Indonesia Bombings: Identifying The Suicide Attackers

ABC’s Margaret Conley reports from Jakarta where a pair of suicide bombers earlier this week attacked two American luxury hotels, killing eight people and wounding more than 50, including two Canadians.

Conley interviewed Sidney Jones, Senior Advisor for the Asia Program of the International Crisis Group. Here are some excerpts:

Margaret Conley: Do these attacks show that Indonesia had let down its guard? That these hotels in particular had become complacent? Sidney Jones: I don’t think so, I think the security was quite tight at these hotels, but what it suggests is that the team that carried out these bombings did a very careful surveillance in the weeks presumably before the attacks to find out where the weak points were and perhaps they decided that they had to have somebody inside the hotel because it does look as though one of the bombers had checked into the hotel on July 15th MC: Can you talk about some of the security at that hotel – outside vs inside? SJ: The Marriott hotel in particular had constructed what it thought was an almost fool-proof edifice after the attack that hit it by one of the main suspects in today’s bombing in August 2003. And they had cars being carefully checked, it was difficult to walk up to the hotel without also facing a battery of security guards. There were people at the entrance when you came in and there were lots of security people around the hotel but, as I say, in any of these cases some of the security had become proforma and in other cases it would have taken a very determined group of bombers to figure out even though it was fairly secure, where the weak points were. MC: Was there any warning that attacks of this nature might take place? SJ: I don’t know of any but I wouldn’t necessarily be aware if there were. The interesting things is that in the last week or so there has been intense police activity in the area called Chilichap on the border between Central Java and West Java and that’s where Noordin Top, one of the main suspects in today’s bombings was believed to have been living and the police thought that they had him within their grasp only , as usual, he alluded them but there may be some connection between the increased activity in Chilichap and the bombing today - there may have been some indication that there was activity afoot. MC: Can you talk about who might be behind these attacks? SJ: I think now that it’s been established that suicide bombers were involved the most likely suspect has to be Noordin Top who is a Malaysian fugitive, a member of JI, who has been in Indonesia since December 2001 and who was responsible the last Marriott attack in 2003 and also for the subsequent major attacks on the Australian Embassy and also the second Bali bombing in 2005. He’s the person that’s got a proven commitment to undertake this kind of violence, who was actively looking for new recruits, he even was able to try and mobilize a group by proxy last year in the Sumatran city of Palembang using a go-between actually from this same town I mentioned Chilichap where we’ve seen the police activity over the last few weeks and he was actively trying to cultivate new international contacts. So he’s got to be high on the list of possible suspects but in early bombings he has outsourced the actual field operations to other groups such as a Darulist Islam group in west java, not necessarily JI, even though he himself has a JI background. MC: Can you talk more about what his (Noordin’s) background is, where he got his training? SJ: Yes, he’s someone who was a graduate of a very well known technological institute in Malaysia. He joined JI around 1994, I think. He became the director of this school where Hambali lived and worked and he’s the person who in some ways took on Hambali’s role after Hambali was arrested in 2003, Hambali being the JI operative who had links with Al-Qaeda who is now in Guantanamo. So Noordin in some ways carries on the tradition of operating outside the JI structure that Hambali established and saw him very much as continuing that particular program. MC: He has had ties to Al-Qaeda, is it fair to say that? SJ: Noordin directly has not had direct contacts himself as far as we know but in the Marriott bombing he relied on funding from Al-Qaeda as arranged by Hambali so it’s possible that in the last few years he’s managed to establish contacts if not with Al-Qaeda at least with international figures but we don’t know that for a fact, that’s speculation. What’s interesting is that because this particular bombing seems to involve somebody staying at one of Indonesia’s most expensive hotels, it may turn out to be a more expensive operation that some of the bombings we’ve seen in the past, and that would suggest some source of outside funding. MC: What is the goal of these attacks and why target the JW Marriott and Ritz hotels? SJ: I think the only reason for targeting the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels was that they are international icons, it’s the same reason that the Marriott hotel was targeted in Pakistan, for example, or that it was targeted before in August 2003. That’s one possibility. Another possibility is simply that attacks in this area, at a hotel that had been previously attacked, was guaranteed to provide international coverage and international attention and it’s interesting that in 2005 there was a document found on the computer of Noordin Muhammad Top’s partner, Dr. Ashari which said the only two places worth bombing in Indonesia are Bali and Jakarta. Why? Because that’s guaranteed to get your international press coverage. MC: So the goal you think is publicity? SJ: Publicity, attacking an American, what’s seen as an American icon and proving that this group is still around and still able to inflict damage. That’s what I would guess the motivations were but we don’t know anything for sure until the, we get more evidence from the police. MC: Do you think it’s targeting Americans, specifically? SJ: If the attack was aimed at these hotels then I think that Americans or American and its lackeys, America and its lackeys, which is the usual phrase, might be targets but it’s also worth remembering that this is a place, or these two hotels are places where the Indonesian politically elite also gathers. It’s more likely to have been aimed at foreigners though. MC: It’s been several years since the last major attack in Indonesia – many were under the impression that terrorist elements here had been weakened by the arrests of key leaders. What then do today’s attacks signal about the state of terrorist networks here? SJ: I think it’s true that terrorist networks have been substantially weakened and I think it’s true that the Indonesian government has had major success in weakening the big name organizations, like Jemaah Islamiyah . . . and another that is a splinter of Darul Islam, also very much weakened and infiltrated, but it shows that there is still the possibility of groups immerging under the radar screen. And often we’ve seen cases where one of these fugitives from JI can make contact with a group that’s never previously been involved in violence, has no previous contact with these kinds of Jihadi groups but over time can bring them around to the cause and that’s what we may see operating today but we don’t know for sure. Everything is still a big question mark. MC: And another possibility is that a lot of these groups may have splintered off into other ones but they are still strong? SJ: Well, strong is always relative because it actually doesn’t take very much to pull together a team that can undertake a suicide bombing. It’s different if you’re planning not to have someone actually detonate himself but if you’ve got somebody willing to die in the operation, it can be cheap, it can be a relatively small number of people, and it can be relatively easily put together if you have the person willing to be the bomber. So it doesn’t necessarily suggest that groups are stronger than ever but it does suggest that in this case, a couple of ingredients came together at the right time – a leader, a bomber, and a group of operatives willing to work together at least for a temporary period. MC: What is the impact of these attacks? SJ: I don’t think we know yet. I think it’s too early to tell what the impact will be, but I’m not sure we’re going to see any major political impact. I think it will certainly increase attention to the counter terrorism program of the Indonesian police. I think if people were thinking about cutting back funding now that the problems seem to be under control, we may see a rise in that kind of assistance. I think there will be a lot of support for President Yudhoyono who has just been re-elected, especially as he confronts this challenge but I think it’s much too early to assess in any comprehensive way or any definitive way what the impact is. ****

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