Before the horrific Bali bombing on Oct. 12, the government's response to Islamic extremism was cautious and hesitant. In contrast to the high-profile crackdowns on terrorist networks in Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines, President Megawati Sukarnoputri avoided moving openly against alleged terrorists or local extremists.
Some of her aides in the intelligence services warned about the risks in not confronting the extremists. But her political advisers feared that a crackdown would expose her to attack by Muslim politicians, starting with the vice president, Hamzah Haz.
Under steady pressure from foreign governments and Indonesian moderates, the government began to show signs of a more aggressive stance. In May it arrested Ja'afar Umar Thalib, leader of the Laskar Jihad militia, on charges of inciting religious violence. Next it arrested Omar Faruq, a senior Kuwaiti Al Qaeda operative, and turned him over to the United States.
Faruq's confession implicated Abubakar Ba'asyir in bombings in Jakarta. Ba'asyir is the spiritual guide of the Jemaah Islamiyah organization and is wanted by the authorities in Singapore for masterminding a terrorist plot there. The Faruq revelations increased the pressure on Jakarta to take action. In September, Indonesian authorities reopened the investigation of Ba'asyir's alleged involvement in a global terrorist network. Indonesia's moment of truth came with the Bali bombing, which left more than 180 dead and 300 wounded. Defense Minister Matori Jalil and other officials who had hitherto questioned the presence of Al Qaeda cells in Indonesia now asserted that the bombing had been carried out by Al Qaeda with the support of local collaborators.
On Oct. 15, Laskar Jihad announced that it had closed its headquarters and disbanded. The organization was not linked to the Bali terrorist attack and its leaders claimed that the decision to disband was voluntary and made before the bombing, but the move was widely seen as a sign of the less permissive post-Bali political climate. Megawati signed two emergency anti-terrorism decrees that empowered the authorities to arrest suspected terrorists and hold them without charges. The leaders of the two major Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, with a combined membership of 70 million, endorsed the new anti-terrorist measures. They cautioned against abuses, but dismissed concerns of radical groups that the new regulations could be used to prosecute them for their alleged links to international terrorists.
The authorities arrested Ba'asyir in a hospital in Solo and brought him to Jakarta for questioning. He is charged with masterminding terrorist bombings in Jakarta. Also arrested is Habib Rizieq Shihab, leader of the Islamic Defenders' Front, a group that specialized in violent raids on nightclubs in Jakarta and other places.
Ba'asyir's arrest was criticized by some Muslim leaders, who said the government was bowing to foreign pressure. But leading Muslim moderates supported the government.
The qualified support of moderate Muslims presents the government with an opportunity to cut the knot that has tied its hands in responding to the extremists' challenge. If her government is able to hold the course and rally moderate public opinion against what, after all, is a threat to Indonesia's survival as a modern and inclusive state, this could mean defeat of the "jihad project" - the radicals' attempt to foster religious strife to undermine Indonesia's secular institutions and establish an Islamic state.
A retreat by the government from its apparent resolve to stamp out religious violence and terrorism would indicate impotence and encourage even greater violence. A slide into communal violence and chaos would then be hard to prevent. The international community should provide the material and technical help that Indonesia needs to play an effective part in the war on terrorism. The writer, a senior policy analyst and Indonesia specialist at the Rand Corporation, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.
This commentary originally appeared in International Herald Tribune on October 31, 2002.