Thu, 25 Dec 2003

2003: A year of living in fear of terror

Kanis Dursin, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

Ever since his wife told him in early November that she had to go home to Hong Kong to attend her younger sister's wedding, James had been restless.

Fears of terrorist attacks similar to that of Sept. 11, 2001, when a band of cold-blooded killers hijacked commercial airlines in the United States and plunged them into the twin towers of the World Trade Center (WTC) in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, taking over 3,000 innocent lives with them, overwhelmed James, a researcher working as a consultant here.

"I have spent many sleepless nights, thinking what might happen to my wife's plane. I shared my feelings and fears with her, but she told me to leave it all to God," he said.

Putting faith aside, James booked three return tickets with one of Asia's arguably safest airlines -- one for his wife and two for his daughters, a three-and-a-half-year-old and an infant of 21 months.

"I don't mind paying more if it means safety for my wife and daughters," said James, who had put up with the relatively high ticket prices just to ease a little of his fears.

Come Dec. 14, the date of their departure, James drove his wife and daughters to Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, checked in for them and obtained fiscal-free clearance for his two daughters while paying the whopping Rp 1 million (US$115) fiscal for his wife.

When it was time for his wife and daughters to go to the boarding gate, James tried hard to hold his composure, waving good-bye to his family with teary eyes until they disappeared into the immigration hall.

But James did not leave the airport immediately. Telling his two nephews and maids -- who accompanied him to the airport -- to wait, James stayed until his family's connecting flight to Singapore took off.

For the next one-and-a-half hours, James anxiously waited for the departure of the flight scheduled for 12:25 p.m. Although there were many vacant seats in the departure terminal, James did not want to sit down. He paced to and fro, his right hand grasping a cellular phone. When the plane carrying his family to Singapore finally took off, James, his nephews and maids rushed to the car in the parking lot. There, before driving home, he called a sister-in-law to let her know that his wife and daughters had taken off for Singapore en route to Hong Kong, instructing her to fetch them at the Hong Kong airport.

James went home anxious about what might happen to his wife and daughters, and felt relief only later that evening when he talked to his wife, who told him that they had arrived safe and sound in Hong Kong.

Such is the impact of the series of terrorist attacks that have continued to plague the world in the past three years. Call it cowardice or paranoia if you want, but terrorist attacks have changed the way people around the globe interact with each other.

Trust has been replaced by suspicion, as fear takes control of mankind.

The New York and Washington terrorist attacks, the Bali bombings, the JW Marriott Hotel attack, the residential bomb explosions in Saudi Arabia and the recent terrorist attacks in Turkey have one and the same message -- there is no place on earth that can still be considered safe.

The World Trade Center was a symbol of America's economic power and the Pentagon, its military might. Both, however, were helpless in the face of a group of poorly equipped terrorists out to create maximum damage with minimum means. Over 3,000 people perished, most without a trace, when the criminals turned commercial planes into deadly missiles and plunged them into the twin towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

Bali, the country's prime tourist destination, was considered the safest place in Indonesia and even in Asia until powerful explosions ripped through two popular nightclubs in Kuta, Denpasar, killing over 200 innocent vacationers and injuring some 300 others, mostly foreigners.

Air travel, even short-distance flights, is now becoming a nightmare not because of below-par services but because of fears that the Sept. 11 attacks have inspired other zealots to follow in the footsteps of the bloody killers.

Shopping is no longer as leisurely as it used to be, hanging out in cafes and restaurants has become a risky venture and going to a bank has become a risky business. Even sleeping in a heavily guarded residence now implies resignation to a bloody, violent death. Fears of terrorist attacks have overwhelmed the universe, with world leaders struggling to find the solution.

The fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the trials and death sentences handed down to masterminds of the Bali bombings, the arrest of dozens of suspects in the Marriott attack, as well as the confiscation in September of a huge amount of explosives in Central Java are welcome developments, but are inadequate to assuage fears among hundreds of millions -- or perhaps billions -- of people in Indonesia and around the globe of possible terrorist attacks.

Much of the terror-related fears among Indonesians find their roots in the fact that authorities -- the government, police, the Indonesian Military (TNI) and even the country's National Intelligence Agency (BIN) -- are not prepared to face, or are simply incapable of tracking and cracking down on terrorists.

One disturbing question often raised by the people after the Bali bombings and especially after the Marriott attack is this: Why did the police and military fail to detect and anticipate the attacks? Are those crooked bloody killers such geniuses that even the sharpest and most well-trained intelligence officers cannot foresee their movements?

The Bali bombings took place after series of warnings from neighboring and friendly countries like Singapore, the Philippines, Australia and even the United States that terrorists were imminent in Indonesia.

The attack on the Marriott hotel in South Jakarta on Aug. 5, 2003, also came after reports that terrorists were about to strike again in the country, including in the capital, Jakarta.

Kudos to the National Police, who have successfully tracked down some of the killers of the Bali bombings. Over 30 people, including key masterminds Amrozi, Imam Samudra and Mukhlas were arrested in East Java, West Java and East Kalimantan, respectively. Most have been tried and three have been sentenced to death, while others received long jail sentences, including life imprisonment.

Praise must also go to the National Police for their arrest of suspected masterminds of the JW Marriott Hotel attack that killed at least 14 people, including the suicide bomber. The dossiers of these suspects are mostly complete and ready for trial. Police also uncovered in July tons of explosives in Central Java and arrested their alleged owners.

Despite these unprecedented successes, the government's antiterrorism campaign has failed to allay the fears among the people, who have come to believe that the country has become a haven for terrorists, especially for regional terrorist network Jamaah Islamiyah (JI).

Founded by two Indonesian clerics -- the late Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir -- JI has been campaigning for a pan-Asia Muslim country encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and southern Thailand. JI has been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks in the country, including the church bombings on Christmas Eve in 2000, the Bali bombings and the JW Marriott Hotel attack.

Ba'asyir was tried for his alleged roles in a number of terrorist attacks, treason, immigration offenses and document fraud, but was sentenced only to four years' imprisonment for aiding terrorist attacks and immigration and document fraud. He was later exonerated by the Jakarta High Court of his terrorist links, and his sentence was reduced to three years for document fraud only.

Almost immediately after the Bali bombings, the government set up an anti-terror desk under the auspices of the coordinating ministry for political and security affairs. But the desk has yet to deliver. Few people, even now, are aware that such a desk exists.

In the meantime, moves are underway to amend the Antiterrorism Law to allow the national intelligence force to play a greater role in fighting terrorism. But for a country still haunted by the bitter and traumatic experiences under former president Soeharto's 32-year leadership, when intelligence kept tight control over people's movements, such moves demand a thorough evaluation.

The existing law already gives enough of a headache to the people, as it allows police to detain, without questioning, a suspected terrorist for as long as seven days. It also gives police the leeway to arbitrarily arrest and detain suspected terrorists -- as already seen in the arrest of some Muslim activists in Central Java.

All in all, police have arrested over 100 or so suspected terrorists, but these still fail to reveal the actually number and strength of terrorist networks operating in the country, much less the danger they pose. As the people's call grows in volume, the government and its security elements must enhance their capability to fight terrorism.

A failure to exterminate terrorism may turn foreign tourists off and keep the much-needed foreign investment at bay -- a situation that would not only delay the country's economic recovery, but could also plunge the country into a fresh round of economic crisis.

The people and the government must join hands in fighting this evil.

Back to James and his family -- as it turned out on Dec. 14, no airline was downed or turned into deadly missiles. Except for several explosions in Iraq following the arrest of former tyrant Saddam Hussein, the world was relatively peaceful on that day.

But the fears are real and pervasive.