Show us the evidence. That's what Indonesian officials have been saying ever since they were first accused of harboring militants with ties to al Qaeda, the group held responsible for the terror attacks in New York and Washington.
It's a refrain that has infuriated Singapore and the U.S., both of which say there is evidence aplenty. For example, U.S. officials say a videotape was recovered in Afghanistan in December linking Jemaah Islamiah, a group run by Indonesian Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir, with plans to attack U.S. Navy servicemen in Singapore. Moreover, say Singaporean authorities, 8 of the 13 Jemaah Islamiah members arrested as part of the same plot were trained at al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan. And yet, the Indonesians have continued to allow Ba'asyir and his supporters to operate with impunity.
Now, finally, there are signs that the government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri is taking the threat of Islamic militancy seriously. Despite a deep-seated fear of emboldening radical leaders and upsetting Megawati's delicate political balancing act, law-enforcement officials say they have been acting behind the scenes since January to root out al Qaeda operatives who are attempting to take refuge in the world's most populous Muslim nation.
In mid-February, Indonesian police arrested two foreign Muslims--one traveling on an Algerian passport and the other on a Kuwaiti passport--in the Maluccas. They were suspected of involvement in vigilante attacks on local Christians that have killed at least 5,000 people since January, 1999. Now, police are trying to establish whether the men have ties to al Qaeda--as did Mohammed Saad Iqbal Madni, an Egyptian traveling on a Pakistani passport who was arrested in Jakarta in early January. Identified by U.S. authorities as an al Qaeda operative who fled Afghanistan in November, Iqbal was flown to Egypt aboard a U.S. government plane on Jan. 11 without a hearing or legal process, says an Indonesian law-enforcement official. Western diplomats say they expect more such "renditions"--as opposed to extraditions, which require a legal process--to occur as Indonesian investigators continue to make progress.
In addition, Indonesian army officers are inspecting training camps where al Qaeda operatives have allegedly operated. And the government has begun drafting anti-terrorism legislation. Says coordinating Minister for Political & Security Affairs Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono: "We're ready to cooperate."
Why the sudden turnabout? Part of it is the result of arm-twisting from Washington. At the same time, the Indonesians are coming under increasing pressure from neighboring governments. At first, Jakarta brushed off criticism: Much of it emanated from Singapore, a city-state with which Indonesia is on uneasy terms because it has a Muslim minority that many Indonesians perceive as a mistreated underclass.
In February, Singapore Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew criticized Jakarta for allowing terrorists to roam free. While Jakarta responded diplomatically, Amien Rais, chairman of Indonesia's People's Consultative Assembly, blasted Lee as a "mouthpiece" of U.S. President George W. Bush. Indonesia has also ignored pressure from the Philippines, a mostly Christian country that has invited U.S. military advisers to help wipe out the militant Muslim kidnapping gang, Abu Sayyaf, which plagues its southern province of Mindanao.
Harder to ignore, however, is the terror-fighting example of Malaysia, a nation widely admired in the Islamic world because its affirmative action pro-grams have ensured that Muslims share the fruits of prosperity. And yet, since December, Malaysian police have rounded up 13 Islamic militants accused of involvement in a spate of bombings in Indonesia, as well as meeting secretly with al Qaeda operatives. Since then, the government of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has also ordered the closing of several "deviant" Islamic boarding schools and a martial-arts training camp.
Of course, Mahathir has his own agenda. He's using the war on terror to crack down on his political enemies, people who would dearly love to turn Malaysia into an Islamic state. Nonetheless, Mahathir has sufficient Islamic credentials to take action against homegrown militants without being seen as a traitor to his faith--and that makes him the ideal man to get the Indonesians themselves to crack down.
Earlier this month, Mahathir dispatched police officers to Jakarta. They presented Indonesian authorities with an intelligence dossier tracing Ba'asyir's rise through the Jemaah Islamiah organization and his ties to a militant group called Komando Jihad, which is fighting to carve out an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Indonesian police have told local newspapers they're studying the dossier. Even if Ba'asyir is not linked to al Qaeda, he delivers sermons at his schoolhouse in Solo, Central Java, describing bin Laden as a "true Muslim soldier"--suggesting that Ba'asyir is capable of stirring up trouble.
It won't be easy to duplicate Mahathir's crackdown. Indonesia is a sprawling archipelago of 220 million people, where lawlessless, communal violence, and widespread poverty reign--ideal conditions for terrorism to take root. Mahathir's is a tidy principality by contrast. Moreover, the longtime Malaysian leader maintains a tight grip on unrest through a powerful Internal Security Act that allows his government to detain people indefinitely without trial. In fact, both Malaysia and Singapore used their Internal Security Acts in December to hold 28 suspected militants. Indonesia had similar laws but tossed them out when democratic reforms took hold in 1999. Now, law-enforcement officials say Megawati's cabinet is drafting a new Anti-Terrorism Act that will restore such powers to the presidency.
Despite the progress the Indonesians are making, they continue to proceed cautiously. Yudhoyono is careful to point out that the search of a deserted camp in Central Sulawesi with supposed connections to al Qaeda turned up no conclusive evidence. Furthermore, he says, he hasn't seen sufficient evidence to prove that "international terrorism" exists in Indonesia. For example, he notes that Faturrahman al Ghozi, an Indonesian disciple of Ba'asyir now on trial in connection with a December, 2000, bomb attack that killed 18 people in Manila, was captured in the Philippines--not Indonesia. "There's no evidence he was operating here and [was] connected with al Qaeda," says Yudho-yono. "He was doing that in the Philippines." Western diplomats find such comments maddeningly disingenuous. "You wonder what the Indonesians mean by `evidence,"' says one. "It's as if they want the case handed to them on a platter."
Perhaps the three men arrested in Indonesia since January--the holders of the Algerian, Kuwaiti, and Pakistani passports--will provide Jakarta with the political cover to launch a tougher crackdown. That would certainly win Megawati friends in Washington.
By Michael Shari in Jakarta