JAKARTA – Javanese-Arab militant Umar Patek was one of the last of the 2002 Bali bombers to be apprehended, in far-off Pakistan. Now, to the anger of Australians, he stands to be released after serving only half his term and within weeks of the 20th anniversary of their greatest peacetime tragedy.
Patek, 52, received a 20-year jail term in 2012 for helping assemble one of the two bombs, which killed 202 mostly foreign tourists, including 88 Australians, in the worst terrorist act since the 9/11 attacks in the United States the year before.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said he had been informed by Indonesian authorities that Patek would be released on parole after racking up nearly two years of sentence reductions for good behavior at a prison in East Java.
“This will cause further distress to Australians who were families of the victims of the bombing,” he said, indicating Canberra would continue to make “diplomatic representations” challenging the release of a man he described as “abhorrent.”
Australian tourists have only started to flood back into Bali after the Covid-19 pandemic prevented any travel to a tropical island they began turning into one of the world’s most popular surfing and holiday destinations in the early 1970s.
Many will visit or walk past the memorial commemorating the innocent victims of the twin blasts caused by powerful car and backpack bombs which ripped through two packed nightclubs along the Kuta tourist strip on October 12, 2002.
Rounded up in a massive manhunt across the length of Java, three of the Jemaah Islamiyah militants – Amrozi Nurhasyim, Huda bin Abdul Haq and Imam Samudra – were executed on the prison island of Nusa Kambangan in November 2008.
According to investigators, their fate had been sealed by two key clues – a carelessly abandoned motorcycle and the threads of a pair of jeans worn by one of the victims, vaporized as he leaned against the van carrying 1,020 kilograms of explosives.
Even then, only one-third of the device parked outside the Sari club actually detonated when the driver flicked a switch from inside the van just 15 seconds after an accomplice triggered a backpack device at Paddy’s bar across the street.
Of the core group of 20 militants and another 25 conspirators implicated in the plot, only Patek and Dulmatin remained at large, following a well-worn terrorist path to a long-established training camp on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao.
Subsequently killed in a shoot-out with Indonesian police in Jakarta in March 2010, Dulmatin had designed and assembled the Bali bomb, allegedly with Patek’s help, though he claimed during his trial that he had only mixed chemicals and had no particular expertise with explosives.
Expert Malaysian bomb-maker, Azahari bin Husin, killed in a 2005 shootout in an East Java hill resort, had to be brought in at the last minute to resolve problems with the electronic sequencing of the 30 detonators used to trigger the massive device.
How Patek got to Pakistan undetected is unclear, but Indonesian police believe he traveled on a commercial flight via Bangkok on a genuine passport he had obtained using a false name and identification card.
Carrying a US$1 million reward on his head, he was captured by security agents in Abbottabad in January 2011, just three months before American special forces killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden during a helicopter raid in the same city.
Officials ruled out reports Patek had met bin Laden, but said he had been picked up after a tip from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) before he could travel on to Waziristan on the Afghan border to join the Taliban.
There were claims at the time that Indonesia was open to Patek being sent to Guantanamo Bay, given the Indonesian Constitutional Court’s decision that the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law and its harsh provisions could not be applied retroactively.
The last of the bombers, Arif Sunarso, better known as Zulkarnaen, was finally tracked down in 2020, but he was only sentenced to 15 years jail earlier this year because the statute of limitations had run out on charges related to the bombing itself.
As head of JI’s military wing, the Afghan War veteran had in fact given the final order to carry out the blasts and despite his alleged involvement in subsequent attacks, he was prosecuted on a lesser charge of aiding and abetting terrorism.
News of Patek’s impending release came after Jemaah Islamiyah’s spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, attended this year’s August 17 Independence Day celebrations at his once-notorious Islamic boarding school in President Joko Widodo’s hometown of Solo.
The 84-year-old Ba’asyir and his followers had always refused to celebrate one of Indonesia’s most important days, insisting they would only do so if the Constitution was replaced by the Koran in their fight to turn the country into an Islamic state.
Earlier this month, he surprisingly appeared on a video saying he accepted the Pancasila state ideology because Muslim clerics were involved in framing the document in 1945 and also because one of its five principles was belief in one God.
The government responded by dispatching Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Culture Muhadjir Effendy to the ceremony, where he sat next to Ba’asyir and law enforcement officials who had spent years seeking to prosecute the cleric.
First arrested in 1983 for inciting his students to shun Pancasila, which counsels pluralism and religious tolerance, and for telling them that saluting the national flag was a form of apostasy, he went into exile in Malaysia for the remainder of president Suharto’s rule.
Although he was detained in connection with the Bali bombing, police could find no evidence of his direct involvement in the crime and he was only sentenced to 30 months imprisonment for giving his blessing to the conspirators.
In 2011, he received a 15-year jail term after it was discovered he had helped organize a paramilitary training camp for militant recruits in the jungles of Aceh in northern Sumatra. He was released in early 2021 and has lived quietly ever since.