Thursday, September 09, 2004
The war continues on Australia's doorstep:
"The Australian embassy in Jakarta was damaged by a powerful explosion that blew up vehicles in front of the complex. At least three people were killed. However no Australian embassy staff had been confirmed injured, the federal government said."You can bomb all you want; it won't change the fact that like your other totalitarian soul-mates in the past, you're on the losing side of history.
Update: A more recent report says up to six people were killed and 99 wounded. The interesting detail, of course, is that the explosive device appears to be a car bomb (or a motorcycle bomb), which was detonated on the busy street outside. There was damage to the embassy compound (the article notes shattered windows and a destroyed gate, although "Jakarta Post" reports the damage to the embassy and surrounding buildings was "extensive"), but it was the passers-by who bore the brunt of the explosion. Once again, the al Qaeda-affiliated Jemaah Islamiah (if that's indeed who the culprit is) has shown that in its willingness to "send a signal" to Australian infidels it couldn't care less that the people who actually die are innocent fellow Muslim countrymen and women.
Update II: Mike Jericho's got the pictures.
The toll now stands at 11 dead and up to 160 injured:
"[The blast] ripped apart the heavily-fortified gates of the mission, shattered thousands of windows and left a deep crater in the road outside... [T]hose killed were mainly Indonesians, including police and embassy security staff, cut down in the road by the explosion just four metres from the front gates of the compound. The massive blast, heard up to 15km away, tore the glass fronts off nearby office towers and showered flying glass into the embassy building, causing minor injuries among mission staff."All sides of politics in Australia have condemned the attack. The Prime Minister John Howard told the reporters that Australia "is not a nation that is going to be intimidated by acts of terrorism," and the Labor Opposition Leader Mark Latham said: "The terrorists responsible for this attack are evil and barbaric and must be dealt with as harshly as possible."
Pundits are already speculating that the attack will benefit politically the Government, which is perceived as stronger on the issue of national security than the Labor Party. Also, with the public attention switched again to terrorism, Labor might find itself starved for news oxygen. There are, however, other possibilities; the Labor Party has been trying for quite some time to build up its anti-terror credentials, accusing the Government of getting too distracted by Iraq to pay enough attention to threats in Australia's immediate neighborhood. The Jakarta blast might provide a good opportunity for Mark Latham to run with that point.
The fingers are pointing at Jemaah Islamiah (JI) as the culprit. Indonesia's police chief, General Da'i Bachtiar thinks the explosion bears all the hallmarks of the 2002 Bali bombing and the 2003 Marriott hotel blast. A counter-terrorism expert, Professor Harold Crouch, who happened to be inside the embassy at the time of the attack, agrees with the assessment: "I can't think of any other candidate at this point and so I think it's pretty clear it must have been them".
Specifically, the main suspect seems to be the Malaysian-born, British-educated engineer and al Qaeda/JI operative Azahari Husin. Husin, an expert bomb-maker, has been on the run from authorities for the past three years. He and another Malaysian, Noordin Mohammed Top, are also believed to be responsible for the bombing attack against the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in 2003.
Why the Australian embassy and why now? Four possibilities emerge:
- Because Australia is in the middle of the election campaign where some of the key issues are the war on terror and the war in Iraq. The temptation to "do a Madrid" must be pretty high for the terrorists, even if they have proven so far to be incapable of striking Australia on the home soil.
- Because the JI people are feeling emboldened by the recent decision of an Indonesian court to quash the conviction of one of the Bali bombers, on the grounds that the anti-terrorism law he was charged under was retrospective and thus unconstitutional.
- Alternatively because, the JI wants to respond to the Indonesian authorities' intention to charge their spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir with complicity in the Marriott hotel bombing last year.
- Another expert, National Council of Churches in Australia president Professor James Haire, who has intimate knowledge of Indonesia, thinks the blast has more to do with Indonesia's own presidential elections: "The extremist parties, the small parties, are trying to influence that election and there is frustration among the extremists that they have not been able to achieve much at the ballot box, so there has been a kind of reaction... This was the last gasp of the extremists because the country was taking a more moderate line and most Indonesians were voting for moderates." As Prof Haire admits, there has to be also an anti-Australian and anti-Western element to the bombing; otherwise the target, seen just in the context of Indonesian domestic politics, doesn't make sense.
Update III: The ever-dependable Tim Blair is running extensive updates of news, comments and reactions to the bombing. In other developments:
An intelligence failure? The Prime Minister John Howard: "You can say... whenever an attack occurs there is an intelligence failure." I prefer to reserve this term for the situations where at least some of the information was there, but due to the intelligence agencies' negligence or wrong judgment, the dots were not connected - or if they were, the action wasn't nevertheless taken. In the case of Jakarta bombing there is no evidence of any warnings more specific than the usual chatter about attacks on Western targets.
The responsibility: Jemaah Islamiah has indeed now claimed responsibility for the attack. "We decided to make Australia pay in Jakarta today when one of the Mujahideen brothers carried out a martyrdom (suicide) operation at the Australian embassy," says the statement published on the Internet. Pay for Australia's involvement in the war in Iraq, by the way.
The spin begins: Malcolm Farr in the "Daily Telegraph": "The bombing in Jakarta could become the event that crushed Mark Latham's bid to get a Labor government elected. The atrocity was an unwanted intrusion into the election campaign but one that voters will be unable to ignore... It raised the prominence of national security in the election contest and, for now at least, pushed economic debate down the list... The timing resembled the Madrid bombing, designed to encourage voters to punish the incumbent government for aiding the US in Iraq. There will be the view that Iraq has increased the threat against Australia. Mr Howard has one powerful argument in reply: the bombing did not happen here. That makes it quite different from the Madrid murders and could be seen as evidence that attack prevention efforts in Australia have been successful. The latest Newspoll survey on anti-terrorism, taken less than a week ago, found 51 per cent of voters thought Mr Howard was more capable of handling national security - 32 per cent nominated Mr Latham. "
The same Newspoll shows that John Howard has an even bigger edge over Mark Latham as far as economic matters are concerned, so "raising the prominence of national security in the election contest" should actually benefit Latham, or at least hurt him less. Still, if Labor loses, the commentariat will once again be able to cry foul that the election was "stolen" by international events.
Update IV: Reactions: Readers' comments in a forum by Australia's News Ltd make for an interesting glimpse into public reactions. I was suprised by the general lack of "terrorism is bad, but..." and "the root causes" rhetoric. There are a few exceptions, but they are few and far between. Encouraging (also here).
Meanwhile, more evidence that grief can cloud your judgment, this time from the South Australian Magistrate Brian Deegan, whose son Joshua died in the 2002 Bali bombings, and whose death has obviously sent his father into political never-never land:
The ordinary Indonesians who bore the brunt of this attack aren't as understanding as Mr Deegan. Says Ibu Martono, a housewife whose children were bruised by the falling debris: "We're beyond angry. I want to kill those who did this." Mr Deegan might be willing to negotiate Iraq or Indonesia into the hands of Islamofascist jihadis, but it's Mrs Martano who knows she'll be the one to pay the price. And Mr Deegan himself should know better than to suggest that his safety and liberty can be in the long run bought with somebody else's.
"Mr Deegan... who is running against Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer in the federal election, called on Mr Downer to meet Jemaah Islamiah (JI) to negotiate an end to the terror... 'He is the Minister of Foreign Affairs, it's his portfolio. If we are at some kind of war, then we should negotiate,' Mr Deegan said. 'He (Mr Downer) should speak to the head of JI and ask him: 'Why? What's the problem?''"
Australian Socialists, meanwhile, continue to provide some light relief in an otherwise bleak situation. According to Lisa Macdonald, Socialist Alliance co-convener, the Jakarta bombing "showed that the Howard government’s ‘anti-terrorist’ legislation—fully supported by the [Labor Party]—does nothing to reduce the risk of terrorism at the same time as it contains dangerous attacks on everyone’s civil liberties." As the bombing had happened in Indonesia and not Australia, I'll reserve for the moment my judgment as to the efficacy of Australia's domestic anti-terrorism legislation.