In the past week, Umar Patek, the Jemaah Islamiyah militant responsible for assembling the explosives used in the 2002 Bali bombings, was extradited to Indonesia after being captured in Pakistan in late March. Patek is also believed to have been behind attacks on Christian churches in cities across Indonesia on Christmas Eve, 2000. His arrest in Abbottabad – the same city in which al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces earlier this year – brought to an end a decade-long manhunt that at one point catapulted the world’s largest Muslim nation to the forefront of the US-led War on Terror.
Patek’s arrest and anticipated trial should finally bring some closure to families and friends of the 202 victims killed in the Bali blasts. But the significance of his capture transcends simply bringing one more terrorist to justice. It also shatters the perception that the Indonesian government has been ‘soft’ with respect to prosecuting terror suspects. It also once again shows that a successful counterterrorism strategy can be engineered by utilizing sound intelligence-gathering techniques and criminal legal procedures. More specifically, Indonesia’s efforts show individual countries and the broader international community can develop effective counterterrorism policies without resorting to invading the sovereignty of states and deploying military personnel there.
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This point was the subject of a 2005 report produced by the Council on Foreign Relations. After several attacks by myriad separatist groups in the early 2000s, CFR postulated that Indonesia was the base from which al-Qaeda could launch its Southeast Asian operations:
‘Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim county, is a vast archipelago with porous maritime borders, a weak central government, separatist movements, corrupt officials, a floundering economy, and a loosely regulated financial system—all characteristics which make it fertile ground for terrorist groups. While Indonesia is known as a secular, tolerant society that practices a moderate form of Islam, radical Islamists have gained momentum.’
Despite the recent successes, Indonesia’s top counterterrorism official told lawmakers in April that the country’s laws were still too lenient for those found guilty. Ansyaad Mbai, the country’s counterterrorism chief, argued for stricter sentences and the authority to pre-emptively engage known terror cells. For these reasons, observers had been quick to suggest that Indonesia is a haven for terrorists. But after the much publicized conviction and execution in 2009 of Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, one of the bombers implicated in the Bali attacks, and the imprisonment of Jemaah Islamiyah spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir in June of this year, that label is slowly but surely being shed.
The Indonesian approach is also sure to vindicate progressive and anti-war advocates who have loudly noted the failure of interventionist policies to curtail terrorist activities. The administration of former US President George W. Bush was well-known for its tendency to disregard international legal process. Indeed, Bush’s attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, once infamously wrote that the Geneva Conventions were ‘quaint, obsolete, and irrelevant.’ The administration prioritized filling areas of conflict with troops, approved the implementation of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ on captured militants, and promoted dubious legislation such as the Patriot Act in order to hack emails and tap the cell phones of alleged would-be terrorists.
As a result, the Bush administration secured few genuine victories in the War on Terror.
President Barack Obama has admittedly largely maintained the two US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – although there are plans to begin a phased troop withdrawal in both countries – but his counterterrorism policy has been one of the few triumphs the beleaguered US president can tout. Headlined by the spectacular killing of bin Laden in May of this year, the Pentagon has also announced the arrests and deaths of several of the more notable players in al-Qaeda’s global network of killers.
The benefit of this more refined strategy is that intelligence officials can question individuals that are captured and arrested. No intelligence can be extracted from anyone when an unmanned drone shoots a missile at an alleged terrorist hideout, attacks that can cause significant collateral damage as well. Nor is popular opinion in the Muslim world likely to condone more foreign military operations and occupations of Muslim countries.
Indonesian officials are already hopeful that Patek’s arrest will lead to the disclosure of important intelligence on al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah, and other affiliated terror networks that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. Such disclosures serve to reinforce the idea that a nuanced approach is more effective in fighting terror than simple military might.
Tim LaRocco is a graduate student of international relations at The City College of New York. He has travelled throughout the developing world, including stints as a volunteer worker in the Public Parks Department in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and as a researcher for the South African Human Rights Commission in Cape Town. He currently lives in Long Island, New York.