10 years after their world changed

This story originally appeared on The Straits Times, Think on Oct 7, 2012. On the night of Oct 12, 2002, two suicide bombers set off explosives that killed 202 people and injured as many more in the heart of Bali's tourist district. South-east Asia's deadliest terror attack changed the resort island as well as Indonesia.

Ngesti Puji Rahayu remembers that Saturday night as if it happened last weekend.

She was 40 years old, and out with a friend at the packed Paddy's Bar in Jalan Legian, the heart of Kuta's nightlife district.

Suddenly, she found herself flying, hurled against the disc jockey. "It was like a ball of fire smashed into my face," says Ms Rahayu.

Now a cook in Denpasar, she has scars on her cheek and keloids on her left arm as reminders of the blast.

It was shortly after 11pm, and a suicide bomber had blown the place up. The bomber arrived in a white Mitsubishi L-300 minivan which he had left outside the bar.

Scores of panicked partygoers fled Paddy's only to be hit by the impact of the exploding van, which had been filled with 300kg of explosives set off by a second suicide bomber.

The thatched roof of the Sari Club across the road from Paddy's went up in flames, scorching dozens inside.

People in vehicles on the street were burned, some killed, others injured.

As the flames spread, dozens of people clambered over walls, searched for those they knew, and rushed the injured to safety. People living several kilometres away reported hearing the blast, and seeing the sky turn red that night.

The final death toll was 202 - 88 Australians, 38 Indonesians, 24 Britons, 50 others from 20 countries, and the two suicide bombers. Among the dead were eight members of the Singapore Cricket Club's rugby team - seven Britons and an Australian. Two bodies were never identified.

The names of all 200 victims are etched on the Bali blast memorial site, where Paddy's once stood.

Terror hits home

In the days after the attack, fearful tourists scrapped travel plans to Bali. Those already there cut short their stay. Occupancy rates at hotels plunged.

Across the island, everyone from handicraft makers to food stall operators to travel guides felt the pain. It would be months before the local economy recovered.

Some officials in Jakarta nursed conspiracy theories. Some said the United States Central Intelligence Agency had set off a nuclear device to scare Indonesia into backing the US-led war on terror.

But as the enormity of the blast hit home, many previously sceptical of a home-grown terrorist network were finally convinced of the danger in their midst.

Well-respected Balinese police officer I Made Mangku Pastika - now the island's governor - was dispatched to head the investigation, aided by investigators from Indonesia, Australia and other countries.

The first lucky break was soon found beneath the chassis of the explosive-laden Mitsubishi minivan - a registration number.

The van had been sold to Amrozi, the operations coordinator and a brother of plot leader Mukhlas.

The names rang a bell for an Indonesian investigator who had interviewed Jemaah Islamiah (JI) detainees in Singapore.

Mukhlas had been principal of a clandestine Islamic school, Lukmanul Hakiem, set up in Ulu Tiram, Johor, by followers of exiled JI leaders Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir. Many of the key Bali plotters had spent time there.

After the fall of then president Suharto in 1998, Bashir returned to Ngruki, his Islamic boarding school in Solo.

Weeks after the blast, Amrozi was arrested in his village of Lamongan, East Java. By July 2003, police had arrested more than 83 suspects, including another of his brothers, Ali Imron, who had driven the two suicide bombers, Jimi and Iqbal, to Kuta.

The plotters' eventual goal, it emerged, was to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia through violence. By attacking Westerners in Bali, they hoped to draw global attention and avenge the supposed oppression of Muslims by America and its allies in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Months before the Bali blasts, in December 2001, some 15 JI operatives had been arrested in Singapore. They had been planning attacks on several government buildings, embassies and US servicemen in Singapore, and their arrests enraged JI operations chief Hambali.

He called a meeting in Bangkok in early 2002. Mukhlas was there, as were Malaysian bomb-makers Noordin Top and Azahari Husin, and JI treasurer Wan Min Wan Mat.

It was at this meeting that Hambali - now in US custody in Guantanamo Bay after his capture by the Thai authorities in 2003 - decided to attack soft targets like bars instead. He assigned Mukhlas to oversee the Bali bombing.

Since the blasts, police have captured or killed the main plotters.

Key players Amrozi, Mukhlas and Imam Samudra remained defiant, even laughing at their trial. All three were executed by firing squad in 2008. Ali Imron is serving a life term (see story below).

The last of the Bali bombers to face justice, Umar Patek, was sentenced this year to 20 years in jail.

Terror kept in check?

The Bali blasts forced Jakarta to act decisively.

Police inspector-general Ansyaad Mbai was appointed head of a desk leading the fight against terrorism in the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal and Security Affairs.

When he protested to then minister Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, now President, that he had no background in the field, Dr Yudhoyono replied: "No one in Indonesia has that."

Now head of the National Counter-Terrorism Agency, Mr Ansyaad notes that more than 600 terrorists have been arrested since the Bali blasts.

Still, the authorities were helpless in preventing attacks in Jakarta - twice at the JW Marriott Hotel in 2003 and 2009, and once at the Australian Embassy in 2004.

And police are detecting a worrying new trend - repeat offenders. A total of 23 out of 200 people detained for terrorism in 2010 and last year had been in prison before.

Mr Ansyaad wishes Indonesian MPs were more willing to back tougher laws on terrorism.

"Instead, people say police are trigger-happy, brutal, even when it's a firefight," he said.

Professor Rohan Gunaratna of Singapore's International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research notes that incitement, recruitment and fund-raising for terrorist activities continue in Indonesia.

But the Bali blasts shocked regional governments into cooperating better, splintering terrorist groups and sending them underground.

"Instead of one JI, today we have 10 JIs, but they are not as powerful," Prof Gunaratna tells The Sunday Times. "If not for Bali, this region would have become like Afghanistan-Pakistan," he adds, noting that it had been called the "second front" in the fight against terror.

Picking up the pieces

Ten years on, the blast memorial at Jalan Legian is packed with tourists and locals at weekends. The police post and bomb squad vehicle nearby are a reminder that the threat remains.

Bali's tourism boom had drawn many Muslim migrants from Java, causing some unease among the Hindu-majority islanders. The bombings heightened these tensions.

It did not help that three years later, two smaller bombs went off in Jimbaran and Kuta on Oct 1, 2005 - 23 people died and more than 100 were injured, and tourism was hit again.

Local leaders came up with a slogan, "Ajeg Bali", or resilient Bali. Hindu Balinese began using the words "om swastiastu" as an alternative to the Muslim greeting "assalamualaikum".

Still, overt communal tensions have remained negligible, Home Ministry official Gede Putu Jaya Suartama, who heads the division responsible for national unity in Bali, tells The Sunday Times.

"Many are mindful of the need for good relations with one another," he says. "There is also widespread belief in the laws of karma and fear that if you do something untoward, it will rebound on you later."