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Indonesia's Perilous Denial

October 15, 2002

Indonesia has long been willing to unleash security forces to fight separatist movements, but it has ignored the danger from radical Muslim groups inside its borders. A deadly weekend bombing that killed perhaps 200 young and mostly foreign clubgoers on the island of Bali should finally force Indonesia to unblinker itself and sign on to the war against terrorism.

Indonesia's defense minister said Monday that the Bali explosion was "linked to Al Qaeda" and to "local terrorists." Those are reasonable assumptions, although no group claimed responsibility for the car-bombing Saturday outside a popular Bali nightspot. Most of the victims were tourists, drawn to Bali by its splendid beaches, good surfing and inexpensive hotels. Until last weekend, it also had a reputation for peace and safety.

U.S. and Asian officials said Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda had established cells in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, even before 9/11. After those attacks, the sprawling archipelago became a still more tempting sanctuary for Islamic radicals fleeing Afghanistan.

The government of Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri is weak, and law enforcement often is ineffective, especially where local police and soldiers sympathize with Muslim radicals. The government's excuse that it lacks laws to crack down on terrorism is feeble but politically convenient.

Of particular concern is the Jemaah Islamiah group and its leader, Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. Although Bashir denied responsibility for the Bali attack, officials in nearby Singapore said last month that Jemaah Islamiah cells in their island nation had conducted surveillance of numerous potential targets, including the U.S. Embassy, which they planned to blow up with truck bombs.

Singapore, Malaysia and the United States had warned Indonesia of the threat from Bashir's group, but Jakarta has taken a hands-off attitude for fear of antagonizing Muslim fundamentalists. Singapore officials say Jemaah Islamiah is the core of an alliance of extremists planning terror attacks to achieve an Islamic state spanning Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of the Philippines and Thailand.

The effect of the terror was evident Monday. The U.S. Embassy ordered nonessential personnel to leave the country, and tourists fled Bali, which will certainly be economically devastated by the exodus. Australian and U.S. investigators flew to the island; Megawati's government should coordinate their efforts with its own.

After decades of repressive military-backed rule and appalling human rights violations, Indonesia has been moving toward democracy. It can balance a war on terrorism and respect for individual rights. But it cannot look the other way while Al Qaeda and affiliated groups entrench. That echoes Afghanistan, risking similar results unless the government wakes up.

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