The Indonesian President picked a bad week to fence-sit. Singapore's announcement that 19 of the 21 Singaporean Muslims arrested last month have ties to the regional extremist group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an affiliate of al-Qaeda, were a reminder that the scope and reach of terror remain formidable and potentially lethal. Malaysia and the Philippines have taken action against militants too. Teamwork, it would seem, is the only way to counter such threats. Indonesia, accused by nations around the region of harboring terrorists and under pressure from the U.S. for not fighting its share of the battle, looks increasingly like the odd nation out.
The man putting Indonesia—and particularly Megawati—in this bind is Abubakar Ba'asyir, the Muslim cleric who is allegedly the spiritual and political leader of JI. As TIME reported last week, the U.S. interrogation of Omar al-Faruq, a militant who has confessed to being al-Qaeda's Southeast Asian point man, revealed that he and Ba'asyir had planned to bomb American embassies and consulates in the region the week of the first anniversary of Sept. 11. Despite this and related disclosures that indict him as at least a suspect, Ba'asyir (who has denied these accusations) remains free, openly running his Islamic school in the central Java town of Solo. Indonesia, says Rohan Gunaratna, an expert on terrorism and author of a recent book on al-Qaeda, "is the only place in the world where radicals tied to al-Qaeda aren't being hunted down." Adds a Western intelligence source in Jakarta: "The country's like an aircraft carrier from which terrorists can safely launch attacks throughout the region."
Not surprisingly, Ba'asyir's, and JI's, apparent untouchable status has set off alarm bells in Washington. U.S. calls for action against Islamic militants in Indonesia have been ratcheted up in recent weeks. President Bush discussed the issue with Megawati in a Sept. 16 phone call; the next day, the director for Asian affairs of the National Security Council, Karen Brooks, made a quiet two-day visit to Jakarta. While those conversations amounted to polite encouragement, the U.S. has also been using the threat of harsher tactics to bring Megawati into line. Washington is threatening to officially classify JI as a foreign terrorist organization, as well as possibly Ba'asyir himself as a terrorist. Failure by Indonesia to act against JI or Ba'asyir, U.S. officials say, could then precipitate a series of grave economic sanctions such as refusing aid and voting against financial assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
But as a hostage to her country's byzantine politics, Megawati seems damned no matter which way she moves. Regardless of how much Washington increases the pressure, the complex of interlocking forces on which Megawati's power depends seems virtually certain to preclude any action on her part. Not even allegations that al-Faruq and Ba'asyir plotted to assassinate Megawati have stirred her. If she takes steps against Ba'asyir and other JI members believed to be at large in Indonesia, she risks alienating the Muslim majority, whose support she desperately needs if she and her party are to be returned to office in the 2004 elections. Says Arbi Sanit, a lecturer in politics at the University of Indonesia: "Every politician in Indonesia needs the Islamic vote, and with Megawati it's even more so because of her secular background."
The power of Indonesia's Islamic lobby was amply demonstrated earlier this year when three Indonesians were arrested in Manila with plastic explosives and detonator cords in their luggage. Despite the evidence, two of the men were released due to pressure from Jakarta, official sources in the capital say. The Philippines came close to releasing the third man, Agus Dwikarna, at which point U.S. officials directly intervened with Megawati (as well as with Philippine President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo) to warn against allowing the release. Dwikarna was later tried and sentenced to 17 years in prison for possessing explosives.
Indonesia's inaction contrasts starkly with its neighbors' aggressive antiterror measures. Singapore has repeatedly displayed its resolve, not only through its announcement last week but through the arrests of 15 alleged terrorists earlier in the year for a plot to bomb U.S. interests there (masterminded, says Singapore, by Ba'asyir). Local authorities say the fresh detentions foiled plans to target a range of facilities in the republic, including the Defense Ministry, Changi International Airport, water pipelines and communications installations. In the Philippines, meanwhile, officials last week apprehended four Indonesians, one of whom they accuse of being linked to JI and helping to plot bomb attacks that killed 15 people and injured nearly 100 in a mall in Mindanao last April.
Along with Malaysia, Singapore and the Philippines have enthusiastically thrown in their lot with America. Singapore has long been a vocal advocate for a strong U.S. presence in the region, which it feels promotes stability. Manila is an old ally of Washington's and has for decades been battling its own Muslim insurgencies. Malaysia does have a Muslim majority, like Indonesia, but the government has never hesitated to use its draconian powers to keep the wilder fringes of the Muslim community under control, an attitude that seems to have been reinforced since Sept. 11 by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's desire to step forward as the world's leading moderate Muslim leader.
Megawati is a moderate too, but even if the President were to allow a crackdown on Islamic radicals, there is no guarantee that the military and police would cooperate. A combination of Islamic sympathy, interservice rivalry, greed and simple incompetence has hobbled similar past attempts. In a series of failed operations in recent years, law enforcement officers have allowed their fellow Indonesians suspected of terrorist activity to slip away.
Typical was the incident last December when Spanish authorities requested the arrest of Parlindungan Siregar, who allegedly ran military training at a JI/al-Qaeda camp near Poso on the island of Sulawesi. Despite being under 24-hour surveillance by intelligence operatives and having his mobile phone conversations recorded, Parlindungan vanished as soon as the Spanish request was received. Tellingly, his current whereabouts remain well known to the authorities, says a senior foreign intelligence source: "I was told [by Indonesian officials], 'you can go and talk to him if you want. We'll give you his address in Yogyakarta.'" Seeking to increase their diminishing role in government, the military and police have fallen into an uneasy alliance with Islamic politicians. "There is a danger with this game," warns the University of Indonesia's Sanit. "What if one day Indonesia is accused of being another Iraq by the international community? We'd be dead meat."