JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia's ability to keep a lid on militant Islam is likely to be put to the test soon with the long-awaited execution of the Bali bombers, who killed 202 people in 2002 when they blew up two clubs on the resort island.
The three bombers, Amrozi, Mukhlas, and Imam Samudra, have become media celebrities during their years on death row.
Their execution by firing squad could turn them into martyrs in the eyes of hardline Islamic groups, who represent a small but vocal minority in officially secular, but predominantly Muslim Indonesia.
Hundreds, even thousands, of the Bali bombers' supporters are expected to escort the bodies of the three men as they leave the prison grounds and are driven to their home towns for burial.
To avoid the risk of clashes between followers and the police, the authorities may send the bodies home by helicopter instead.
"With hundreds of supporters and emotions running high, you could see mobs throwing bricks at police or police posts, or other symbols of government," said Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based security expert at International Crisis Group.
The Bali bomb blasts devastated the resort island's tourist industry and proved a wake-up call for Indonesia, alerting it to the threat from Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a militant Islamic group set on creating a caliphate in Southeast Asia.
JI plotted and carried out several other attacks in the region, bombing the Australian embassy and JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and beach restaurants in Bali. Western allies suddenly saw Indonesia as a second front in the war on terror.
But Jakarta responded swiftly. It forged security links with Australia and the United States, received help with the use of sophisticated technology and surveillance techniques, and, more controversially, engaged with members of the militant groups.
Indonesia's main counter-terrorism agency, Detachment 88, caused an uproar among Australians when it invited former JI members to a barbecue. But its methods, including the use of former militants to try to "turn" or "de-radicalise" extremists, have worked.
Altogether, officials say 450 militants have been arrested, of which more than 300 have been tried, ensuring that Southeast Asia's biggest economy has not experienced a major attack since 2005.
Still, that does not mean the threat is over. Some JI leaders, including Noordin Mohammad Top, remain free, while some hardline groups are growing more militant.
"As long as Noordin is still at large, Indonesia must always be on alert, because Noordin once said his intention was to attack every year as long as he lives," said Nasir Abas, a former JI commander who is related by marriage to one of the Bali bombers and who now helps the Indonesian police.
As recently as Tuesday, police said they had foiled a plot to blow up an oil storage facility in Jakarta, following raids on houses in Jakarta and Bogor, West Java.
While JI has turned its focus from Western to domestic targets in Southeast Asia, such as government agencies and police, some splinter groups could still pose a threat to foreign interests in Indonesia, Jones said, despite their lack of expertise and experience.
The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are moderate and do not support violence by militants.
In a recent survey by Setara Institute, 95 percent of those polled said they disagreed with organisations that used violence on behalf of religion, while 3 percent supported such action.
But the hardline minority can still wield considerable influence, through protests and political pressure.
Counter-terrorism officials say their job is made harder by the fact that their action is often portrayed as "anti-Islam" in the world's most-populous Muslim nation.
"In Indonesia, support for militant groups is strong because they are seen as fighting for Islam," said Ansyaad Mbai, a senior official in the coordinating ministry for political, legal, and security affairs, in contrast to Malaysia and Singapore where there is little public sympathy for militants.
These militants "will avenge their permanent enemy, the secular", said Mbai. "Even the government is considered evil, infidel."
(Reporting by Olivia Rondonuwu; Writing by Sara Webb; Editing by Bill Tarrant)
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