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"Qaida in Indonesia?The Evidence Doesn't Support Worries"
Comment by Harold Crouch, IHT, 23 October 2001


Copyright International Herald Tribune

JAKARTA. Alarmist reports about Osama bin Laden's terrorist network in Indonesia have appeared in the international press. It is of course possible that some individuals have been recruited secretly by bin Laden's Qaida organization. It is probable that radical Islamic groups have received financial support from Qaida. But evidence is lacking to show that such links have decisively influenced their behavior.

There is speculation that bin Laden's agents may have helped to organize anti-American demonstrations after the U.S. attack on Afghanistan began. But it is hard to believe that Indonesia's radical Islamic organizations needed outside such assistance. Nor was Afghan intelligence needed to identify McDonald's as a suitable target.

Indonesia's two most prominent radical Islamic organizations, the Front to Defend Islam and the Laskar Jihad, were reported recently to have received money, men and arms from bin Laden's group and its allies, but no evidence was presented.

Founded in 1998, the Front until now has been occupied mainly with launching raids on bars, massage parlors, karaoke lounges and gambling dens in Jakarta. Many of its leaders are Indonesians of Arab descent and could perhaps be mistaken for foreign Arabs. On raids, white-robed members are usually armed with long sticks that are not normally used, as the patrons of these establishments usually make quick exits.

Police have never charged Front members with offenses arising from these raids, probably because the attacks remind proprietors of their vulnerability and therefore encourage them to provide protection money to the police.

The Front has now taken the lead in threatening to "sweep" Americans out of Indonesia. Yet its capacity to carry out its threats is very limited. Thus the activities of the group so far are not of the type which suggest that it has fallen under the control of a sophisticated international network.

Laskar Jihad's affiliation with the Qaida network must also be doubted, in view of the openly contemptuous attitude of its leader toward bin Laden, whom he accuses of rebellion against Saudi Arabia, a state which applies Islamic law. The group has vigorously condemned the U.S. attack on Afghanistan, but it has not been in the forefront of the current anti-American demonstrations.

Laskar Jihad was founded in early 2000 when Muslims were under Christian attack in parts of the Moluccan Islands. Several thousand Laskar Jihad fighters were sent to the Moluccas, where, backed by elements in the Indonesian military, they gained the upper hand over Christian forces. But in the last year, Laskar Jihad militants have been contained by firm military action, and the intensity of fighting has declined considerably.

It was reported recently that Arabs, Afghans or Pakistanis had been seen arriving in the Moluccas. In view of the leader's condemnation of bin Laden, it seems unlikely that they were sent by Qaida.

Other militant groups are also engaged in protesting against the United States and threatening to expel Americans and citizens of allied countries from Indonesia. Several have begun registering volunteers to be sent to Afghanistan.

Indonesia's radical Muslim organizations represent only a tiny proportion of the population of 210 million. Nevertheless, the outrage expressed by the radicals against the United States is widely shared by the moderate Muslim majority, as well as by secular groups. They accuse America of having double standards or fighting terrorism with terrorism.

This has created a dilemma for the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri. It has pledged to support international action against terrorism but does not want to be seen as supporting a U.S. attack on a Muslim country and the inevitable civilian casualties. Further, the government desperately needs U.S. assistance to restore an economy that has still not recovered from the 1997 financial crisis.

The current demonstrations, which have rarely involved more than a thousand demonstrators, are not in themselves a serious threat to the government. But in a context where Indonesia's democratic transformation is being accompanied by a crisis of lawlessness, it is feared that anti-foreign sentiment could prejudice prospects of economic recovery.

Little could do more harm to the government's efforts to persuade investors to return to Indonesia than attacks on Western property or isolated physical assaults on Westerners.

The writer, who directs the Indonesia Project of the International Crisis Group in Jakarta, contributed this comment to the International Herald Tribune.



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