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Suicidal Terror or Error?

5 minute read
Simon Elegant/Singapore

Was one of the perpetrators of the Bali massacre a suicide bomber? Or was he an ordinary jihad footsoldier who accidentally blew himself up? An account of what happened Oct. 12 by one witness strongly suggests the latter. According to Indonesian police sources who interrogated the witness, the terrorist named Iqbal entered the jam-packed Paddy’s Irish Pub just after 11 p.m. and headed for the restrooms at the back, where he deposited a plastic bag. The witnesswhose identity is being kept secret by policeentered the men’s room as Iqbal was leaving and, spotting the bag, called out after him: “Hey, you left your bag in the toilet.” Iqbal, flustered, returned, retrieved his mysterious package, and walked towards the front of the bar. Then came the blast that killed Iqbal and eight others. Moments later, a second, much larger bomb exploded nearby, killing at least 180 more. The witness couldn’t say if the explosives detonated in the bomber’s hands or if he had dropped the bag while trying to flee.

Whether Iqbal planned to martyr himself may seem coldly irrelevant to the families of the dead. But the question is of critical importance to security officials in Southeast Asia as they assess the likelihood of future attacks and formulate defense plans. Australian police said on Nov. 28 that the five-member team suspected of carrying out the Paddy’s attack had formed a suicide pact (although only Iqbal died). Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said indications of suicide elements among Muslim extremists in the region posed “grave challenges” to governments trying to contain the terrorist threat. The day after Goh’s warning, suicide car-bombers killed at least 15 people in the Kenyan coastal city of Mombasa.

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If truly a suicide attack, the Paddy’s bomb marks a grim milestone: the first time in memory a Southeast Asian Muslim terrorist has sacrificed his own life to kill others. After the arrest last week in Malaysia of four radicals allegedly trained as suicide bombers, some analysts fear that a deadlier wave of terror may be unleashed upon the region. “In every conflict there comes a point when it produces the kind of person willing to die,” says Rohan Gunaratna, author of the book Inside al-Qaeda. “That time is now ripe in Southeast Asia.”

But despite growing fears, doubts remain that there are more than a handful of fanatical militants in the region willing to die for their cause. The vast majority of the region’s Muslims practice a moderate, tolerant form of Islam that utterly rejects the idea that slaughtering innocent civilians is a method of holy warfare. Gunaratna concedes that when it comes to the crunch, most militants balk at kamikaze-style attacks. He recounts a telling anecdote about Riduan Isamuddin, a.k.a. Hambali, the suspected leader of the regional terror network Jemaah Islamiah (JI), widely blamed for the Bali blasts and other deadly bombings. Hambali once asked a group of about 20 potential JI recruits how many would be willing to give up their lives for the cause. “Only one fellow put up his hand,” Gunaratna laughs. “Hambali was not very happy at all.”

That meeting took place in the late-’90s in Malaysia. But the same reluctance can be seen in Indonesia years later. In his confession to U.S. interrogators, al-Qaeda’s point man in Southeast Asia, Omar al-Faruq, described aborting a plan to bomb a U.S. Navy ship docked in the Indonesian port of Surabaya last May because he couldn’t find non-Arab volunteers willing to die in the operation.

As for Iqbal, evidence suggests he was unlucky. After all, the bombmaking expertise of Imam Samudra, the alleged coordinator of the Bali bombing and the man who passed Iqbal the explosives, is questionable. During a wave of bombings across Indonesia that left 19 dead over Christmas 2000, in which Samudra said he played an instrumental role, three of the attackers died when their devices exploded prematurely. Even more telling is the story of the last bomber Samudra personally sent out on a mission before Bali: the hapless Taufik Abdul Halim. According to his own court testimony, Taufik was dispatched to a Jakarta shopping mall in August 2001 with a bomb concealed in a plastic bag. He reached the target, but the bomb went off before he could escape, blowing off part of his leg.

Could the same thing have happened in Paddy’s? Very possibly, police investigators say. But police also say it is Samudra who, after his arrest, told them Iqbal was a suicide bomber. General I Made Mangku Pastika, head of the Bali investigation, thinks the apparent contradiction is easily resolved. He says Samudra is claiming Iqbal deliberately killed himself “in order to cover responsibility to the family.” In other words, the man alleged to have played a key role in the massacre of nearly 200 people feels guilty that he may have also caused the death of a fellow terrorist.

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