Today’s deadly bombing attacks on two hotels in Jakarta—the Ritz-Carlton and the JW Marriott—are bitter reminders that when the global Islamic jihad sinks its roots into a country even the best counterterrorist campaign can never afford to reduce its vigilance. Indonesia was wracked by jihadist terror from 2002 until 2005. An al Qaeda affiliate, Jemaah Islamiyah, carried out a wave of bombings that targeted Westerners, especially Australians, but actually killed more Indonesian innocents than anyone else. It is too soon to say for certain if today’s attack is a JI operation but simultaneous attacks on Western hotels are a trademark modus operandi of the global jihad and al Qaeda.
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The ties between JI and al Qaeda were forged during the Afghan wars of the last century when a small number of radical Islamists from Indonesia traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan to join the jihad and train in al Qaeda’s camps along the border. The mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, developed especially close ties to some Indonesians. He even planned to use JI operatives in the so called second 9/11 wave, a plot to hijack jets to hit targets on the West Coast either simultaneously with September 11th attacks or shortly after.
Al Qaeda has publicly associated itself closely with JI and its previous wave of terror. Just last December, Ayman Zawahiri issued an audio message eulogizing three JI operatives executed for bombings in Bali in 2002. Zawahiri warned then that the jihad would strike again in Indonesia because Indonesia’s moderate government allegedly “protects the interests of the Crusaders and the Jews.” The message specifically warned Australians not to visit their Muslim neighbor.
Indonesia was often held up as a role model for how smart counterterrorism could defeat the terrorists.
Indonesia, with help from Australia and the U.S., fought a smart counterterrorist campaign against the JI after 2002. Intelligence cooperation in the region improved and Indonesia’s democracy demonstrated a strong alternative to the message of the jihadists. Indonesia was often held up as a role model for how smart CT could defeat the terrorists.
Today’s event does not detract from those efforts, but it reminds us that vigilance must be maintained at all times against al Qaeda’s affiliates and franchises. Even when they look defeated, as in Indonesia or in Saudi Arabia, they can recover and strike again.
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Bruce Riedel is a senior fellow at the Saban Center in the Brookings Institution. He chaired President Obama’s strategic review of Afghanistan and Pakistan last winter and is author of The Search for al Qaeda.