The nearly 200 deaths in Saturday's vicious bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali have drawn the attention of the world to the presence of Islamic extremism in Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country. Much of the comment has suggested that this is a new front in the war on terrorism and that it may be the beginning of attacks by extremist groups in Indonesia.
But such attacks are not new in Indonesia. In the last three years, growing attacks by Islamic militants have left thousands dead. What is different is that this attack was aimed largely at foreigners. For Indonesians, it continues a pattern of suffering that they have come to know only too well.
In eastern Indonesia, on the islands of Maluku and Sulawesi, ongoing fighting between Christians and Muslims has left more than 10,000 dead, and up to half a million refugees. Attempts at reconciliation between the communities, which had lived in peace and cooperation for many years, were succeeding until mid 2000, when the Laskar Jihad, a radical Islam militia from the island of Java, intervened.
Using thousands of trained and uniformed militiamen, often armed with automatic rifles, the Jihad transformed local conflict into full-scale religious cleansing. It swept through Maluku, burning villages and killing and driving out Christians (as well as the few Hindus and Buddhists) while Indonesian government security forces stood by.
The Jihad then moved to Sulawesi. In July 2001, thousands of jihadists began arriving, after officially informing the local governor of their coming. They said publicly that their goal was to drive out all Christians and institute an extreme version of Islamic sharia law. Violence is ongoing in Sulawesi, with sniper attacks, bombings and church burnings. On Aug. 12, the village of Sepe, with a population of about 1,250, was totally burned down.
At the other end of Indonesia, the province of Aceh has had a long struggle for independence, combining brutal guerrilla attacks and equally brutal army violence. Aceh, often called "the Gateway to Mecca," has long had a more restrictive form of Islam than the moderate forms practiced throughout the rest of the country, but most analysts thought the independence movement was more nationalist than Islamist in ideology. Yet since Indonesia's Legislature granted the province a large measure of self-government in July 2001, it too has instituted Islamic law, demanded that churches be closed and started to put up signs in Arabic.
In the central island of Java, there has been an escalation of violence against Christians and ethnic Chinese, a frequent scapegoat in troubled times. Over Christmas 2000, there were church bombings in 18 cities, killing 40 and wounding hundreds. Recent intelligence reports indicate that groups linked with al Qaeda carried out the attacks.
America has shown comparatively little interest in these attacks and in Laskar Jihad, since the militia seemed to restrict itself to killing Indonesians, not Americans. Instead, U.S. attention has focused more on the Darul Islam group, and on Jemaah Islamiyah, which is believed to have links to al Qaeda.
American officials believe that Jemaah Islamiyah's leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, and its operational head, Riduan Isamuddin, are trying to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, and have plotted bomb attacks against U.S., British and Australian embassies.
However, as in much of the world, Indonesia's domestic and international terrorist groups have similar agendas, and frequently cooperate with one another. There are strong indications that one of al Qaeda's three training camps in Indonesia was in Laskar Jihad-controlled Sulawesi, while another was in Aceh. The Jihad has said that its enemies are the Christians of Maluku, the United States of America ("the International Terrorist Boss") and the "Israeli Zionist evil."
The horrific events in Bali illustrate all too starkly that Islamic radicalism is not only a Middle Eastern problem. It is important in Asia and Africa as well. While these radical Islamic groups may not, as yet, be "terrorists of global reach," and hence American targets, they are the recruiters and allies of those terrorists, and meanwhile wreak havoc in their own countries.
If the Laskar Jihads flourish, then anti-American movements and terrorism will also flourish. We need to pay attention to Islamic terrorism when it kills local people, not only foreigners.
This article appeared in The New York Post.