Jakarta, Indonesia — After decades of dormancy under the iron-fisted rule of former dictator Suharto, Islamic militancy is on the rise in Indonesia and U.S. officials fear its newfound democracy is threatened.
They warn that Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida network has taken advantage of lax security to infiltrate Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation.
"Frankly, I think they are more dangerous to Indonesia than they are to the United States," Paul Wolfowitz, a deputy U.S. secretary of defense and former American ambassador in Jakarta, told the Indonesian news magazine Tempo.
Islamic extremists lost a bloody war against the secular government in the 1940s and '50s. An entire wing of the armed forces museum is dedicated to that war in an effort to warn of the dangers of religious militancy.
One diorama in the exhibit depicts terrified women and children screaming and cowering as armed men in black turbans shoot at them in a village square while thatched huts burn. Another shows Indonesian soldiers gunning down hordes of wild-eyed fanatics.
A possible new wave of Islamic militancy is an unwelcome side effect of democracy.
Suharto kept the lid on religious extremism during his 32-year rule. But when he was ousted in 1998 his once formidable and ruthless security services were left rudderless.
Meanwhile, a severe, four-year economic downturn has pushed 60 percent of the population into poverty. Millions have been left unemployed, providing recruits for radical organizations.
"Because of the economic crisis, we are seeing more people joining militant groups," said Dien Samsyudin, an official of the Indonesian Ulema's Council, a coalition of moderate Islamic clerics. "The emergence of Islamic militancy is influenced by social, economic and political injustices."
Indonesia has enjoyed a reputation for tolerance among its 170 million Muslims and 35 million Christians, Buddhists and Hindus. But since Suharto's downfall that has come under strain. Sectarian conflicts have flared in the Maluku islands and parts of Sulawesi island.
Even so, some people say radical Islamic groups remain small and insignificant, with little support among the overwhelming majority of Muslims.
"There are a few hundred Muslim extremists in Indonesia, a country of 210 million people," said Taufik Abdullah, chairman of the Indonesian Science Institute. "Don't take these groups seriously. They pose no threat to the government."
But, emboldened by their success in Maluku province, where they have killed thousands of Christians, Islamic militants have been asserting themselves in recent months.
In a sign that a six-month lull in the fighting in the Malukus may be ending, the main force behind the sectarian blood bath an Islamic militia known as Laskar Jihad says it is beefing up its strength.
The government of President Megawati Sukarnoputri has done little to rein in the sectarian violence.
Another radical Muslim group, Darul Islam, which staged the uprising five decades ago, claimed last week that it had trained dozens of foreign volunteers in handling weapons and explosives. Alone among Indonesia's Muslim groups, it also says it has links with bin Laden's followers.