JAKARTA, Indonesia — Osama bin Laden’s death on Sunday made waves around the globe, but reactions were largely muted in Indonesia, painted by some as a former hotbed of terrorism, even as national police readied for possible retaliatory action.
Over the past decade Indonesia has witnessed several high-profile terrorist attacks linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate. The most famous was the 2002 bombing of a nightclub on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.
But the last major incident occurred in 2009, and since then the country’s counterterrorism police have arrested scores of terrorists linked to Jemaah Islamiyah and another radical training camp discovered last February near Aceh, an area some refer to as the Veranda of Mecca.
The reason, say analysts, is that the terror threat is changing from large terror groups to smaller, radical cells targeting locals rather than Westerners. As groups like Jemaah Islamiyah become weaker they’ve moved more toward recruitment activities, holding sermons and launches for jihadi literature that often serve as networking events.
Several recent low-level attacks, including the first-ever suicide bombing in a mosque inside a police compound in mid-April, have highlighted the shift in tactics.
So what does bin Laden’s death mean for Indonesia?
Sidney Jones, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Indonesia, said it could spark deep anger among radical groups, leading to possible retribution.
“His death is going to be deeply mourned by a lot of people, and I think the anger against the U.S. is also going to be quite high,” Jones said. “In terms of the impact on jihadi movements more generally, it’s not going to die simply because its figurehead did. I think we’re going to see a new wave of attacks in retaliation.”
Jones did acknowledge, however, that radical movements in Indonesia are limited by their capacity — meaning they’re small and lack the skills and funding needed to carry out large bombing campaigns. They are also increasingly driven by ideological trends in the Middle East, where Indonesia remains connected to radical leaders through translations of Al Qaeda texts and videos posted on the internet.
Jones said the main foreign influence was coming from Al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, an Al Qaeda affiliate active in Yemen and Saudi Arabia. So far, its message does not appear to have changed with bin Laden’s death. Al Qaeda in Southeast Asia, however, made a recent statement in support of the mosque bombing.
Whether or not bin Laden’s death translates to tangible change in radical movements, its symbolism has sparked plenty of positive responses. Al Jazeera reported that Indonesia's largest Muslim organization, Nahdlatul Ulama, said bin Laden’s death “would help restore Islam’s image as one of people, not violence.”
Meanwhile, the United States celebrated the news with pomp, as crowds gathered outside the White House Sunday evening chanting “USA” and waving flags.
U.S. President Barack Obama was more measured, saying justice had been done, but also noting that bin Laden’s death did not end the United States’ battle against extremism.
On the streets of Indonesia the news was greeted with little more than a passing comment among a gathering of motorcycle taxi drivers, food vendors and security guards.
“What do we think?” asked Sanno. “We think about how we’re going to eat. Osama bin Laden, that’s an issue way over there. So what?”