Singapore, Oct. 13 (Reuters): With hindsight, the warning signs of this weekend’s devastating bomb blasts in Bali were clear for all to see.
An American soldier killed in a Philippines bomb blast; a grenade outside the US embassy in Jakarta; a suspected terror cell broken up in Italy; an attack on US Marines in Kuwait.
Join the dots and it becomes clear that either the al Qaida network of Osama bin Laden is still highly active more than a year after the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington or it has spawned copycats able to strike with deadly effect.
And even before bombs ripped through packed nightspots on the tranquil tourist island of Bali last night, Southeast Asia was already firmly in their sights.
“This should not come as a surprise. The biggest surprise is that it’s taken so long to target Western interests,” said Andrew Tan, researcher at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies in Singapore. “We should expect more attacks,” he said. “This will be just the beginning of what we have seen so many times in other Muslim countries in the Middle East.”
Not only the US but regional neighbours as well have long viewed Indonesia as a weak link in the fight to prevent extremist attacks in Southeast Asia. Malaysia and Singapore have been particularly vocal in urging Indonesia to take action, suggesting Jakarta begin by tackling the Jemaah Islamiah group — which is believed to want to set up an Islamic state in Southeast Asia — and its alleged leader, Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.
Bashir himself spoke with fighting words only last week. “I defend Islam. Now it is up to the Indonesian government, police and people to also defend Islam, or to choose to defend America,” he was quoted as saying in Jakarta on Thursday.
With no immediate claim of responsibility for the Bali bombs and the inferno that engulfed the Sari nightspot, pinning the blame on Muslim extremists risks ignoring other suspects in the volatile Indonesian archipelago.
“There are lingering doubts about the causes of the explosions but I have to say at the moment the balance of the evidence appears to point in the direction of terrorism,” Michael McKinley, a lecturer in international politics at Australian National University, told Sky Australia television.
The strike could be aimed at destabilising Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri, he said. The President has a tentative grip on power as a woman in the world’s most populous Muslim country and is opposed even by the Speaker of Parliament.
McKinley and other analysts agree the most likely perpetrator is a group linked to or inspired by bin Laden’s al Qaida.
“There is no doubt that we all underestimated the extent to which militant organisations cooperate in Southeast Asia,” Alan Dupont, fellow of the Strategic and Defense Study Center at the Australia National University, said in an interview just before the Bali bombs.
“Al Qaida cells are popping up like mushrooms...,” he said, citing, among others, planned attacks on Singapore that were thwarted last December.
Al Qaida operatives have trained members of the radical Abu Sayyaf group, which spreads violence in the southern Philippines and is named after an Afghan mujahideen warrior leader of the anti-Soviet war days.
In June, the US took into custody an Arab, Omar al-Faruq, who was held in Indonesia on suspicion of being a senior al Qaida operative. At least one other leader, an Indonesian known as Hambali, is at large and the US fears he could be a moving force behind any strike. “This is a very significant development because Bali has been one place spared the violence in the rest of Indonesia,” said Tan.
Until now, mainly Hindu Bali with its luxury resorts and picture-postcard beaches has seemed like another world, escaping the religious and political violence that periodically erupts across the predominantly Muslim archipelago.
“It (the attack) coincides with reports that al Qaida has decentralised to leave local radical groups to take on the Americans,” Tan said. “Given the current situation within al Qaida, this seems to be their modus operandi. It may well be that local radicals have decided to take advantage of the situation.”
McKinley echoed the view that al Qaida is happy to leave radical offshoots, or extremist groups whose only connection is a convergence of views, to carry the torch while bin Laden and other leaders are pinned down by a manhunt around Afghanistan.
“It could quite possibly be some of these very small groups who are known to be highly dedicated and they might have been able to coordinate this sort of attack,” said McKinley.
The violence is not limited to Southeast Asia.
An explosion ripped through a French supertanker off Yemen last Sunday. Reports have differed over whether the ship came under attack or was the victim of an accident. After a US Marine was killed and another wounded in Kuwait last week, a local al Qaida-style ring was under investigation.
Last April, on the Tunisian resort island of Djerba, a Tunisian identified as Nizar Naouar is believed to have blown up a gas truck near the historic Ghriba synagogue, killing 18 people including many German tourists.
But the scale of the Bali destruction on the second anniversary of the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen, the huge death toll and the clear targeting of Westerners mean the bombing is unprecedented in a region known for death and disaster.
The damage, possibly like the September 11 attacks on a scale unforeseen even by the bombers, may serve to motivate others.
About half the wanted Jemaah Islamiah activists in Singapore remain on the run; the disappearance of Indonesia’s Hamdali leaves a leader on the loose; and four tonnes of ammonium nitrate — the agricultural chemical used in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — is missing from Malaysia.
That is a lethal cocktail even before any US war on Iraq, which is certain to arouse ire in Indonesia, as did the US campaign against the Taliban.
“It is a matter of time. They will keep trying,” said Tan.