Friday’s terrorist bombing of Jakarta’s JW-Marriott and Ritz-Carlton is truly a reminder not just to Indonesia, but to the world, that however well we may be preventing terrorist attacks, there is another team on the field.
Terrorists can adjust tactics, morph organizations, and strike in unexpected ways at unexpected times. Details are not yet sifted in Jakarta, but indications are that the July 17 attacks were the work of Al Qaeda-linked Southeast Asian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), or splinter groups thereof. Police are focused on the possibility that suicide bombers posed as guests at the hotels before finding the right time to detonate their explosives nearly simultaneously at two separate locations. The simultaneity, the Western targets, and precise execution are hallmarks of JI. This is the same JI tied to Jakarta bombings each year from 2002 to 2005 – the most devastating of which was the 2002 Bali attack that claimed 202 lives. This band of murderers attacks Western targets but indiscriminately kills men, women, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus – for the cause of establishing an Islamic caliphate over the diverse expanse of Southeast Asia.
Analysis of Indonesia just yesterday would have focused on how Indonesian authorities have hunted down and jailed hundreds of terrorists, killed some in pursuit, and executed three last year following a very high profile criminal trial. Unfortunately, the good guys have to be right 100% of the time, and the bad guys only once. It’s unfair, but it’s life. So even as Indonesians are given due credit for all they have done preventing an attack for four years, they should also carefully examine what went wrong with security measures and seek a better understanding of the domestic network that supports terrorism. The United States should provide any necessary resource to help.
In the broader sense, the US should continue with its counterterrorism assistance, continue to build closer military-to-military relations, help with education reform and economic development, and move expeditiously to sign the comprehensive partnership agreement with Indonesia proposed earlier this year. We should also be good friends and speak up about the threat from non-violent Islamist forces in Indonesia who have the same political goals as the violent kind. It is tempting in the wake of devastation such as this to lower the bar and accommodate any peaceful political force. Indonesia needs encouragement, and America should stand beside them in defense of the non-sectarian, democratic nature of their state against assault – both violent and non-violent.
Any long-time observer has heard the prognosis for political or economic disaster in Indonesia many times. Indonesia defines resiliency. It will get past the July 17 bombings just as it got past the others, just as it got past economic crisis and political upheaval in 1998. Before today, the world was beginning to think of Indonesia as a success story. Its economy was performing better than every economy in Southeast Asia, and it had just held its second free and fair direct national election. It had resumed its role as leader in Southeast Asia and was emerging as a global player with a values-based foreign policy and a seat at the G-20. It was on the cusp of a new era in US-Indonesian relations.
Indonesia is still on that trajectory. It is the most important country in Southeast Asia by size, strategic location, and democratic values. The good sense behind forging a closer US-Indonesia relationship is the same today as it was yesterday. If anything, the terrorist attacks should only strengthen American and Indonesian resolve to fully realize the enormous potential in their relationship.