Sumatra resort buzz lured deadly JI plotters

July 05, 2008
THE Cafe Bedudal, smack in the centre of the dusty west Sumatran hilltop resort of Bukittinggi, echoes with the laughter of backpackers and their friends.

In this Indonesian Muslim heartland, the Bedudal, with five staff tending 12 tables, is a place where the drinks flow freely and the tunes keep pumping, as lubricated diners order steak and pizza.

"The food is probably better at some of the Indonesian restaurants, but with them it's not so easy to get a beer," said French backpacker Bertrand Hochort, 44. "And it's one of the few places with international music."

Bedudal is "beehive" in Balinese: a place to mingle and enjoy the buzz, far from the Kuta strip that inspired it. But party-loving travellers were yesterday waking to the reality that their choice of good-time venue had brought them within a hair's breadth of becoming the latest casualties of Jemaah Islamiah.

They were to have been victims of a plot devised by Southeast Asia's most wanted man, Noordin Mohammad Top, who has been behind every major attack on Westerners in Indonesia, starting with the 2002 Bali bombing.

The arrests of 10 militants in a series of raids this week in Palembang, almost 1000km to the south, brought intelligence that several primed bombs had been transported to a location near the Bukittinggi cafe last July.

Only at the last moment was it decided that the loss of Muslim lives in a bomb attack would have been too great.

"I was just there for dinner last night - it's incredible," Hochort said. Bukittinggi is too far inland for the surfers - many of them Australians - who make the pilgrimage to the Mentawai islands, where during the mid-year dry season rolling barrels crank with clockwork precision off the pristine reefs.

But the hippies of old, and their modern backpacking successors, have for years made the trek up the hill conquered by Dutch colonisers in the early 19th century. Back then, the Europeans conscripted local ethnic Minangkabau in a deadly struggle against invading Muslim forces.

The Muslims, led by a man now a national hero, the fiercely chauvinistic Imam Bonjol, never won their struggle for supremacy.

However, they gained something perhaps more important in their own eyes at least: they converted the previously animistic Minangkabau to their faith.

And so it was a relatively simple matter for the fervent Islamist Noordin, a Malaysian, to settle in Bukittinggi in early 2002, melting into the local population and opening a shock-absorber repair shop with his brother-in-law.

They only stayed a year, but the pair were ensconced in Bukittinggi in the months leading up to the first Bali bombing in October 2002. A month later, JI bombmaker Azhari Husin joined them, and it was from that same inconspicuous base they began planning JI's next atrocity: the Marriott Hotel bombing of August 2003 in Jakarta, using materials left over from a nationwide series of church bombings on Christmas Day 2000.

The gang followed up with the Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta in 2004, and the second Bali bombing in October 2005.

Although he appears to have had regular contact with the group arrested this week and was even directing their activities, the elusive Noordin has yet again slipped the net.

Also still on the run is his originally Singapore-based counterpart Mas Selamat Kastari, although police revealed that they believed Kastari, who escaped from detention in the city state some months ago, was now sheltering somewhere in Indonesia. "Absolutely, he's here," a police source said of Kastari, a central Java native.

It was the Singapore authorities who triggered the raids in Palembang, after they issued a wanted notice for 35-year-old English language teacher Abu Hazam, an Indian Singaporean and an associate of Kastari.

Indonesian anti-terrorism police from the elite Detachment 88 swooped, detaining Hazam in Palembang last Saturday. The former student of Azhari had been teaching the Indonesians how to make bombs, filling in after electronics expert Azhari, known colloquially as the Demolition Man, was killed in a police shoot-out in East Java in 2005.

Several raids followed over the coming days, netting nine followers, and just as importantly, a vast cache of explosives, home-made bombs, bullets, electronic timing devices and other key elements of a terror arsenal.

Apart from proving almost conclusively that Noordin was still somewhere in Indonesia, being sheltered by a constant chain of supporters, Jakarta-based terrorism analyst Sidney Jones said, the key thing to come out of this week's arrests would be "information on how Noordin's group has evolved outside of the structure of JI".

The renegade has launched most of his attacks without the official approval of the secretive Islamist organisation, but Jones was quick to point out that this would not preclude him getting help from members across Indonesia, even if they did not agree with his methods. "For instance, we know that one of the arrested men, Ani Sugandi, ran a JI school outside of Palembang, and it was well known to the JI mainstream that he did not agree with Noordin," she said.

However, that would not have stopped Sugandi from sheltering the maverick. "The view is that once you're a member of the group you're never really out of it," she said.

"But the other really interesting thing about this was that it includes a couple of guys who were involved in an attack in Bandung (the capital of West Java) on a priest in 2005.

"Now the thing is that these guys were not even JI when they carried out those attacks, so how they got linked up with JI could prove to be interesting.

"What it probably shows is how Noordin has been able to bring in all the flotsam and jetsam to his own group."

It may be mere coincidence, but the priest in that attack, Josua Adi, was a convert from Islam who came from the East Java town of Lamongan - the home town of Bali bomber brothers Amrozi bin Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron aka Mukhlas.

No comments: