Terror returns

The lull in terrorist violence for around five years in Indonesia has been shattered by suicide attacks on two luxury hotels in Jakarta last week. No group has claimed responsibility for the deadly bombings but these are believed to be the work of the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) or a splinter group. Indonesia was the site of many deadly bombings in the 2002-04 period. But a split in the JI over the use of violence and the death or arrest of several JI leaders, led to the belief that the group was in disarray. The seeming calm in Indonesia in recent years prompted security analysts to believe that the tough crackdown on JI and the reintegration of several militants into the police force had successfully broken the back of the organisation. But such hopes were dashed on Friday when two near-simultaneous attacks ripped through two Jakarta hotels. The bombings executed with deadly precision indicate that the JI remains a potent force, a clear and present danger to Indonesia and the region.

The hotels that were targeted belonged to the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott chain. Many of those who were killed or injured were foreigners, mainly Americans. It is likely that iconic US business hotels were targeted not only because of Washington’s large role in Indonesia’s counter-terrorism operations but also with a view to undermining business and investment.

Indonesia’s big achievement over the past 4-5 years was not so much the weakening of terror outfits as it was the fact that this was done even as it remained a pluralist democracy. It rounded up radicals and put them on trial. Unlike some countries with long democratic traditions that have turned increasingly authoritarian or put off elections in the name of fighting terrorism, Indonesia, whose democracy is barely a decade old, has remained largely democratic. Earlier this month, President Bambang Yudhoyono was voted back to power in an election that was free and fair. Indonesia’s economy too has been doing well. There is concern now that investment will suffer and draconian measures will return. Indonesia’s greatest strength today is that unlike many countries with large Muslim populations, it is a vibrant democracy. It must tread carefully in the coming weeks and months as it works to root out extremism. Suspects should be tried in courts and not summarily executed if terrorism should be defeated.

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