Jakarta Bombings: Random Carnage or Surgical Strike?

JAKARTA ~ The suicide bombings that rocked the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta last Friday pose frightening questions for business leaders in the mainly Muslim country, analysts say.

The attacks, especially the bombing at the Marriott, showed a higher level of sophistication than previous hits by Indonesian-based extremists and may have been carefully planned to strike high-value targets, they said.

Previous attacks blamed on the Jemaah Islamiyah regional terror group – such as the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, mostly tourists – were designed to inflict maximum Western casualties.

Truck bombings at the Australian embassy in 2004 and the Jakarta Marriott in 2003 targeted iconic Western facilities but killed and injured mainly Indonesians.

Last week’s attack at the Marriott, however, used a small backpack bomb that was secretly assembled inside the hotel and detonated in a room during a weekly breakfast hosted by a well-known Western businessman.

Five people plus the bomber were killed – three Australians, a New Zealander and an Indonesian hotel worker.

Another two people, believed to be Dutch tourists, were killed in a similar suicide blast at the adjacent Ritz-Carlton. Fifty-three people were injured in both attacks, compared to about 150 in the Marriott bombing six years ago.

Analysts have been puzzling over why the Marriott bomber, whom police believe was as young as 16, descended from his room on the 18th floor to the lobby and walked straight into the small meeting room rather than the closer and more crowded main restaurant.

“In this case they penetrated the hotel and reached the heart of their target,” Singapore-based terrorism analyst Rohan Gunaratna said.

“It is very likely that they knew about the Castle Group meeting because it was a weekly meeting. The bomber came down the lift to the lobby and walked directly into the meeting room.”

The CastleAsia group is an investment consultancy headed by prominent Jakarta-based American businessman James Castle, who survived with minor injuries.

Seventeen foreign and Indonesian executives were reportedly attending the breakfast, including Castle’s associate Max Boon, Freeport Indonesia director Dave Potter, former Rio Tinto director Noke Kiroyan, Theiss executive Garth McEvoy and Holcim Indonesia president Timothy Mackay.

Some were saved from the full force of the blast by two columns; others, such as Boon, suffered horrific injuries, but survived.

Mackay, a New Zealander, died of his wounds in hospital, while McEvoy and two other Australians – recruitment specialist Nathan Verity and trade diplomat Craig Senger – died at the scene.

The attackers appear to have carefully gathered intelligence on their targets, perhaps helped by a hotel employee, analysts said.

Rather than driving a truck past the hotels and going “Boom!”, they evaded airport-style security checks and disguised themselves as guests for two days while assembling their bombs.

Despite these differences, police say the blasts still bear the hallmarks of the Jemaah Islamiyah splinter group headed by Malaysian-born Islamist Noordin Mohammed Top, the alleged mastermind of the 2003 Marriott and 2004 embassy attacks, and a second set of Bali bombings in 2005.

“The group has evolved and become more sophisticated, and they are learning from their mistakes. They are now able to use deception and operate against protected targets,” Gunaratna said.

“Intelligence-based terrorist operations can lead to assassinations of VIPs and even the killing of leaders. You can become more accurate and more lethal in killing high-value targets.”

Grainy security camera footage from the hotel shows the final footsteps of the suspected Marriott bomber as he passes the restaurant without a second glance and heads straight to the secluded CastleAsia meeting room.

Wearing a suit coat and baseball cap, with a backpack held to his chest and wheeling a suitcase behind him, he walks straight past a guard at the entrance to a small corridor leading to the meeting room, who asks him what he is doing.

The guard, who survived, has said the bomber said something about delivering “papers to my boss”, indicating he knew there were business leaders in the room at the time.

Seconds later there is a flash and the lobby is blasted with debris.

A Western diplomat, who refused to be named, said it was too early to say for sure whether the bombers knew in advance about the breakfast or whether it was merely a target of opportunity.

“We are waiting to know the results of the investigation to be sure that the bomber’s target was the Castle meeting. If it’s true, it will be a sign that Westerners, especially businessmen, must be more vigilant,” he said.

“If I have to organise this kind of meeting, security will be my priority.”

Indonesia-based risk consultant Martin Hughes said it was hard for hotels to do more than the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton were already doing to boost security.

But he said Western companies should avoid holding regular meetings in the same hotels, consider using low-key restaurants instead and could even lease private guesthouses. (AFP)

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