Who were the nightclub bombers of paradise isle?

Talk of an al-Qa'ida network may be deceptive, writes Raymond Whitaker. Local Islamists probably saw a target, and then recruited help to attack it
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The Independent Online

In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Bali bombing is how inevitable it seems. Where else in the Islamic world would so many Western tourists even consider going on holiday? Yet when America looked around for possible terrorist havens after the attacks of September last year, it noted Indonesia's failure to crack down on extremist groups. Bali may be a Hindu enclave in the world's most populous Muslim nation, but that was no hindrance to the killers who struck last weekend. "It's amazing nobody thought of the danger before," said Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University.

In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about the Bali bombing is how inevitable it seems. Where else in the Islamic world would so many Western tourists even consider going on holiday? Yet when America looked around for possible terrorist havens after the attacks of September last year, it noted Indonesia's failure to crack down on extremist groups. Bali may be a Hindu enclave in the world's most populous Muslim nation, but that was no hindrance to the killers who struck last weekend. "It's amazing nobody thought of the danger before," said Magnus Ranstorp, deputy director of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism at St Andrews University.

Journalists based in the region say that when they speculated where a terrorist atrocity might occur, Bali seemed one of the most obvious places. There had, after all, been previous attacks on tourist targets in Indonesia. But Westerners had become so accustomed to seeing the island as insulated from the upheavals of South-east Asia – even before the Vietnam War – that many visitors imagined that there was a country called Bali.

The car bomb that devastated the Sari Club and Paddy's Bar, killing Australians, Britons and Americans by the score, was far more sophisticated and powerful than anything seen in Indonesia before. That alone, to Dr Ranstorp and others, signifies the involvement of al-Qa'ida. There are many other pointers, however, starting with the patient reconnaissance, detailed planning and meticulous execution that appear to have gone into the attack. Indonesian sources have speculated that an eight-man team, possibly led by a Yemeni and including two explosives experts, arrived in the country two days before the bombing, and slipped away immediately afterwards. Some have even spoken of a mysterious European being involved.

Whether or not these details are correct, outside experts agree that the logistics and reconnaissance are most likely to have been carried out by Indonesian allies of al-Qa'ida, over a period of months or even years. The C-4 plastic explosive would have been easy to obtain locally, possibly from sympathisers in the military, along with the van in which it is believed to have been carried to the target.

But the expertise required to pack the C-4 into the sides and roof of the van in such a way as to cause maximum devastation – and the callous willingness to kill as many Balinese as might be necessary – would probably have had to come from outside. With the bombers apparently having left as quickly as they arrived, only the small fry are likely to end up in the hands of the local police, despite the reinforcements they have received from Britain and other Western countries. Few of those Balinese who delivered cash, or supplied transport or accommodation would have known what was about to happen.

The hand of al-Qa'ida can also be detected in the multiple consequences of the attack, some of which were spelled out by Andrew Kennedy, head of the Asia programme at the Royal United Services Institute. "Tourism, Indonesia's third-largest source of foreign earnings, has been devastated for years to come," he pointed out. "The military – already distracted by separatist movements elsewhere – has a new threat to deal with, and its lower ranks have been infiltrated by Islamists.

"All this adds to the pressure on President Megawati Sukarnoputri, and helps the people lining up to replace her. Most of them sympathise with the Islamists, starting with her vice-president."

Dr Ranstorp saw the bombing, together with the 6 October explosion on a French oil tanker off Yemen, which has now been ruled a terrorist suicide attack, as "very clear economic targeting – which in the case of Indonesia will foment instability and make the country an even more fertile recruiting ground for militants".

In the search for the perpetrators of the Bali attack, most suspicion has fallen on Jemaah Islamiya, a group founded in Indonesia that wants an Islamic state across South-east Asia. Its spiritual leader is Abu Bakar Bashir, who was put under police guard in hospital yesterday as Indonesia yielded to international pressure to arrest him.

There is much speculation about the degree to which Jemaah Islamiya has been infiltrated by al-Qa'ida or shares its aims, but to Dr Ranstorp this is irrelevant. "Groups are not that important," he said. "We in the West keep looking for structures and hierarchies, but it doesn't work that way.

"Al-Qa'ida doesn't have a membership list. It is as much a movement as an organisation, a collection of like-minded individuals who all know each other. Our problem in countering al-Qa'ida is that it is highly adaptable. When it sees an opportunity, a target such as Bali, an informal network coalesces around it."

It is the individuals who matter, in the terrorism experts' view, and in particular Hambali, the nom de guerre of Riduan Isamuddin, the operational chief of Jemaah Islamiya, who is believed to have gone to ground in his home territory of Indonesia. While Mr Bashir admits he has met Osama bin Laden, Hambali is the one plugged into al-Qa'ida: a veteran of the war against the Soviet occupiers of Afghanistan, he is believed to be one of the few non-Arabs in the movement's inner circles. He is wanted in the Philippines and Malaysia, as well as in Indonesia, on charges ranging from bomb plots against US and Israeli targets in the region to bank robberies and attacks on Christians.

With the slaughter in Bali, the tanker blast and a wave of bombings in the Philippines which have killed 10 people in the past few days, al-Qa'ida appears to have launched a second wave of attacks that demonstrate its power to hit back after the loss of its safe haven in Afghanistan. But Mr Kennedy believed this might actually show that the war against terrorism was successful in some respects.

"You could argue that the area in which al-Qa'ida can operate is getting smaller," he said. "It cannot be controlled in countries which are in disarray, such as Indonesia and Yemen, but Malaysia has cracked down hard and Singapore has rounded up two big Jemaah Islamiya cells. There is turmoil in the far south of the Philippines – the Muslim area – but the Abu Sayyaf movement there, al-Qa'ida's supposed allies, are basically gangsters, and the authorities have struck several blows against the network in the rest of the country."

Dr Ranstorp is less sanguine. "Al-Qa'ida is coiled and ready to spread its activities," he said. "There are increased threat levels in Europe, particularly France and Germany, and in Latin America, particularly Argentina. In South-east Asia you can expect more attacks on shipping, and tourist targets such as Bali.

"Beneath the surface, there have been remarkable successes by the intelligence agencies in foiling various plots, mainly in Europe. But we tend to forget that in places such as Indonesia, where there are thousands of islands and hundreds of ethnic groups, al-Qa'ida has been at work since the early 1990s. It is continuing its training undisturbed.

"While Blair and Bush present the war against terror and the campaign against Saddam Hussein as one and the same anything that sparks greater anti-Americanism helps al-Qa'ida – particularly war in Iraq."

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