The recent horrific bombing on Bali demonstrates that terrorism represents a real threat to Indonesia. Before the investigation into the bombing even began, however the Bush administration and some Indonesian officials immediately identified al Qaeda as the culprit, acting either alone or in collaboration with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI, Islamic community), the name attached to a network of militant Islamists associated with a religious boarding school in central Java, some of whom are also members of the executive committee of the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI, Indonesian Mujahidin Council). Such a rush to judgment in the absence of evidence is not an inspiring first step in the process of catching the criminals responsible for this atrocity.

No group has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing. It is possible that al Qaeda is responsible, or the network of individuals often referred to as JI, or someone else. Omar al Faruq, a Kuwaiti alleged to be part of al Qaeda was arrested in Indonesia in June and sent to the United States for questioning has since claimed to have been involved in a series of bombings in Jakarta in December 2000. But if al Qaeda was responsible, why not attack a symbol of U.S. commercial or political power? There are other indications that the bombing might have been an organization more concerned with making a political statement directed at the Indonesian government. First is the choice of the target: an attack on Bali strikes at the core of the Indonesian tourist market. An overwhelming number of victims were Australian, which would have been known to the perpetrators. Some Indonesians still resent Australia's role in facilitating East Timor's independence from Indonesia. Another possibly significant point is that Indonesian President Megawati's mother is from Bali.

What is not in dispute is that Indonesia has a problem and the government appears unable to move decisively and effectively to deal with it. Furthermore, there is no evidence that terrorism or terrorists have widespread popular support, even among Islamist organizations. Indonesia's largest Islamist organizations came out immediately to denounce the attacks and have been supportive of efforts to crack down on violent Islamist groups.

While the most immediate fallout of the bombings will be economic, at least as dangerous is the possibility is that the halting and uneven steps taken towards political reform and consolidating fragile democratic institutions in Indonesia could be derailed by an overly militarized and repressive response to the bombings. Such a response would include an expanded role for the military in counter-terrorism efforts, passage of anti-terrorist legislation lacking protections for basic rights, and a broader crackdown on political dissent.

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