Umar Patek, indicted for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings, was driven to court this month in Jakarta. He arrived by armored SUV under the aegis of societal institutions he once raged against. Now, he sits before five Indonesian judges. He sits with legal counsel on trial and awaiting eventual judgment for the crimes of a terrorist (though he is not being tried for terrorism but rather, for murder. Indonesia did not pass anti-terrorism laws until 2003.)
After years of being hunted, Patek must account for a campaign of premeditated murder and bomb-making. He must answer for innocent lives he claimed — men, women, and children who had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at wrong time. Patek’s fate may not be as dramatic as that which befell Osama Bin Laden or Anwar al-Awlaki, but there are at least three reasons why the result is every bit as important.
The first reason is this: the Patek case illustrates the complexity of the terror threats we face. Modern terrorism challenges our national preference for parsimony. By our nature, Americans want to know the one or two things that need to be done to keep us safe. Give us this information, and we will roll up our sleeves and do the hard work. The Patek case reminds us that, unfortunately, the existent threat is much messier.
Patek’s story illustrates how the sinews of modern terror organizations bind together individuals, plots, and campaigns to create a shadowy fog of mutually supportive threats. In the 1990s, as a member of Jemaah Islamiya, Patek travelled to an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan. When he returned to Indonesia, he was tasked with overseeing Jemaah Islamiya’s training with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. He later established Camp Hudaibiyah — a full scale training facility for Jemaah Islamiya members.
On Christmas Eve 2000, Patek bombed churches in Jakarta. The 2002 Bali bombings he helped mastermind killed more than 200 people from twenty one countries. After these attacks, Patek carried out operations in Aceh. From Aceh, he fled to the Philippines where he again linked-up with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and with Abu Sayyaf. By 2011, Patek was in Pakistan — Abbottabad to be exact. There, he was captured when authorities followed an al-Qaeda operative to the safe house where he was staying.
Patek, and the threat he posed, was the product of a cooperative nexus that exists among terrorists, insurgents, and criminal groups. Patek floated among groups. In different locations, at different times, he provided his expertise and acquired new skills and new contacts. His case is not unique. It is indicative of a modern threat that denies us the one or two decisive targets we desire. The Patek case reminds us that terrorism denies us a parsimonious solution. Focused strength and effort are not enough. Even the strongest and most skilled cannot not knock out shadows or knock down fog — this brings me to the second reason why the Patek case deserves our attention.
The hunt for Patek, his eventual capture, and extradition illustrate the importance of deep and lasting collaboration among the law enforcement, intelligence, and security services of allied nation-states. Collaborative efforts on the part of the intelligence services of the United States, Indonesia, Australia, the Philippines, and others gathered key information about Patek. After the Bali bombings, their efforts pressured Patek, denying him repeat success on the same murderous scale.
Allied collaboration, however, did more than deny Patek another Bali — it brought him to justice. Information sharing among allied services created the conditions under which local police ended up following an al-Qaeda contact to Patek. Collaboration between Indonesian forensics teams and local Pakistani authorities provided key evidence for his prosecution. In fact, collaboration made his trial possible. It led to Patek’s extradition from Pakistan to Indonesia, despite the absence of a formal treaty for such.
The hunt for Patek reminds us that counterterrorism success requires collaboration. A purposive collaborative network comprised of the law enforcement, intelligence, and security services of allied nation-states represents the best means for generating the light and heat necessary to vanquish shadows and melt away fog. Counterterrorism success is not about overwhelming force at a decisive battle. It is about exposing those who would do us harm. This brings me to the third reason why Patek’s trial deserves attention.
Patek’s trial gives voice and recognition to his victims — we remember the faces and names of the locals and tourists he murdered. In doing so, we expose terrorists for the cowards and charlatans they are. The trial, and the attention we give it, allows us to highlight the fact that they are murders — not martyrs. In doing so, we reduce the salience of their narrative and erode the potential support (passive or active) that their propaganda seeks. Patek’s trial provides an important opportunity to expose terrorists as a threat to all who wish to live, work, and raise their children in a peaceful world.
Patek’s trial is under way. If we give due attention to this case, follow the proceedings, and reap the lessons to be learnt, we stand to enhance our ability to stop future terror networks. Should that be Patek’s fate, it will be every bit as important, and every bit as satisfying, as the righteous violence delivered by American drones or Special Forces.