Asia Terrorism Fight's New Tack: Kindness

Indonesian police officer shows the portraits of three unidentified suicide bombing suspects during press conference in Police station, Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, Monday, Oct. 10, 2005.
Indonesia's anti-terrorism chief was relaxed as he mingled with the guests on his lawn. Muslim hard-liners swapped tales of al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and the Philippines. Convicted Bali nightclub bombers feasted on kebabs.

The unusual gathering late last month was a striking example of what has emerged as a key plank in Indonesia's anti-terror campaign: co-opting former militants as informers or preachers of moderation.

The evening party also underscored Southeast Asia's progress in the fight against al Qaeda, five years after a devastating al Qaeda-linked bombing on the Indonesian resort island of Bali stoked fears of a sustained terror campaign throughout the region.

"We approach the terrorists with a pure heart," Brig. Gen. Surya Dharma, the head of Indonesia's anti-terror unit and host of the party, said in a rare interview with The Associated Press. "We are all Muslims. We make them our brothers, not our enemy."

On Oct. 12, 2002, two bombs ripped through Bali nightclubs, killing 202 people. Most of the victims were foreign tourists. This first major strike by Islamic extremists on Westerners in Asia thrust Southeast Asia onto the front lines of the war on terror.

Indonesia has since suffered three smaller attacks, the last also on Bali in 2005, and the U.S. and many other Western governments still urge citizens to avoid travel to Indonesia and the southern Philippines.

But foreign diplomats, analysts and authorities agree that the threat level is significantly lower today.

Police have detained most of the key figures in the region's main militant network, Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah, and rounded up hundreds of other sympathizers and lesser figures.

The few terrorist leaders remaining on the run are still believed to be attempting more attacks, but they have few skilled accomplices left and are likely unable to communicate with them or get their hands on funds, officials said.

"The Indonesian police got their head out of the sand after 2002 and addressed it finally," said Ken Conboy, an American security analyst and author of a book on Jemaah Islamiyah. "They came in a little bit late, but they came in hard."

Muslim insurgencies fester in outlying districts of Thailand and the Philippines, though for now the militants appear mostly focused on local concerns rather than on Western targets.

Still, Asian security officials note they are up against an extremist ideology with deep roots in the region, especially in Indonesia where an Islamic rebellion first broke out 70 years ago.

"Even with their last ounce of energy and last dollar of funds, they will do something to prove they're not completely gone," said Philippine anti-terror official Ric Blancaflor.

The Philippines is battling the Abu Sayyaf militant group, which has been blamed for deadly bombings, high-profile ransom kidnappings and beheadings. At least two top Indonesian terrorists are also believed to be on the run in the country.

In Indonesia, the turnaround followed intense pressure from Western governments, which repeatedly warned that al Qaeda militants fleeing Afghanistan could find safe haven here.

The U.S. and Australia poured millions of dollars into training, high-tech surveillance and forensic equipment for Indonesia's security forces.

Regional authorities boosted cooperation. Thai police arrested Hambali, an Indonesian terror leader with strong links to al Qaeda, in 2003. Philippine police picked up another Indonesian militant, Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi, in 2002, along with dozens of other suspects.

The Indonesian government also ended three years of fighting between Muslim and Christians in eastern Indonesia that had killed thousands and served as a training ground and recruitment tool for militants.

Also playing a role is what the Indonesian government calls a "soft approach" used in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries, building up an extensive web of paid informants and former militants working to persuade hard-liners to change sides.

The party at Brig. Gen. Dharma's house brought together more than 20 hard-liners and former terrorists who had shown a commitment to helping authorities and expressed regret for their actions.