April 3, 2002

April 3, 2002 | Commentary on Asia

Another Afghanistan?

Welcome to "Name That Country." Here are your clues:
  • It's "the weakest link" when it comes to combating terrorism in Southeast Asia, according to a government official in Malaysia.
  • It's "a big disappointment" in the terrorism war, says a U.S. official. "There is a lot of basic stuff … that they've promised to do, but they're not."
  • It's home to "nests of al Qaeda-trained operatives" and remains a place where "the masterminds are still at large," adds Singapore's senior minister, Lee Kuan Yew.

The answer: Indonesia. And its foot-dragging cooperation in the war on terrorism is angering U.S. officials.

There's plenty to be mad about. Examples include the fact that Malaysian and Singaporean diplomats have provided Indonesian officials with evidence suggesting that the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiah operates cells in Indonesia -- yet authorities there haven't arrested any of the group's suspected members.

Then there's the fact that Indonesia's vice president was photographed several months ago embracing a known terrorist leader. And the fact that an Indonesian cleric known to have founded a terrorism group with connections to al Qaeda was released after questioning, despite being wanted in Malaysia for terrorist activities.

Indonesia has built a reputation as a refuge for terrorists fleeing U.S. wrath. With its 14,000 islands, its weak, corrupt central government, and its status as the most populous Muslim country on earth, it likely would be a destination for terrorists under any circumstances. But President Megawati Suhartoputri hasn't done much to make Indonesia less attractive to those trying to regroup for future attacks on Western "infidels."

Supporters of Megawati say she's in a bind. She depends on a coalition of Muslim political parties (some quite radical) for the political support she needs to govern, they say. Those parties and her large Muslim population -- 85 percent of the country's 210 million people -- won't accept her helping the U.S. crackdown on Islamic terrorists, the argument goes.

Megawati needs to check her political math. She'll endure far more problems from the coalition of Muslim parties because she's a woman in what they perceive as a man's job than she will by cooperating in the war on terror, experts say. The overwhelming majority of the Muslims in Indonesia practice a traditional, moderate brand of the religion and want nothing to do with terrorism.

Her political opponents may want to make Megawati worry about looking like an American puppet, but the notion she must tap dance around terrorists to appease the partners in her governing coalition is simply wrong. And the issue is critical. With its unsecure borders and ungoverned islands, Indonesia, or at least parts of it, could come to provide for terrorists there what Afghanistan provided for al Qaeda: a safe place in which to amass arms, plan attacks on the West, and recruit and train members.

It's not that the Megawati government has done nothing. Indonesia's security service recently snatched a suspected terrorist and delivered him to a U.S.-chartered plane that flew him to Egypt to stand trial for terrorist activities.

But others, including Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, remain at large. The United States and Singapore refer to Hambali, 37, as Southeast Asia "operations director" for al Qaeda and insist he directed a plan to blow up Western missions, including the U.S. Embassy, as well as several U.S. Navy ships in Singapore.

Americans also want Indonesia to hunt down Jaffar Umar Thalib, the Muslim cleric photographed embracing Vice President Hamzah Haz. Jaffar commands Laskar Jihad, a Muslin paramilitary group known for its fanaticism and brutality.

Jaffar, who considers the United States "the biggest enemy of the Islamic people" and accuses America of inciting Christians and Jews to join together to eliminate Islam, wants Indonesia governed by clerics who hew to the hard line practiced by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Yet he's allowed to operate with impunity.

President Bush has said that other nations have two choices in the war on terrorism: They're with us or they're against us. It's not asking too much of President Megawati that she make clear which side she's on.

Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.

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