WASHINGTON — The discovery of a militant training camp in Indonesia, along with persistent terrorist attacks there, have increased U.S. concerns that extremists are regrouping and eyeing Western targets in a country long viewed as a counterterrorism success story.
With President Obama set to begin a visit Tuesday to the world's most populous Muslim country, there is renewed attention on terrorists in Indonesia who in the past year appeared to be banding together into a new al-Qaida-influenced insurgency.
The Pentagon has moved recently to renew a training program with Indonesia's special forces and bolster military assistance.
The U.S. has praised Indonesia's efforts to crack down on terrorists. Government police and military authorities have captured or killed more than 100 terrorists over the past year.
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U.S. defense officials, however, worry about the overall threat. They're watching for any signs of movement or increased communications between Indonesian extremists and al-Qaida leaders in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Obama's long-promised visit to the nation where he lived from age 6 to 10 comes as U.S. defense officials said Indonesia has exhibited both the will and the ability to pursue extremists.
That includes developing an aggressive rehabilitation program, as well as a consistent string of arrests, these officials said. Several U.S. defense and counterterrorism officials spoke about the threats on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence information.
But they also are concerned that some jailed militants have returned to the fight after their release. That raises questions about how effective the program is and how well authorities are tracking militants once they are free.
"There is a hard core that are not reformable," agreed Sidney Jones, an expert on the region and analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group.
The discovery of a terrorist training camp in the Aceh Province this year heightened U.S. fears that there may be other emerging threats in the country's remote regions that Indonesia has failed to ferret out.
According to Indonesian authorities, the Aceh group was plotting assassinations or an attacks similar to the one in Mumbai, India, in 2008. While recent attacks in Indonesia have focused on government and law enforcement, several high profile strikes in the past eight years have targeted Western interests.
Officials said it appears Indonesian militants have been inspired and, on occasion, encouraged by al-Qaida. While they suspect there has been ongoing communication, officials say they have little proof.
Last year, a proposed visit to the region by Obama triggered threats of a terrorist attack. Defense and counterterrorism officials said they believe the threats were for an attack on Western interests during the visit, but were not necessarily aimed directly at the president.
Obama postponed the trip because of other scheduling concerns, according to the White House. But extremists gloated that they had scared the American president away.
Counterterrorism officials say the threat has remained steady since the Aceh camp was discovered. They worry that other terrorist leaders, such as Umar Patek, who's believed to be in the Philippines, may be looking to travel back to Indonesia. Others suggest Patek, who's wanted in the 2002 Bali bombings, already may have returned.