Remembering Bali, Southeast Asia’s 9/11

Maria A. Ressa
When the explosions happened a decade ago, the Indonesian police had the names of every single one of the Bali plotters. Government denial and political gamesmanship – courting moderate Muslims by ignoring extremists – prevented action.

Ten years ago on October 12, one of the Bali plotters, along with Southeast Asia’s first two suicide bombers, Jimi and Arnasan, drove a van packed with 1.2 tons of black powder connected to a cable detonator with PETN explosives. It had 94 detonators that each had 3 grams of plastic explosive RDX and a booster that contained TNT.  The detonators had been brought to Indonesia from the Philippines.  

A few days earlier, the plotters discovered that Arnasan, who was supposed to drive the van, could drive only a short distance in a straight line. He didn’t know how to shift gears or turn corners! So a driver was assigned, and once they got to the junction, Jimi, the first suicide bomber got out and went to his target, Paddy’s Bar. Arnasan took over the driver’s wheel. He could see the Sari Club in front of him.  

At 11:08 pm, Jimi killed himself and detonated his vest bomb in the middle of Paddy’s Bar.  That smaller explosion was designed to funnel people to the exit, closer to Arnasan, who drove his van and detonated its explosives in the Sari Club.

It was Southeast Asia’s – and Australia’s – 9/11. The 2002 bombing was Asia’s largest and deadliest terrorist attack, the blast so fierce it ruptured the internal organs of the people in the area.  Its strength surprised even the bombmakers.  The fires that followed burned others alive.  The roofs of surrounding buildings were made of thatched material, which magnified the explosions, tearing down a whole city block.
202 people died that night, 88 of them Australians. Al-Qaeda helped fund and took responsibility for Bali, which triggered a regional dragnet and added Jemaah Islamiyah or JI to the list of global jihadi groups targeted by law enforcement.  

In a November 2002 speech, Osama bin Laden included Bali in a list of attacks against Western targets carried out by “the zealous sons of Islam in defence of their religion and in response to the order of their God and prophet.”  

Waves of evolution

Like al-Qaeda and 9/11, the Bali attacks marked JI’s peak of power and influence as an organized core group.

There are 3 waves of evolution for Islamist terrorism in Indonesia: first, the nationalist movement for an Islamic state – the Darul Islam movement from 1948 to 1992; second, the global jihad – when JI was infected with the jihadi virus from al-Qaeda and in turn infected regional groups, acting as an umbrella organization for regional terrorist attacks from 1993 to 2005; third, the JI social movement, with the jihadi virus completely transforming the old Darul Islam movement.

These 3 waves represented cycles of regeneration of the same social network, and while JI is now largely degraded, it has evolved. On Sept 17, 2008, JI’s founder and emir, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir launched Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT). He essentially took his supporters and gutted most of MMI, its overt arm lobbying for Islamic sharia law in Indonesia. JAT, according to counterterrorism officials, was JI’s self-regeneration.

“JAT is the new camouflage of JI,” said Ansyaad Mbai, the chief of Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT). “It has the same leader, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, and most of the key figures of JAT are also JI so I call this the new jacket of JI.”

In the past decade, Indonesia has arrested more than 700 militants, including 84 last year.  About 600 have been prosecuted in court. Today, authorities have successfully prevented more Bali attacks. With each succeeding year, the attacks and the blasts have grown smaller, a sign of attrition and victory for Indonesian authorities. Still, the threat remains.

Ten years later, Indonesia hikes its security alert to its highest level because of “terrorist movements.” More than 2,000 police and military units, including snipers, were stationed to guard the memorial in Bali.

“The loss is not just giving us grief, it is also giving us the strength to fight terrorism and all other extremist activities,” said Bali Governor I. Made Mangku Pastika, the former police chief who led the investigations a decade ago.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard along with John Howard, who was Australian premier 10 years ago, came to Bali to mark the event, which began a wave of violence by Jemaah Islamiyah, al-Qaeda’s arm in Southeast Asia.

“On September 11, terrorists attacked the great symbols of American prestige. Here in Bali, they attacked our people and, through them, sought to overwhelm our values,” Gillard said. “Here on these bustling streets, they inflicted searing pain and grief that will never end.  But even as the debris fell, it was obvious the attack on our sense of ourselves – as Australians, as human beings – had failed.”  

Reporting on Bali changed the way I looked at the world. Until today, I believe Bali could have been prevented if authorities paid attention to the signs along the way. When the explosions happened a decade ago, the Indonesian police already had the names of every single one of the Bali plotters. Government denial and political gamesmanship – courting moderate Muslims by ignoring extremists – prevented action.

This is part of the reason I cannot look away. I remember Bali. –

Maria A. Ressa is Rappler’s CEO and executive editor.  She is the author of 2 books on terrorism in Southeast Asia: “Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia” and “10 Days, 10 Years: FROM BIN LADEN TO FACEBOOK.”

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Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for nearly 35 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.