah's alleged leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, who lives in Indonesia, but Indonesian officials say they have no evidence against him.

Hamzah Haz, the Indonesian vice-president, recently visited Jafar Umar Thalib, the leader of a militant group accused of killing Christians in the Moluccas islands. Mr Thalib, who has admitted meeting Osama bin Laden, denied having any connections with international terrorists, but US pressure finally led the Jakarta authorities to detain him.

The main American success in fighting Indonesian-based extremists came with the arrest of Omar al-Faruq in the summer, who was handed over to US interrogators. He is said to have broken down after three months of questioning and admitted to being al-Qaida's top operative in south-east Asia.

Politicians with debts to Islamic militant groups form a significant constituency in the Indonesian parliament, and American diplomats in the country are subject to tight security. The US consulate in Denpasar was one target of last night's bombs.

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