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Bali marks 10th anniversary of devastating bombing

October 12, 2012 | 10:01 am

Ten years ago, the bombing of two nightclubs in Bali resulted in 202 deaths and unsettled the long-peaceful island popular with Western tourists. On Friday, hundreds of survivors and their families gathered in Bali to remember the bombing, a devastating attack that mobilized Indonesia against terrorism.

Grieving families laid wreaths, scattered flower petals and cupped candles in prayer before a memorial monument. Thousands of police and military personnel guarded the gathering, watchful for a new attack. At one of Bali's famed beaches, surfers took to their boards for a “Paddle for Peace.”

Bombing victims included people from more than two dozen countries, including Australians, Indonesians, Britons, Americans and Swedes. The attack shook governments allied with the West; U.S. officials feared the bombing was part of a new global spasm of terrorist attacks.

As the 10th anniversary neared this week, Indonesian police said they had detected a new terror threat, but the news didn’t seem to deter the crowds bearing candles and flowers Friday. Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard insisted she wanted to be in Bali on the fateful date, remembering “the worst terrorist attack our nation has ever known.”

“Perhaps there is a grim reassurance in knowing that the terrorists did not achieve what they set out to do,” Gillard said in a speech at the memorial service. “They did not undermine Indonesian democracy, which has only grown stronger across the passage of a decade. And though our vigilance is greater, we have not surrendered the freedoms that brought us here in the first place.”

In the wake of the attack, Bali reeled economically as tourists steered clear of the island. Just as it  began to recover, a second attack nearly three years later killed dozens of people, again shattering its sense of security.

The Indonesian president at the time, Megawati Sukarnoputri, was accused of doing too little to combat extremism until it exploded into view. In response to the attack, the country passed new laws against terrorism. It pinned the crimes on a group tied to Al Qaeda and cracked down on the network.

Three men were ultimately convicted and executed in connection with the 2002 attack; hundreds more alleged militants were arrested in a broader crackdown on terrorism across Indonesia. Like Gillard, sitting Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono declared that the bombing had failed to achieve its desired effect, arguing in a Sydney Morning Herald column that it galvanized the country to quash terror.

Terror networks in Indonesia are now feeble and fractured, yet they are still at work, experts say. Extremists have hatched more than a dozen plots since 2010, the International Crisis Group said in a recent report.

Though Indonesian police have foiled many of their attempts, the government hasn’t stopped terrorist groups from continuing to recruit new members, the group warned. Extremists can easily crisscross the country, buying airline tickets under false names, it said. Another militant group was discovered in Jakarta last month.

Leery of returning to the restrictive rules in place under longtime autocrat Suharto, the government has also shied away from criminalizing speech that incites people to violence, said Sidney Jones, Asia program director for the International Crisis Group. Vandalizing churches or other lesser acts of violence have gone unpunished.

“It becomes a green light to go on to further levels of violence,” Jones said.


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-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles