JAKARTA, Sept 7, 2006 (AFP) – The Bali bombings brought the horror of September 11 to Asia, but Indonesia took a different approach to the United States in tackling the Al-Qaeda threat which has met with considerable success.
The 2002 blasts on Indonesia’s palm-fringed island of Bali claimed the lives of 202 people, mostly western holidaymakers, in the bloodiest attack to follow the September 11, 2001 atrocities in the United States.
It opened a Southeast Asian front in the so-called "war on terror" by the United States and its allies, and put the spotlight on the world’s most populous Muslim nation, where politicians had denied a terror threat existed.
Indonesia surprised many observers by swiftly tracking down the main militants and putting them on trial.
In contrast, the United States has secured only one conviction over the September 11 bombings and has instead chosen to hold hundreds of terrorism suspects indefinitely without trial in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and other unknown locations.
In total, Indonesia has arrested and tried more than 30 militants from the Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah regional network. Three key bombers are on death row awaiting execution.
It was largely pressure from a sceptical public that forced Indonesia — then just emerging as a democracy in the wake of former dictator Suharto’s long rule — to use its justice system to pursue those responsible, analysts said.
"There was an awful lot of pressure from politicians. I don’t think they could have taken a harder line upfront," Jakarta-based security analyst Ken Conboy said.
The police had to convince a public — inclined to believe the attacks were the plot of anti-Islamic foreign governments, or that Indonesians were incapable of launching such a well-planned operation on their own — that the threat was real.
To do so, they allowed Amrozi, one of the key bombers, to speak to the media while in custody. His laughter and carefree demeanour outraged many relatives of the victims.
"They had a purpose: to show they hadn’t coerced a confession out of him. He willingly spoke and that changed a lot of minds in the country," Conboy told AFP.
"The way police handled the original arrests helped people realise that there was a terrorist network. They overcame their collective denial."
Working with counterparts from around the world, the government campaign erased the top layers of the organisation, leaving only lower level, ad hoc cells operational, Conboy said.
"You could basically count on one hand the real dangerous aggressor JI figures," he said, adding that these would include Malaysian fugitive Noordin Mohammad Top and Zulkaernan, both among Asia’s most wanted men.
Indonesian police also took a unique approach in dealing with terrorists after their arrests, said Sarlito Wirawan, a senior psychologist from the Universitas Indonesia who has worked with police on cases.
"After they are in detention, they are treated very humanely. Police chat with them, pray with them… They are not pressured under a barrage of questioning," he said.
"This approach has helped several of the suspects, if not change their views radically, at least make them more cooperative."
And due to tight family and friendship ties, just a few helpful suspects have been significant, he said.
"This has made it easy for the police. Once a suspect is caught it is relatively easy to follow the thread and catch the others," he added.
The Southeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group Sidney Jones outlined the distinct approach Indonesia employed to deal with the overall terror threat compared to the United States.
"I think the difference is that the Indonesians have been scrupulous about abiding by the rule of law," she said.
"That is, not engaging in wider spread arbitrary arrests, not holding people for long periods without charge, abiding by existing criminal procedural standards, bringing people to trial in trials fully open to the public and letting them go when they have served their sentences."
Indonesia largely did so unexpectedly, she said, after it was accused of not taking terrorism seriously.
"I think the way that Indonesia has handled terrorism after the first Bali bombing has pretty much silenced that criticism," she said, noting that the country was also only a young democracy.
"I don’t think anybody would have expected a country that had as bad a human rights record under Suharto and a problematic legal system would have done as well with handling terrorism cases."
But despite the successes, the threat of small-scale attacks persists in Indonesia, analysts warn.
"I think there probably will be another terrorist bombing, probably in the next couple of months, simply because some of these guys like Noordin Top, that’s all they do," Conboy predicted.
"Unless you catch them, that’s what they’re working towards. He’s not going to hang up his explosives vest and say he quits."