Who's Behind The Jakarta Bombings?

Indonesian president visits bomb victims i i

hide captionIndonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono talks to officials at a Jakarta hospital after visiting victims of a deadly hotel bombing.

Arif Ariadi/AFP/Getty Images
Indonesian president visits bomb victims

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono talks to officials at a Jakarta hospital after visiting victims of a deadly hotel bombing.

Arif Ariadi/AFP/Getty Images

The deadly hotel bombings Friday in Jakarta raise concerns of a resurgence by a militant Islamist group that has been linked to previous attacks in Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines.

After Indonesia had enjoyed several years of relative calm, observers are asking who carried out the attack, and why it took place now.

Indonesian police say suicide bombers struck the J.W. Marriott hotel and the nearby Ritz-Carlton, both of which attract foreign businesspeople. The explosions, only minutes apart, killed at least eight people and wounded dozens more.

Indonesian authorities told reporters it was too early to conclude who is responsible. But suspicion immediately fell on a group called Jemaah Islamiyah, which has claimed responsibility for similar bombings in the past, including a 2003 explosion at the Marriott in Jakarta that left a dozen people dead.

Among other attacks, it claimed responsibility for the 2002 bombings of two nightclubs on the Indonesian island of Bali, which killed more than 200 people, most of them foreign tourists.

U.S. officials say the group also was involved in a thwarted 1995 plot to bomb eleven American passenger jets in Asia.

Wounded But Dangerous

Juan Zarate, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., says Jemaah Islamiyah has been substantially weakened in recent years, but it has members at large who are still capable of causing havoc.

"J.I. is a shadow of its former self," Zarate says. "Its links to the larger jihadi movement and especially to al-Qaida have largely been broken, but there are operatives out there who are still very dangerous."

Jemaah Islamiyah was once active across Southeast Asia. But in recent years, experts say, the Indonesian government and its counterterrorism squad, known as Detachment 88, have nearly dismantled Jemaah Islamiyah, killing or capturing many of its top operatives. The effort has gotten help from the U.S. and Australia.

Donald Emmerson, the director of the Southeast Asia Forum at Stanford University, says Jemaah Islamiyah was never a monolithic organization but that now it is even more fractured. "It's a hydra-headed beast right now," he says, but still a threat.

Connection To The Election?

Emmerson notes that there has already been a tendency to link the latest attacks to Indonesia's presidential election on July 8, won in a landslide by incumbent President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. But Emmerson says none of the candidates or their supporters would be likely to back suicide terrorism.

If there is a connection to the election, Zarate says, it may simply be as a "counterstatement" by extremists after a balloting process that was widely praised as a sign of the success of democracy and moderate Islam in Indonesia.

Zarate, a former top counterterrorism official in the Bush administration, says the attacks may also be an effort by Jemaah Islamiyah to reconnect with al-Qaida by demonstrating that it still has the power to strike.

After four years of peace, the bombings are likely to stir popular anger in Indonesia, Zarate says. "Will this allow the government to be even more aggressive in going after these kinds of groups?"

Emmerson points out that the latest attack primarily targeted foreigners. He says the 2003 attack on the Marriott drew a very negative public response, in part because it killed Indonesian bystanders. "If J.I. was behind this, the lesson appears to have been learned," he says.

Emmerson says Jemaah Islamiyah may be trying to focus on foreigners to reduce any public backlash against the violence by targeting "a hotel that is symbolic of foreign investment."

He adds that there is an added complication to any effort to find a clear motive for the attacks: "I frankly think that these are fanatics, deeply committed to some form of an Islamic state. At that level, if you believe in jihad so deeply, maybe reasonable explanations fall short of the mark."

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