Jakarta Bombings: The Human Dimension

By Richard W. Baker

For American businessman Jim Castle, July 17 was like the rerun of a horror story. Six years ago, Jim and his wife had been having lunch at the Jakarta Marriott hotel, where they have an apartment, when a car bomb exploded just outside the hotel entrance, throwing the Castles to the floor and killing a Dutch businessman seated not 50 feet away. Only the fact that the Castles’ table was shielded from the main blast saved their lives.

After such an experience, many people would simply have pulled up stakes and headed for safer pastures. Many did. Jim Castle did not. Why? It was most likely a combination of personal steadiness of character, more than 25 years of hard-earned expertise in navigating the uncertainties and complexities (and even personal dangers) of doing business in Indonesia, and a firm belief that Indonesia had turned the corner following the fall of the Suharto regime in 1998. So Castle stayed on.

Thus, the morning of July 17 found Castle in the same Marriott restaurant, hosting a regular breakfast meeting for international businessmen organized by his CastleAsia consulting firm, when a suicide bomber masquerading as a hotel guest set off a powerful bomb in the lobby just outside the restaurant. Four of the forum participants were killed and four others seriously wounded. Castle was again spared simply by the fortuitous location of his seat, but he was injured and temporarily deafened, and ended up in the hospital overnight with other victims of the near-simultaneous bombings at the Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotel next door.

Exactly what Castle will do in the aftermath of this event is uncertain, but his immediate reaction, typically, has been more one of concern over his lost and injured colleagues than with his own close call. And it seems likely that he will refuse to give the terrorists the satisfaction of driving him (and possibly other firms among his clients) out of this promising and ultimately endearing country.

“People ask me, ‘What does this mean for Indonesia?’” Jim said.

“My response is that although Americans were personally hurt by 9/11, neither the US nor its great prospects were diminished. The same is true for Indonesia.”

A 1970s alumnus of the East-West Center, Jim’s career exemplifies the Center’s mission to bring people and nations in the Asia Pacific region closer together. It also illustrates the personal dangers that this can involve.

Beyond its immediate human dimensions, this new Jakarta bombing raises a number of broader questions. Why did it happen now, after several years of relative calm in terrorist activities in Indonesia? And what is the meaning of this dramatic return of violence targeted against foreigners?

Although there have been sporadic warnings of a renewal of terrorist attacks over the intervening years, some recent, the general view has been that the Indonesian government’s crackdown and continued vigilance – working with others including the Australian and American governments – has been remarkably successful. The main threat, the locally spawned but Al Qaeda-connected organization Jemaah Islamiyah, had been badly disrupted, much of its leadership arrested or killed, and its remaining followers scattered in small cells around the countryside, with limited capability to mount significant attacks.

Some observers have noted a split within the JI remnants, between a minority advocating continued high-profile actions and a majority arguing that such events only alienate the population and that the better course is slow, patient, low-level proselytizing. Key among the group advocating dramatic attacks is Noordin Top, the Malaysian-born planner of previous terrorist actions and recruiter of suicide bombers. Investigators have said that the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton bombings bear a number of his signature features.

The most serious explanation for the attacks would be if the new incidents reflect the victory of Top’s pro-bombing faction in JI’s internal struggle. However, there is little hard evidence of this. It seems more likely that the extreme faction, anxious to advertise their survival and perhaps desperate as the authorities close in on Top and his henchmen, launched this attack in the hope of attracting new followers and demonstrating the continuing vulnerability of the government and foreigners in Indonesia. Given the trends over the past several years, it must be considered doubtful that July 17 marks a real resurgence of JI or the broader terrorist threat in Indonesia.

Nevertheless, it will never be possible to prevent all further incidents or even the occasional catastrophic attack. Realistically, this is the future that faces people like Jim Castle, stalwart believers in a positive economic future for Indonesia and the broader regional community of which it is an important part.

Richard W. Baker is an Adjunct Senior Fellow with the East-West Center and a former Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in Indonesia.

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