An hour before midnight, 20 years ago, a young Indonesian man walked into Paddy’s Pub, a nightclub in the heart of Bali’s party district of Kuta, and detonated a backpack laden with explosives. Seconds later, a massive car bomb exploded outside the Sari Club across the road.
The impact was devastating. Paddy’s Pub and the Sari Club were destroyed, along with surrounding buildings. In all, 202 people died, but 88 Australian tourists and 38 Indonesian residents and workers were the largest groups. More than 200 more were also badly injured.
It soon became clear the attack was the work of militant Islamists. Indonesian authorities quickly focused on Jemaah Islamiyah, a group that, two years earlier, had been involved in a series of coordinated bombings of churches across Indonesia on Christmas Eve.
Evidence eventually emerged that Al Qaeda had helped fund the attack, through an Indonesian, Riduan Isamuddin, known as Hambali, now a long-term inmate of Guantanamo Bay. But the roots of militant Islamist violence in Indonesia are much older than Al Qaeda. They can be traced back at least to Darul Islam, an Islamist militia that began a long-running war against the Indonesian republic in the late 1940s. Jemaah Islamiyah split from Darul Islam in the 1990s.
How the bombings drew Australia and Indonesia closer
At first, it wasn’t clear how the bombings in Kuta would affect relations between Australia and Indonesia. Then-Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has spoken of his fear the bombings would drive a wedge between the two countries, with the public in each blaming the other.
Instead, the bombings – for both countries, their largest loss of life in a single terrorist attack – drew the two nations together, despite the deep rift created by Australia’s involvement in the secession of East Timor in 1999.
The bombings sparked unprecedented political, security and aid cooperation, with leaders of the two countries feeling they faced a common foe. This only deepened as Jemaah Islamiyah continued its bombing campaign. It targeted upmarket Western hotels in Jakarta and even the Australian Embassy in 2004 before striking again in Bali in 2005.
Australian and United States support helped to fund the establishment of the Indonesian Police’s effective, if controversial, counter-terrorism unit, “Special Detachment 88” (Densus 88). Many members of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) later described the relationship that developed with Indonesian police as like a “brotherhood”.
Likewise, Australian aid was soon flowing to a range of programs to counter violent extremism in Indonesia. This included a major investment to support reform of Indonesia’s important Islamic education sector, long neglected by Indonesian governments.
Death penalty double standards?
Many members of the Jemaah Islamiyah cell that carried out the Kuta attack were rounded up within weeks. Others escaped, but Indonesian authorities, supported by the AFP, were dogged in their pursuit of Jemaah Islamiyah. For years to come, hundreds of suspects would be hunted and arrested and many killed – sometimes in wild shoot-outs and sieges where Densus 88 seemed to be operating without a rule book.
Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the “spiritual leader” of Jemaah Islamiyah and a long-term opponent of the Indonesian state, was eventually convicted of conspiracy in relation to the Bali bombings in 2005. He received only a two-and-a-half year prison sentence, which was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2006 (although he was jailed for 15 years on another charge in 2011).
However, less than a year after the bombings, three of the key figures involved were sentenced to death: cell leader Abdul Aziz, the self-styled “Imam Samudra”; the attack coordinator, Ali Ghufron, known as Mukhlas; and his brother, Amrozi bin Haji Nurhasyim.
Then-Prime Minister John Howard was quick to endorse the executions saying it would be an “injustice” if they didn’t proceed. His eventual successor, Labor leader Kevin Rudd, agreed the three men deserved their fate.
Amrozi became infamous in the West for seeming to greet what he saw as impending martyrdom with enthusiasm. But all three perpetrators wrote or recorded unrepentant justifications for the bombings. Like Osama bin Laden, they saw terrorism as legitimate revenge for “Western aggression” against Muslims in a global holy war.
Despite this, the three men eventually lodged appeals and a constitutional challenge in attempts to overturn their sentences. These failed, and in the early hours of November 9 2008, they were shot dead by a firing squad on the prison isle of Nusa Kambangan.
The support of Australian leaders for these executions was to backfire when Australian Bali Nine drug smugglers, Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan, were sentenced to death in 2006.
Determined Australian efforts to have their sentences commuted to life attracted global support, including from the UN Secretary General. But they were rejected in Jakarta as hypocritical and evidence of an Australian “double standard”, with the two men facing the firing squad on Nusa Kambangan on April 29 2015.
Their deaths were, in some ways, an unforeseen consequence of the close cooperation between Australian and Indonesian police triggered by the Bali bombings. It was the decision of the AFP to tip off the Indonesian police that led to the arrest of the Bali Nine in Indonesia, rather than on return to Australia.
Protocols have now been introduced to prevent Australians being exposed to the death penalty in this way.
A gradual weakening
As the Jemaah Islamiyah bombings became more distant, the partnership between Australian and Indonesian law enforcement authorities gradually weakened. This was in part because some Indonesians felt Australia wanted too much credit for its role in the crushing of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Even so, other events inevitably also created tensions in the relationship. As well as the fate of Sukumaran and Chan, these included Australian policy on refugees, the decision of the Gillard government to halt live cattle exports to Indonesia due to mistreatment there, and revelations Australia tapped the phones of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his wife.
Likewise, a series of savage aid cuts under the Abbott government saw Australia suddenly walk away from Islamic education in Indonesia, to the dismay of many Muslim reformers.
Today, relations between Australia and Indonesia are more distant. Jemaah Islamiyah no longer seems a serious threat, but Islamist militants certainly remain. For Indonesian authorities, Darul Islam and the groups that emerge from it are a part of the political landscape, and have been since the republic was founded in the 1940s. They see them as a relatively minor threat, but one they expect to persist.
For Australia, the Bali bombings were the moment Al Qaeda’s war on the US and its allies reached us, albeit offshore in the nation’s favourite holiday resort. However, for governments here, the “War on Terror” is now being displaced by other security priorities, including the rise of the home-grown far-right.
But while it may be true that Jemaah Islamiyah’s Bali bombings are fast becoming history, that will never be the case for the many survivors in both countries. They continue to live with the consequences every day.