View Full Version : Southeast Asia's New Corps of Suicide Bombers

08-16-03, 04:54 AM
By Ellen Nakashima and Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 16, 2003; Page A14

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- The bombing of a hotel in Jakarta last week, along with the deadly blasts last year on the resort island of Bali, suggest a regional terrorist network connected to al Qaeda has developed a cadre of Southeast Asian foot soldiers fanatical enough to die in suicide bombings, analysts say.

The group suspected in the attacks, Jemaah Islamiah, has matured since its creation about a decade ago, and now includes 300 to 400 trained militants and a core of senior operatives who have worked with one another for years, according to analysts. And despite dozens of recent arrests, the group is believed to be planning more attacks.

Just two years ago, at a meeting of Islamic militants in Malaysia, an Indonesian cleric reportedly got no response from Southeast Asians when he asked for volunteers to undertake a suicide mission. Only one man, an Arab, stepped forward. And when plans were made that year for a suicide attack in Manila, no Southeast Asians were put on the roster.

The two accounts, taken from summaries of interrogation reports and interviews with analysts familiar with intelligence briefings, underscore how reluctant Southeast Asians were to follow the example of Middle Eastern Arabs and South Asians in carrying out suicide bombings.

But last week's brazen lunchtime attack on a crowded restaurant at the American-run JW Marriott Hotel in downtown Jakarta, which killed 12 people, was the work of a 28-year-old Indonesian suicide bomber, a senior Indonesian security official said. Last October, an Indonesian militant blew himself up in a nightclub in Bali as part of an attack that killed 202 people, mostly Western and Australian tourists, including seven Americans.

After its creation about a decade ago, Jemaah Islamiah spent seven years or so developing its network, recruiting and training people, setting up front companies to finance its activities and serving as a "back office" for al Qaeda, according to Zachary Abuza, a professor at Simmons College in Boston and author of a forthcoming book on militant Islam in Southeast Asia.

Only when the group had enough trained militants did it undertake attacks in its own right, most notably in December 2000 with a string of church bombings in Indonesia and a series of bombings in metro Manila, which killed 41 people. By last October, it had developed the capacity to launch a major attack in Bali. Despite dozens of arrests connected to those bombings, Jemaah Islamiah continued to try to mount attacks, analysts and intelligence agents say.

Abuza said that in the Marriott case, it appears that the militants refined their tactics even more, using a suicide bomber to hit a Western business symbol. At least seven U.S. oil companies, including Halliburton, Exxon Mobil and Unocal, are apparently among targets they have considered; their names were on two lists recovered by police last month, as the Los Angeles Times first reported.

"If you attack the Marriott, then you go after some of the big multinationals, you're really going to hurt the Indonesian economy," Abuza said. "That's the goal, to maximize political and economic chaos."

"Suicide bombings are a new development in Jemaah Islamiah activities," said Umar Abduh, a former member of Darul Islam, a precursor organization to Jemaah Islamiah. "When I was in the movement, we never had that concept. But what we did have is the understanding that we will face death in our struggle."

Police say that Jemaah Islamiah has formed a special force group called Laskar Khos or Unit Khos, capable of carrying out assassinations and bombings and including members willing to die as suicide bombers. The group initially reported directly to Abubakar Baasyir, the spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiah who was arrested last fall -- bypassing the command structure of individual cells across Southeast Asia.

"There were at least a dozen suicide bombers recruited, and perhaps several dozen," said Sidney Jones, Indonesia program director of International Crisis Group, a research and advocacy organization. She said another Jemaah Islamiah leader, Zulkarnain, who is sought in connection with the Bali bombings, led the special force.

The unit emerged as early as 2000 in Poso, on the island of Sulawesi, one of two major zones of conflict between Indonesia's Muslims and Christians, according to Mahendradatta, a lawyer defending Islamic militants. The other major conflict zone was Ambon, in the Moluccas. Al Qaeda operatives have visited Ambon, and videos of the combat there have been used to recruit for Jemaah Islamiah.

Well before Bali, the group was plotting suicide attacks against Western targets such as the U.S. Embassy and oil companies, according to interrogations of militants. But these plots, all frustrated by arrests in 2001 and 2002, were to be carried out by Middle Eastern Arabs. Southeast Asians would do the prep work: target surveillance, explosives purchasing, bomb construction.

Gradually, the resistance to suicides has melted, analysts said.

"It's a combination of the video images of Palestinian suicide bombers and the elements of radical teachings involved with the jihads in both Ambon and Poso that changed the climate here," Jones said.

By last November, the signs that there were new foot soldiers were becoming clearer. According to Abuza, two suspected militants arrested in Malaysia told police they were among six men recruited for suicide missions by Hambali, the Indonesian cleric who was captured this week in Thailand. The network has also shown an ability to adapt. When plots aimed at "hard" Western targets such as U.S. embassies and shipyards were foiled, the group moved to "soft" targets such as the Bali nightclubs, a change in strategy attributed to Hambali.