Australians targeted as massive blast kills nine and injures 170 in Jakarta
A plume of white smoke rose over the skyline of Jakarta yesterday after a car bomb exploded outside the Australian embassy in the Indonesian capital, killing at least nine people and wounding more than 170.
The bomb exploded shortly after 10.15am local time, just in front of the embassy's gate, flattening a section of the protective steel fence and shattering windows in high-rise office buildings. The blast was heard three miles away.
The street outside was smeared with blood and body parts. An Australian flag hung limply outside the embassy, over a facade of broken glass and gaping holes.
The bomb was a stark reminder of the continuing threat of Islamic militancy in the world's most populous Muslim nation despite numerous arrests and convictions of terrorists.
Two days before the third anniversary of the 11 September attacks, Al-Qa'ida's allies in Jemaah Islamiyah struck again. The organisation has been blamed for the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and a 5 August 2003 suicide bombing at the JW Marriott hotel, a few blocks from yesterday's bomb.
The latest attack came 11 days before a presidential election in Indonesia and a month before elections in Australia. It was also less than a week after Washington and Canberra upgraded longstanding travel warnings to their citizens in Indonesia, citing an increased risk of terror attacks by militants on Western targets.
Most of the dead were believed to be Indonesians. Although the embassy was damaged, it had been built with considerable blast protection. No deaths were reported inside.
Witnesses described seeing a mini-van drive into a road-divider just outside the embassy, which is in a strictly policed area that contains many diplomatic premises. The subsequent explosion broke windows up to a kilometre away and left an enormous crater in the ground.
Elizabeth O'Neill, who works at the Australian embassy, said she felt as if the wind had been sucked out of her lungs by the blast. "It was an "enormous bomb," she said. "The police truck outside has been blown to bits."
Azahiri Husin, a British-educated Malaysian engineer, was immediately named as one of the chief suspects, along with Noor Mohammed Top, also Malaysian. They are both believed to have been behind the Bali bombings.
Many experts believe that groups allied to al-Qa'ida are acting independently, mounting their own attacks, so US successes in hunting down leaders and operatives will not prevent further atrocities.
This particularly seems to be the case in Indonesia, where Jemaah Islamiah has a well-established network which appears to have survived a crackdown by the Indonesian authorities.
Yesterday's bombing may have been inspired by the Madrid bombings earlier this year, when Islamic terrorists blew up packed commuter trains on the eve of Spain's elections, killing 191.
Just as the Spanish elections were fought between a government that backed the US-led invasion of Iraq and a party that was against it, Iraq has become a central issue in Australia's election campaign.
John Howard's government is one of the few allies that the US has left in Iraq. It sent 2,000 troops to participate in the Iraq invasion and Australia still has more than 850 military personnel stationed in or around Iraq. Both countries remain deeply unpopular in Indonesia.
Mr Howard is facing criticism at home over his decision to join Washington's war, which his opponents say has made Australia more, not less, vulnerable to terror attacks. "This is not a nation that is going to be intimidated by acts of terrorism," Mr Howard told reporters after yesterday's attack.
Analysts were divided on how the bombing would affect the Australian election.
Mr Howard is considered stronger on national security than his Labour challenger, Mark Latham who has pledged to bring most of the Australian troops in Iraq home before Christmas and may benefit from the perception that Australia is under attack.