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Terror in Paradise: Bali Bombings

October 14, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Three further perspectives now on the attack: Robert Gelbard, a career diplomat, was U.S. ambassador to Indonesia from 1999 to 2001. Zachary Abuza is an assistant professor of political science at Simmons College. He’s writing a book on militant groups in Southeast Asia and he traveled to the region earlier this year. Michael Sheehan was the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism in the last two years of the Clinton Administration.

Mr. Sheehan, does the Bali bombing add up to an al-Qaida operation to you?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: It certainly has all the hallmarks of an al-Qaida operation – a massive car bomb probably with links to a local organization or directly involved with al-Qaida, but it certainly is there – modus operandi.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Abuza, do you agree?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I absolutely agree. I see this, Jim, as I see this — Jemmah Islamiyah’s fingerprints all over this. It’s within their capabilities and means. We know they have stockpiled ammonium nitrate and TNT from the Philippines. And it’s also part of a reaction or revenge for the arrests of Jemmah Islamiyah members in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, how does it look to you?

ROBERT GELBARD: I certainly agree with them that it has all the earmarks of being al-Qaida working with Jemmah Islamiyah. It’s important to recognize that Jemmah Islamiyah has worked back and forth with Filipino terrorists from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the MLIF, in Mindenow. Some of its members have been arrested in the Philippines including the man who is considered the leading bomb maker for the MLIF, Fathur al-Ghozi. So the effort at creating large spectacular bombings has been building over time both in Indonesia and in the Philippines.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when you were the ambassador, you had some problems, did you not, convincing the Indonesian government to recognize the fact that they even had a terrorist threat? Tell us about that.

ROBERT GELBARD: It was very clear when I arrived three years ago, almost exactly three years ago, that al-Qaida had begun to establish itself through front organizations of various kinds. This is something which was al-Qaida’s trademark in countries that were going through a transition from authoritarian or totalitarian systems to new democratic systems. I had seen that earlier in Albania and in Bosnia as those countries had become very open too.

Indonesia itself was going from the 32-year dictatorship of Suharto to a very wide open new democracy. I tried to explain to the newly democratic government of President Abdurrahman Wahid in October of 1999 that then was the time to go after the newly implanted al-Qaida and Hezbollah front organizations. We offered briefings and we continued to for a long time but we were spurned.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sheehan, what can you add to that? You also had some difficulty, did you not, or I mean you and your folks convincing the Indonesians that they had a threat?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Yes, we clearly saw in the late ’90s, early 2000 time period, a shift of al-Qaida operatives moving into East Asia, both in Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. It was a crossroads of some of their most important operatives. And we knew that they were preparing to make attacks against U.S. and U.S. interests in that region. We were pursuing diplomatic and intelligence efforts with those countries to try to get them to step up their activities. But al-Qaida is there for a reason. They knew that they would be able to find refuge in a massive country in this archipelago throughout Southeast Asia. Knowing no borders they could move around and hide with some of the local organizations that governments were reluctant to take on.

JIM LEHRER: How do you, Mr. Sheehan, read the forceful statement, we just ran it, from the defense minister of Indonesia saying yes this was al-Qaida, al-Qaida is now here. How do you read that?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Well, it’s a step in the right direction. We’ve all known they’ve been there for quite a while. I’m encouraged by those remarks but now it’s time to step up and increase their law enforcement activities that break down these cells and get hold of the main leadership and get a handle on this situation that is very dangerous not only in Indonesia but throughout Southeast Asia.

JIM LEHRER: Professor Abuza, tell us a little bit about this local organization in Indonesia. We know its ties to al-Qaida. But where does it come from? What generates it locally in Indonesia?

ZACHARY ABUZA: Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar…

JIM LEHRER: Bashir is the guy we just saw twice in that clip…

ZACHARY ABUZA: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: …in the introduction piece. Go ahead, yes, sir.

ZACHARY ABUZA: He was committed to establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia going back to the 1960s. He was arrested and detained under the Suharto new order regime. He was arrested and when he was in the appeals process, he and Abdullah Sungkar fled to Malaysia. They lived there for two decades, and they recruited amongst Indonesia exiles, they preached in house congregations, not in state-controlled mosques. And they developed a loyal following.

Sometime around 1993 to 1994, he authorized two of his lieutenants, Riduan Isamuddin, who goes by the name of Hambali, and Abu Jabril, to establish the Jemmah Islamiyah, a network with cells in Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. In 1998 following the collapse of the Suharto regime, Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar returned to Indonesia, they returned to their Islamic boarding school in Solo, in central Java. Bashir then established an overt civil society organization known as the Mujahadeen Council of Indonesia.

JIM LEHRER: This was in the open and everybody knew about it, the government and everybody knew about it.

ZACHARY ABUZA: Yes, absolutely. They held conferences, they published books. They have their own companies. But it was a civil society organization as Bashir described it to me when I interviewed him this summer. And he said their goal was to bring about an Islamic state in Indonesia. Members of the MMI included the Las-Kar Jahad, the Las-Kar Umdullah, and other groups.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of his statement that we just ran that he doesn’t approve of bombings?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I think he’s denying this completely. I believe he’s completely responsible for this attack. It is certainly within his capabilities. He has the motive to do so. And for someone who wants to create an Islamic state in the country he has to discredit the Indonesian government, Megawati’s. I think he’d love to create economic chaos in the country.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of that, Mr. Ambassador, why Bali? Why is that a good target?

ROBERT GELBARD: Bali is probably the best possible target that terrorists would want to attack right now. First, the Balinese people who are predominantly Hindu have kept extremist Islamic movements at bay and away from Bali over their history. They have, in fact, even fought in recent years against Islamic groups that wanted to show militancy on the island. Second, there has been a revival of tourism over the last two or three years. It has helped the Indonesian economy, which of course had collapsed in 1997.

As more tourists have come back, it’s contributed to some economic growth, which Indonesia desperately needs. This has the dual benefit for the terrorists of going after the westerners and it’s well known that Kuta is the area where westerners congregate the most in Bali. And second hitting the Indonesian government right at its heart, the economy. So they can discredit the government and hurt the foreigners and walk away very happy.

JIM LEHRER: Should other attacks like this be expected?

ROBERT GELBARD: We have felt that something like this would happen at some point. I would not be surprised at all if more attacks occur. Other attacks have occurred in the past, but simply haven’t gotten much press. Christmas Eve of the year 2000, 30 churches were bombed and Omar al Farooq, the Kuwaiti who is now in our custody has said he worked with Jemmah Islamiyah on that. The Philippine ambassador was attacked with a car bomb a block-and-a-half from my house and it was clearly both Philippine and Indonesian groups working together. We’ve seen a lot of these attacks but never anything close to this dimension.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. In fact there was a bomb that went off near the US Consul just this weekend. Nobody was hurt.

ROBERT GELBARD: Well, during my time as Ambassador, in fact, we knew that al-Qaida was making plans to try to blow up our embassy.

JIM LEHRER: You knew they were going to do that?

ROBERT GELBARD: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And what did you do about it? I hope you got out of there.

ROBERT GELBARD: We closed the embassy. In October and November of 2000, right at the time of our presidential election, we knew the embassy was under very heavy surveillance by al-Qaida. The Indonesian government’s reaction was to say we were trying to discredit the Indonesian government when we asked for more police protection. They vilified me and for a long time refused to give us the protection we needed. In June and July of last year when we discovered that an al-Qaida hit team had come in from the Middle East to try to attack the embassy, again we asked for help. Again we found a tremendous amount of denial on the one hand by the Indonesian government and really offensive attacks on the other.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Sheehan, just broaden this out before we go; President Bush said today that he sees the relationship — and a relationship must be assumed between this attack and Bali and the one in Kuwait and the…what’s it? My mind has gone blank. The three of them in Yemen, the small boat going up against the French tanker blowing up, trying to blow up the French tanker in Yemen. Do you see the same pattern?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: Clearly al-Qaida, since 9/11 and the loss of their safe haven in Afghanistan, is reorganizing, regrouping and on the offensive again with the series of attacks. I definitely see a link. It underscores the need for the U.S. Government to engage in a wide range of countries diplomatically first with training, with equipment, with exchanges of information, to ensure that they remain focused, that these countries remain focused on the threat that is within their midst. That’s going to require the U.S. to remain focused on this threat.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy the theory that’s what’s happened here is that the al-Qaida leadership — whether it’s Osama bin Laden or whoever — has just said okay, “cells, everywhere, do your thing” and that’s what’s happening, each little group of al-Qaida people are doing what they want to do?

MICHAEL SHEEHAN: I think clearly that there are indications that al-Qaida has put on the green light to its cells that operate in at least sixty or seventy countries around the world. And these cells that operate semi-independently with support, technical support, some types of explosives, detonating devices from the central organization, with that type of linkages they’re beginning to step up their attacks and I think this could continue over the months ahead.

JIM LEHRER: And Professor Abuza, in this part of Asia, Indonesia, that part, we should expect more as well?

ZACHARY ABUZA: I am afraid so. I hope the Indonesian government is going to stop being in denial about this. The Singaporeans have been very helpful. The Malaysians have cracked down, the Filipinos, but the weak link in all of this has been the Indonesians. I am a bit concerned about the statement of the minister of defense that you heard before where, as he said, he believes that it is al-Qaida. He did not go so far as to name Abu-Bakar Bashir or the Jemmah Islamiyah, who has received political support and protection in the past from the country’s vice president, Hamza Haz, who will be Megawati Sukarno Putri’s primary rival in the election of 2004.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a serious, serious situation then, is it not?

ZACHARY ABUZA: Yes, it is.

JIM LEHRER: Yet there are people within the government who are in denial about that particular organization after this bombing. It could be a very serious problem.

ZACHARY ABUZA: There is intense competition also between the intelligence services, the military and the police. The intelligence services and the military are starting to be a little more concerned about the threat posed by terrorists. The police have more or less been in denial and have stalled most investigations. There is some word in Jakarta today that Megawati will turn over this task of internal security to the military.

JIM LEHRER: Is that good or bad? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

ZACHARY ABUZA: It’s a mixed blessing. The Indonesian military certainly has committed egregious human rights violations in places like East Timor. On the other hand, if they are going to deal with the terrorist threat, we have to see it as a step in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all three very much.