How the Jakarta Bombers Slipped Through Hotel Security

How the Jakarta Bombers Slipped Through Hotel Security

He is a politician for whom the adjective “cautious” seems tailor-made. But in the aftermath of the July 17 bombing of two luxury hotels in Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono showed a new face to his nation. The attacks, which came just nine days after his resounding re-election, had deflated what was supposed to be a period of celebration. And so, just hours after suicide bombers struck the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels nearly simultaneously, killing at least seven bystanders, Yudhoyono addressed his country in an uncharacteristically emotional speech.

Holding up a picture of himself, the President said he received intelligence that gun-toting masked extremists had used his face as target practice. SBY, as the President is commonly known in Indonesia, also said that radicals had vowed that “there would be a revolution if SBY wins” and that “they wished to turn Indonesia into [a theocracy like] Iran.” Although, the President did not explicitly link such intelligence with the July 17 terror attacks, the implication was clear: the men who wanted to hurt Indonesia also wanted to damage the moderate ex-general who is leading the world’s most-populous Muslim-majority democracy.

During his first term in office, SBY had supervised a dramatic dismantling of the domestic Jemaah Islamiah terrorist network that is believed to have orchestrated a string of deadly attacks across Indonesia from 2002 to 2005, killing nearly 300 people. Dozens of high-level operatives from the al-Qaeda-linked group were jailed, and younger recruits were funneled through a re-education program designed to lure them away from JI ideology, which advocates the creation of an Islamic caliphate across Asia.

Now, police and security-analyst speculation has linked the latest bombings with a possible splinter group of JI run by Malaysian-born Noordin Top. The former accountant-turned-explosives guru has been on the run for years. Over the past few weeks, an anti-terrorist task force had been tracking Noordin’s network across the island of Java, arresting several of his alleged contacts. On July 14th police uncovered a cache of bomb materials at a home owned by a man they believe is Noordin’s father-in-law.

Just hours after the hotel explosions, police located and defused an undetonated bomb in a room on the 18th floor of the Marriott, where the bombers had stayed for two nights and presumably assembled their deadly loads. Indonesian police say that the nail-packed high-grade explosive was similar to the bomb materials found at the private home in central Java three days earlier.

The Marriott and Ritz-Carlton, which are located next door to each other, were reputed to have tight security, in part because of the previous hotel attack six years ago. Metal detectors were stationed at the entrances, while at the Marriott vehicles were not allowed to pull up to the lobby. On occasion, security guards opened the luggage of entering guests. But the terrorists were able to somehow evade the security measures by smuggling in bomb materials. On Saturday, a police spokesman said that one bag carrying the July 17 bomb materials had set off a metal detector but that security guards let it through after the owner said it was just a laptop computer. Spotty enforcement, it appears, is just as common as stringent checks at Jakarta hotels. Just hours after the Friday morning bombings, for instance, another luxury hotel in Jakarta performed a cursory check of an approaching taxi, not even bothering to use a metal-detector wand or mirror to check the underside of the car. A bomb-sniffing dog was on-site but was snoozing beside the security checkpoint.

Indonesia’s state-run news agency reported on Saturday that a security supervisor had actually spoken with one of the bombers, shortly before he blew himself up at the Marriott, asking where he was going with a backpack strapped to his chest while also pulling a wheeled suitcase behind him. The man apparently answered that he needed to deliver something to his boss, according to the Antara News Agency. Eerie closed-circuit video footage from the hotel of the moments before the detonation shows a man strolling through the lobby rolling a suitcase behind him. Seconds later, a burst of light obscures the camera’s view and the room is engulfed in smoke.

By Saturday, the outdoor sign for the Ritz-Carlton was sheathed with a black cloth. Bypassers piled flowers near a police cordon. Condemnation of the attacks came from across the globe. U.S. President Barack Obama, who lived in Jakarta as a child, labeled the bombings “outrageous attacks,” while Kevin Rudd, the Prime Minister of Australia, from where three of the dead victims hailed, said the violence made him “sick to the stomach.” But the strongest sentiments may have come from a man who isn’t usually known for his displays of emotion. On Saturday, SBY made a brief tour of the bomb sites, where a presidential spokesman characterized his mood as “furious.” It was, clearly, not a time for caution.