Shortcuts / 12 October 2022

The 20th anniversary of the 2002 Bali bombings

It was on 12 October 2002 that 202 people including 88 Aussies were killed in a terror attack in Bali. This week marks 20 years since that horrific event, so in this Squiz Shortcut, we take a look at what happened on that night in downtown Kuta, who was responsible for the attacks, and how it changed our relationship with Indonesia.

Take me back to what went down that night.
So on a Saturday night at about 11pm in Bali – or 1am AEST – a suicide bomber walked into the popular Paddy’s Bar on the tourist strip in Kuta and detonated a massive bomb. And as survivors panicked and fled the bar, across the road terrorists detonated another bomb outside the Sari Club – this time in a van packed with explosives.

How awful…
It really was. We know the final death toll was 202 people – but that doesn’t account for the hundreds of injuries. The nightclub was packed full of tourists when it was effectively flattened by the blast.

When did the news begin filtering back to Oz?
Social media still wasn’t a thing in 2002, so when the Australian Federal Police’s head of counterterrorism at the time, Andrew Colvin, got the call in the early hours of Sunday morning, it was thought a gas cylinder may have exploded.

But it soon became clear it was no accident…
Yep – and that saw the AFP begin assembling a specialist forensic and investigative team. DFAT had its crisis line in full swing, with floods of calls coming in from Aussies worried about their friends and relatives in Bali. And Australia accepted Indonesia’s request to evacuate the seriously injured, as local hospitals just couldn’t cope.

That would have been a massive job…
It was a huge effort – 66 people were airlifted to Darwin. Many survivors had terrible burns and required amputations – they were then medivaced to hospitals around the country that were able to deal with their injuries. The attack actually transformed the way we deal with burn victims in Australia.

How so?
It was largely thanks to the work of Dr Fiona Woods from Royal Perth Hospital, who went on to become Australian of the Year. She pioneered a spray-on skin treatment and her team helped save 28 of those with the most shocking burn injuries.

Not everyone was so lucky though…
No, and so many young people were caught up in the tragedy. There were a lot of Aussie footy teams in Bali on end-of-year trips – the Kingsley Cats Football Club in Perth lost 7 young men and the Coogee Dolphins from Sydney lost 6 of its players.

Who was responsible for the bombings?
Initially, there was a lot of focus on Al-Qaeda because it was just a year on from the 9/11 attacks in the US and everyone thought an attack like the one in Bali required a certain level of sophistication and organisation.

And was it Al-Qaeda?
Well not directly… Two days after the attack, then-PM John Howard told federal parliament that Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was right in the frame. It’s an anti-Western, fundamentalist Islamic terror group based in South East Asia.

So it was inspired by Al-Qaeda?
Yep, and it was revealed that Al-Qaeda actually funded the attack in Bali. While the Bali bombings had been their first major attack on the West, in preceding years JI had been a big problem in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, with those countries accusing JI’s so-called spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir and operations chief Hambali of orchestrating terrorist acts there.

What kinds of attacks?
So JI assassinated the Phillippines’ ambassador to Indonesia and Singaporean authorities foiled another bombing plot. The group also carried out a terror attack on the Jakarta stock exchange and a series of bombings on Indonesian Christian churches on Christmas Eve in 2000, which claimed 18 lives.

So JI was on Indonesia’s radar before the Bali bombings?
Yes, and there were some arrests before then, but Bali was really the catalyst for a major operation to crush the terrorist group. Australian authorities got involved in forensic investigations and counterterrorism operations in Indonesia too.

What happened to the ring leaders?
Most of the main suspects were captured or killed in raids in the months after the bombings. Three of the bombers were executed after facing trial – they were involved in buying the van and the chemicals used in the explosions and one was the commander on the ground that night. They never showed remorse.

And the others?
Hambali is considered the mastermind of the attack and the link between Al-Qaeda and JI – he’s still in Guantanamo Bay being held by the Americans. He’s never faced trial and was called by former US President George W Bush one of the most lethal terrorists in the world.

And what’s this I’ve heard about some terrorists being let out of jail early?
So you may have read/heard in the Squiz Today that convicted bomb-maker Umar Patek is about to be let out on parole after serving just over half of his 20-year sentence.

That must be a tough pill for many Aussies to swallow…
The decision has caused a lot of distress to victims’ families. PM Anthony Albanese says he’ll keep making representations on behalf of the families.

And what happened to JI’s spiritual leader you mentioned earlier?
That’s Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. He’s Indonesia’s most high-profile radical Muslim cleric and the attacks would have required his approval. He only spent a year in prison for some minor conspiracy charges back in 2005 and then spent more time in jail for other terrorist incidents. He’s now 83yo and a free man.

Should we still be worried about terror attacks in Indonesia these days?
Well, when you look at the Smart Traveller website, the Australian government’s advice is to exercise a high degree of caution in Indonesia but there’s nothing specific about any terror threat.

Why is that?
Because Detachment 88 – the Indonesian counterterrorism squad formed in wake of the Bali attacks – managed to target a lot of terrorist cells linked to JI. By 2008 police had arrested 418 suspects and around 250 had been tried and convicted.

So after all that – how’s our relationship with Indonesia going?
The early release of some of the key figures in the attack has definitely caused some tension, but there’s been a lot more happening between the 2 countries over the past 25 years.

Such as?
Well, things were on the rocks for a while when Australia led the armed peacekeeping mission in 1999 to help East Timor achieve independence from Indonesia. The Bali bombings brought us back together, as did the huge joint response to the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004. And then the asylum seekers issue has been a thorny one for more than a decade.

So not a whole lot of great vibes in the relationship…
No, there is definitely some mutual suspicion and distrust. The Lowy Institute has surveyed residents in both countries and our trust in each other sits at about 50%. The latest irritation on Indonesia’s side is the AUKUS security pact we have with the US and the UK.

What’s the problem there?
Indonesia has been questioning why Australia needs to be in the nuclear submarine business – and it felt pretty blindsided by the decision.

But the Albanese government is trying to make amends?
It sure is – PM Albanese made Indonesia his first bilateral visit after winning the May election in an acknowledgement that it’s a very important strategic relationship for us.

Wasn’t that the trip with the bike ride?
Yep – there were some awesome pics of him riding a bamboo bike alongside President Joko Widodo.

In their business suits, no less…
It looked pretty uncomfortable… But the bike was a gift to Albanese from Widodo and it was a gesture he hadn’t made before to a foreign leader. So let’s hope it’s a sign of good things to come.

Squiz recommends:

Life-saving medical innovations and burns treatments that came from the Bali bombings, 20 years onABC News

Operation ALLIANCE: 2002 Bali Bombings – AFP Podcast

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