20 Years After the Bali Bombings, What Have We Learned?

For an attack with such a high casualty count, it remains underanalyzed in the West.

By , an associate professor in the department of political science and international relations at Goucher College, and , the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center.
People look up at a large, beautiful memorial monument.
People look up at a large, beautiful memorial monument.
Foreign tourists visit the memorial for victims of the 2002 Bali bombings ahead of the 20th anniversary of the blasts, in the Kuta tourist area near Denpasar on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on Oct. 8. SONNY TUMBELAKA/AFP via Getty Images

Oct. 12 marks the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, when bombs ripped through two nightclubs frequented by Western tourists, leaving 202 people dead. The perpetrator of the bombings was a cell composed of members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamist group active across several countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

Oct. 12 marks the 20-year anniversary of the terrorist attack in Bali, Indonesia, when bombs ripped through two nightclubs frequented by Western tourists, leaving 202 people dead. The perpetrator of the bombings was a cell composed of members of Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamist group active across several countries in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

For an attack with such a high casualty count, it remains underanalyzed in the West, especially when compared with the 2004 Madrid train bombings or the London 7/7 bombings in 2005.

But there are valuable lessons to be learned from the Bali attack and its aftermath, lessons that are worth revisiting two decades later. These lessons are important for understanding not only terrorism in Indonesia but also terrorism more broadly.


Governments and security forces cannot afford to ignore the threat of terrorism

One important lesson is that governments may be slow to acknowledge the threat of terrorism because they are overwhelmed by other domestic priorities, because it is politically sensitive, or because doing so flies in the face of long-held cultural myths. However, doing so can potentially have disastrous consequences.

It took the 2002 Bali bombings for Indonesia’s government, intelligence agencies, and security forces to start taking the threat of jihadi terrorism seriously. While Malaysia and Singapore recognized the nature of the threat earlier, after disrupting homegrown plots, Indonesia was slow to acknowledge its seriousness. Why?

First, other challenges facing the country took precedence. Indonesia had gone through a major transition of power in the previous four years: the end of Suharto’s 32-year dictatorship; the first democratic elections since 1955; and the separation of the military from the police, with the military responsible for preserving Indonesia’s external security and the police its internal security. Communal violence had broken out in multiple regions of the country.

Second, some Indonesian politicians were reluctant to acknowledge the threat of terrorism because they did not want to alienate conservative Muslim constituencies, who did not believe the threat was real.

Third, there was a belief that Indonesia’s experience with Islamist militancy was something of the past. The Suharto regime had stamped it out. Indonesia was a country of devout moderate Muslims.

As a result, terrorism prevention was not a priority.

By failing to recognize the severity of the threat, security forces and counterterrorism agencies did not prioritize what should have been the most obvious targets—namely, lightly protected or unprotected establishments frequented by Westerners. Even after the Bali bombings revealed Jemaah Islamiyah as a network, politicians and the leaders of Indonesia’s influential Islamic organizations were reluctant to publicly acknowledge the threat of terrorism.

Had Indonesian authorities been more willing to recognize and address the mounting evidence of a terrorist network in their midst—and there was evidence, given that Bali was not the first attack by the network—they could possibly have headed off the Bali bombings.

Poorly planned terrorist attacks can still have devastating consequences

Another important lesson is that terrorist plotters can bumble through an operation and still succeed, overcoming ineptitude to still ensure lethality. The Bali plot was poorly executed in basic planning, logistics, and tradecraft.

One suicide bomber carried a backpack bomb and detonated it at Paddy’s Pub, while a more powerful vehicle borne-explosive device exploded across the street at the Sari Club, detonated by another suicide bomber in a Mitsubishi van. A third bomb exploded outside of the U.S. Consulate in Denpasar but only caused minor injuries to one individual.

According to Ali Imron, who participated in the Bali bombing, Amrozi, one of the key figures involved in the planning, “borrowed the car [for the attack] from someone who knew him very well”—which meant that, upon identification of the vehicle, it was exceedingly easy for authorities to pinpoint him as one of the participants. Another member of the planning team used his own cellphone for the attack. Moreover, no one checked to see if the appointed suicide bomber actually knew how to drive until the test run, when it was revealed that he could barely drive straight or turn corners. Imron drove the van a few blocks from the Sari Club and lined the car up in a straight line so that the suicide bomber only had to step on the gas to carry out the attack.

Despite these setbacks, the attack was successful. The bombers detonated themselves, killing 202 people and injuring hundreds more.


Not all terrorist groups agree on when and where to use terrorism 

Another important lesson is that terrorist groups may not be monolithic strategic and tactical actors. Jemaah Islamiyah’s leadership was divided over the use of terrorist attacks against civilian targets. The plotters of the Bali bombings were a faction within the group who wanted to ignite a civil war between Christians and Muslims and carry out al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa that called for violence against Western targets.

However, Jemaah Islamiyah’s main faction believed that violence was not suitable outside of legitimate zones of conflict where Muslims were under threat: Afghanistan during the Soviet-Afghan war, the Palestinian territories, Mindanao in the southern Philippines, and other global hot spots. They were not ready to launch attacks against the Indonesian state, let alone civilians with no connection to the group’s stated grievances. The group also did not have the support of the people. It was far better, the main faction believed, to focus on building a devoted core base of followers, spread the group’s message, and make preparations prior to launching any attack on the state.

As Jemaah Islamiyah was decimated by arrests following the 2002 attack, the anti-bombing view gained popularity, resulting in an eventual break between the pro- and anti-bombing wings of the group. The bombers, who called themselves al Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago, a title pointing to admiration for al Qaeda rather than affiliation, burned out after five years.

Jemaah Islamiyah, by contrast, has chosen to play the long game. When the government cracks down on the militants, they respond by prioritizing spreading their message and vision of Islam through preaching; strengthening future generations of members and sympathizers via their network of Islamic boarding schools; fundraising and developing businesses to ensure they have adequate finances; and recruiting new members.

When the security forces focus their attention on other threats and when opportunity permits, the group also focuses on obtaining paramilitary training for select members who show due commitment to the network and the cause, either through setting up training courses domestically or sending them abroad to Mindanao (in the late 1990s) and more recently to Syria.

Jemaah Islamiyah remains the most significant terrorist threat in the region because of its adaptability and flexibility. It will not be arrested into irrelevance.


Links to al Qaeda can be tenuous and personalized

In much of the Western media, especially in the early days and weeks following the Bali bombings, the narrative was that this was an al Qaeda-linked attack, spurring fears of a broader post-9/11 wave of jihadi terrorism across the world.

One of Jemaah Islamiyah’s top military leaders, Riduan Isamuddin (better known by his nom de guerre, Hambali), who pushed his followers to plan attacks against Western targets, had personal ties to both Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and bin Laden. Hambali admitted to serving as a logistician, facilitating the financing of the equivalent of $30,000 from al Qaeda to fund the Bali attack.

However, the Bali bombings were plotted and executed by Indonesian members of Jemaah Islamiyah—this was not a transnational attack in the mold of many of the hallmark al Qaeda attacks, which mostly involved more than merely financing. Outside of Hambali himself, the plot did not feature a significant amount of cooperation between al Qaeda leadership and Jemaah Islamiyah, nor did any al Qaeda senior leader play a role in the planning of the Bali attack. Those involved in the attack were not trained by al Qaeda either, a feature of many other transnational plots. Moreover, ties between Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda ended with Hambali’s arrest in 2003.

By conflating Jemaah Islamiyah and al Qaeda, counterterrorism authorities misappropriated resources and, in some ways, distorted the nature of the terrorist threat. It also contributed, in part, to a U.S. focus on Southeast Asia, which went on to include a long-term deployment of special operations forces to the region—an expenditure of resources that arguably could have been directed more effectively elsewhere.


Compared with other parts of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, there has been a dramatic decrease in terrorism in Southeast Asia, and many scholars and practitioners are looking for answers why. One reason is the collapse of the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria. At its apex, and under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the terrorist group made high-profile calls for followers and would-be supporters to flock to the Levant.

Without that siren song, there has been no magnetic force attracting Southeast Asian militants to make the journey. Closer to home, in the region, counterterrorism authorities and security agencies have clamped down on militant activity following a series of suicide bombings that rocked the region between 2018 and 2021.

Still, a decline in terrorism in Southeast Asia is far from indicative that the global jihadi movement writ large is suffering. On the contrary, al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates elsewhere are flourishing, yet many of the most prominent groups currently active are more concerned with local or regional grievances than anything on a global scale. Southeast Asia now must contain the terrorist threat on a local level, something countries in the region have had recent experience with. And while this does not guarantee success, it does provide a blueprint for continued progress in countering terrorism and violent extremism in the region—but now with a more local approach than one dictated from Washington.

Countries throughout Southeast Asia seem to have learned an important lesson after two decades of the so-called global war on terrorism. Some terrorist groups are less monolithic than others, and there may be moderate elements worth engaging in an effort to marginalize the most extreme factions. In addition, during times of heightened alert—as was the case in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks—potential targets should receive a surge of protective resources.

Julie Chernov Hwang is an associate professor in the department of political science and international relations at Goucher College. She’s the author of Why Terrorists Quit: The Disengagement of Indonesian Jihadists and the forthcoming Becoming Jihadis: Radicalization and Commitment in Southeast Asia. Twitter: @drjchernov

Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm headquartered in New York City. He is also a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, an independent nonprofit center offering research, analysis, and strategic dialogue on global security challenges and foreign-policy issues. Twitter: @ColinPClarke

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