What made Jakarta suicide bombers tick
By John McBeth
JAKARTA - Despite skepticism that a business breakfast was always the primary
target, there is one indisputable fact about the July 17 attacks on Jakarta's
Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels: not since the 2002 Bali bombing have so many
foreigners been killed in such a focused way.
That is clearly no coincidence, given the level of planning that went into the
bombings and the premium that Malaysian-born terrorist masterminds Azahari bin
Husin and Noordin Mohammad Top have always placed on killing Western
businessmen in particular.
An extensive planning blueprint for the second October 2005 Bali bombing,
downloaded off Azahari's laptop after he was killed in a
police shootout in East Java a month later, said bluntly: "The deaths of
foreign businessmen will have a greater impact than those of young people."
Noordin, who is widely suspected to be behind the latest attacks, never had an
active role in the 2002 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people, many of them
young foreign tourists. Azahari was only brought in at the last minute to help
iron out imperfections in the massive bomb that devastated the Sari nightclub
on the resort island.
In the October 2003 car-bombing of the Marriott Hotel, in which both Noordin
and Azahari were involved, a Dutch banker, a Dane and two Chinese tourists were
among the 12 victims. But all 10 killed in the 2004 Australian embassy bombing
in Jakarta were Indonesians; if the conspirators had chosen early morning or
lunch-time to carry out the attack, Australians no doubt would have died too.
In the second Bali bombing, the blueprint points to a much more concerted
effort to kill foreigners, again with Western businessmen perceived to be among
tourists targeted at two popular Jimbaran seafood restaurants. Even then, only
five foreigners were among the 20 people killed there and at a Kuta cafe some
It may not be the last time Bali is targeted because of the unusually large
percentage of overseas visitors and the headlines the two bombings created
around the world. As the 2005 document notes: "A mass attack on the enemy is
more possible there than elsewhere in Indonesia."
An International Crisis Group (ICG) report notes that a statement posted on a
radical website after the latest bombings referred to the hotels as the center
of "Jewish business activity" in Jakarta and went on to discuss how arousing
fear in the enemy is justified in the ongoing war between Muslims and infidels.
A subsequent posting entitled "Why was the Marriott bombed?" picked up on this
theme, asserting: "In Palestine Jews suffer and feel they are in hell because
every day they are the target of attacks and operations. But Jews never feel
worried about Muslim demonstrations in London or Jakarta."
The ICG's Jakarta-based terrorism expert, Sidney Jones, believes the bombers
returned to a hotel they had already attacked because it was the best way to
prove they could still attack - and that any place in the capital was
vulnerable. In that, they succeeded, exposing embarrassing holes in the
security of what had been touted as one of Jakarta's safest hotels.
Jones says one key question for the police to answer is how the relatively
expensive operation was funded. It is possible the money was raised locally,
either through donors or armed robberies, as it was for the 2005 Bali bombing.
But there are also suspicions it may have come from South Asia, raising the
specter of renewed linkages to al-Qaeda or its affiliates.
There is still a great deal of debate over whether the militants originally
planned to bomb the popular breakfast buffet at the Marriott's expansive
Sailendra coffee shop, given the similar location of the other blast in the
Ritz Carlton, which lies 50 meters away across the street.
In fact, for the first two or three days, most news reports erroneously
pinpointed the coffee shop as the scene of the attack, when it actually took
place in a quiet lounge at the other end of the Marriott lobby where American
consultant James Castle was hosting a weekly business breakfast for 17 of his
If the restaurant was the original target, then it was probably changed during
what may have been weeks of surveillance in which the watchers almost certainly
would have noticed the meetings Castle, a long-standing Indonesian resident,
held every Friday morning.
One compelling reason may have been to minimize Indonesian casualties, which
would have been high in a coffee shop full of Indonesian staff and Indonesian
patrons. The lounge was a much more inviting target with its long table full of
foreign executives and more confined space.
In the end, the Ritz Carlton bombing merely served to double the impact more
than anything else. In fact, the coffee shop was only sparsely populated and
while it is too early to draw any solid conclusions, the Dutch couple killed in
the blast were probably the only foreigners who presented a convenient target.
One thing the 2005 blueprint does underline is the extraordinary care the
militants take over surveillance. The inside man for the latest operation was a
florist, who had been delivering flowers to the Marriott and the Ritz Carlton
for the past three years and must have had considerable knowledge of the inner
workings of the hotels.
As valuable as he may have been, particularly in spiriting the well-dressed
Ritz Carlton attacker into the hotel through the employees' entrance, past
practice suggests most of the surveillance was carried out by the two suicide
"This way they will know the targets, and we don't need to worry about the fact
that most of the team members are police fugitives," the 2005 planning document
said. "There is no escape plan because the perpetrators will become martyrs.
They will go to the targets and not return."
The attention given to finding the best ways to blend in during the lead up to
the Bali II bombing was extraordinary. So as not to draw attention, the bombers
were directed to identify the exact type of shirts, pants, hats, shoes and bags
domestic tourists wore or carried in the area around the target.
One thing seems clear from the dramatic change in modus operandi for the
latest attack: by the time the man known as Nurdin Aziz telephoned in a
reservation to the J W Marriott on July 10 and then moved into Room 1808 five
days later, the militants would have settled on their primary target.
One of the survivors claims he thought he saw the bomber come into the lobby
lounge about 20 minutes before the explosion, look around and walk out. If that
was him, then he was not deciding where to bomb, but merely following the
procedures outlined in the 2005 plan.
"The perpetrators can walk around a few times first to make certain that the
target is full of foreigners, without bringing in the bag or bomb-backpack," it
says. "Then they can go back to get the bag or backpack that they've stored
somewhere else and come back on foot. God willing, it won't cause suspicion."
When the bomb did detonate in a blinding flash of light at 7:47am on July 17,
one witness claims it punched a hole in the floor clear through to the hotel
basement. That indicates high explosive was used, as it was in the first, much
more powerful, Marriott bombing, which also left a crater.
Killed in the explosion were three businessmen - a New Zealander and two
Australians - a young Australian trade official and at least one hotel
employee. Police are apparently waiting for forensic and DNA tests before
saying what happened to a missing hotel security man who confronted the bomber
as he entered the lounge.
Seven of the injured were flown to hospital in Singapore, including Castle's
critically hurt young Dutch assistant, Max Boon, who lost both legs below the
knee in the blast and still has a piece of shrapnel lodged near his heart.
Some theorists have claimed that a failed third bomb, made up of black powder
and bolts and discovered later in Room 1808, was a so-called detractor device -
designed to detonate in the room and drive frightened hotel guests into the
lobby where they would have been the slaughtered by the much larger bomb.
Experienced investigators, however, feel it was more likely meant either to
thin out security in the hotel or to destroy all the evidence in the room,
including the hotel's dismantled television set, which was used as a source of
electrical components for the downstairs bomb.
While it has clearly been edited by police, closed circuit television footage
shows the teenage bomber, a backpack strapped incongruously to his chest and
pulling a large carry-on bag, emerging from the elevators, angling left into
the lobby and heading straight for the lounge.
He is clearly not waiting for an expected explosion upstairs. If he was, it
would have been easier for him to walk through the main doors and blow himself
up among the hundreds of people who later gathered in the evacuation area at
the front of the hotel.
One final question is how people who were apparently incapable of flushing the
stand-up toilet in Room 1808 had the expertise to assemble a bomb. But
explosives experts do not find that particularly surprising. Rural youths may
never have seen a Western toilet but may be adept at often complicated
In any event, the backpack bombs are relatively simple to put together, judging
by the four pages of detailed instructions accompanying the 2005 blueprint,
which among other things note that the four switches on the device are there to
ensure it is not set off accidentally during transport by bus or motorcycle.
Noordin clearly favors two triggers. The instructions say it is also for
"safety" - but only in the sense that if the main system fails or the bomber is
taken by surprise or accosted in the target area, a back-up delay system he has
already activated detonates the device within 30 seconds.
"When the light is green then the agent will activate the delay system," it
says. "On the other hand, if the red lights are showing, the main system is
activated. Care must be taken in the final minutes with the agent totally
focused, submitting himself to God along with strengthening himself to execute
There is little doubt one or both of the two Malaysians, Noordin and Azahari,
wrote the manual. Malay words are sprinkled throughout and the sentence
structure is almost English in nature. The entire document serves as another
chilling reminder that for these people, killing is simply business.
Writing in Tempo newsweekly, veteran columnist Goenawan Mohamad said it all for
most Indonesians: "When shows of savagery that have lost their purpose are
confronted with something more worthwhile - a hope, an endeavor for a country
that is safe and democratic - we know who will win. We will, Indonesia."
It certainly seems that way. The day after the bombing, Bali's Kuta beach was
packed with sunbathing tourists. A week later, there wasn't a seat to be found
at the restaurants lining Jimbaran's sandy shore. In Jakarta, the stock
exchange climbed to its highest in nearly a year as incumbent Susilo Bambang
Yudhoyono was officially declared the winner of the July 8 presidential
More importantly, with commentators calling on the government to do more to
rein in the Islamic hatemongers who poison the minds of naive young men, a
popular movement appears to be stirring against extremism in general. His
mandate strengthened, Yudhoyono may now be encouraged to do more than follow
what he calls the "middle path", as he has done in the past.
John McBeth is a former correspondent with the Far Eastern Economic
Review. He is currently a Jakarta-based writer for the Straits Times of