The Bali Bombings: Looking for Explanations

The Bali Bombings: Looking for Explanations

E-Brief: Online Only issued 14 October 2002

Dr Stephen Sherlock, Analysis and Policy
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group

One of the first issues raised by the bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002 is the question of who was the perpetrator. Suspicion has immediately fallen on organisations within Indonesia which, it is claimed, have links to Al Qaeda. While the Australian Government s position is only that the bombings were clearly a terrorist attack, the United States Government has declared that an Al Qaeda linked group is responsible.

The fact that the Bali bombings were such large explosions and that they occurred in an area that had previously been free of violence does suggest that a relatively large and well-resourced organisation from outside the province is responsible. This points to Al Qaeda. It is important however, to consider the many complications that may muddy an apparently clear answer. There have been a large number of bombings and other violent incidents in Indonesia in recent years, and it is possible that the Bali events may be interconnected with these developments.

Firstly, there have been repeated incidents of attacks on nightspots such as bars and massage parlours in Jakarta and other cities by Islamic groups which see these places as centres of vice which must be eliminated. The group with the heaviest reputation for these activities is the Islamic Defenders Front (Fron Pembela Islam).

Secondly, while many of these attacks have been the work of groups with genuine Islamic credentials, renegade elements from these groups and others operating under the guise of Islam have perpetrated attacks for mainly criminal reasons, mainly to extort money from the owners. This phenomenon has also become intermingled with turf wars and other conflicts between rival organised criminal groups for the control of drugs, prostitution and other lucrative activities. For example, a number of discos have been fire-bombed in Jakarta in the last year.

More seriously, some bombings and other violent incidents have been linked into a complex web of political and criminal motivations, allegedly involving the police and the military themselves. These include:

  • Factions within the military opposed to reform, in particular efforts to prosecute individuals from the New Order regime. A bomb explosion that killed more than 10 people at the Jakarta Stock Exchange building in central Jakarta in September 2000 was linked to elements supporting the disgraced son of former President Soeharto. Investigations suggested that the materials involved could only have come from military supplies. There have been suggestions that rogue members of the military may be connected with the Bali bombing, motivated by a desire to undermine President Megawati Sukarnoputri.
  • The military in regions of internal conflict in Indonesia, such as Aceh, Papua and Maluku (Ambon), where different elements of the security forces have become involved in a partisan way in the conflict or have acted in such a way to suggest that they are deliberately fomenting violence. Many explosions, such as the one at an Acehnese hostel in Jakarta in 2001, are not satisfactorily explained but have connections with the disparate conflicts occurring in Indonesia today.
  • Elements within the security forces have also been linked with organised criminal activities such as smuggling, illegal logging, extortion and the drugs trade. Some of these have taken place in the regions of conflict mentioned above where the military and police use these activities to finance security operations as well to enrich individual officers. The functional separation of the police from the military has lead to turf wars between the two organisations for the control of illegal activities. Early in October 2002, a unit of the military involved in a fight over control of the illegal drugs trade in North Sumatra attacked a local police station and killed eight police.

Two particular features of the complex situation in Indonesia militate against easy explanations for violent incidents.

The first is that while terrorist attacks, internationally, are usually quickly acknowledged by the perpetrators in order to gain profile and political advantage, those behind bombings in Indonesia have rarely claimed responsibility. This tends to breed competing, ever more complex theories and explanations.

The second, related feature is that the various sources of conflict, political, criminal and personal, tend to become intertwined in a way that makes simple answers about motives and perpetrators very difficult to discern. Thus, while one group may, for example, plant a bomb using material obtained from the military, it may attempt to have blame shifted to another group while expecting that a third element, their real target, will understand the actual motive. The bombing of the Jakarta Stock Exchange is an example of the complexities of determining ultimate responsibility.

In conclusion, there is strong evidence suggesting that the Bali bombings were perpetrated by a well-organised group from outside the province, possibly with Al Qaeda or other international connections. But investigators may well find that understanding this attack is complicated by a range of complex forces and motivations. The lack of unequivocal evidence adds to the uncertainty created by such acts and increases the difficulty of ensuring that they are not repeated.

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