CAUTION: This story includes disturbing, graphic content.
The four Indonesian teenagers were simply on their way to school Oct. 29 after attending a Girl Guide camp, still wearing the club's brown uniforms. When they crossed a cocoa plantation in Poso, Central Sulawesi, six men pounced, covered from head to foot in black ninja-like tunics. Wielding machetes, they hacked the heads off three of the girls and carved into the face of the fourth. She struggled away and fled to the next village.
Her panicked arrival alerted locals something horrible had happened. By 7:30 a.m., villagers found the decapitated bodies of her friends on the plantation.
The girls' heads were another matter. Locals found those between one and two hours later. The attackers carried them in two different directions, dumping two heads about six miles south of the murder scene at a police station and depositing the third eight miles west outside a Pentecostal church in Kasiguncu village.
With few traces of the murderers, some things were painfully clear: The beheadings and the victims pointed to another Muslim jihadi attack against Christians in an area where such crimes have spiked in the last year. The girls-Ida Yarni Sambue,15; Theresia Morangki, 16; and Alfrita Poliwo, 19-were students at Poso's private Christian Senior High School. The slayings increased pressure on the Indonesian government to crack down on rising terrorism.
Sectarian violence between 2001 and 2002 killed 1,500 in Central Sulawesi, a spillover of a Muslim-Christian conflict from the neighboring Maluku islands. Fighting there began in 1999 and spanned four years, resulting in 9,000 deaths. While the violence dipped dramatically after both sides agreed to a peace accord in 2002, attacks by mysterious assailants-usually against Christians-have persisted. Christians in Central Sulawesi, who make up half the region's population in an island nation that is 85 percent Muslim overall, have seen scant signs that their authorities are doing anything to pursue terrorists.
"Since the alleged 'peace' there has been no peace," said Jeff Hammond, a theological lecturer in Jakarta who lived in Poso for eight years. Since the peace treaty, he noted, Christians have endured about 70 attacks-village raids, bus bombings and shootings. On May 28, for example, terrorists bombed the crowded Tentena market in Poso, killing 22.
Photographs of the beheaded girls are authentic but too gruesome for publication. In them, the heads of the young girls rest next to their bodies atop white plastic. One photo displays the clean cut the attackers made through one of the victim's neck. Another captures a glimpse of the black undershirt one girl was wearing, emblazoned with the movie title, "The Princess Diaries." Blood soaks each of their brown blouses and flecks their faces, whose quiet expressions and graying pallor show few traces of their terror.
Authorities took the surviving girl, 16-year-old Noviana Malewa, to the main hospital in Poso but then transferred her to the provincial capital Palu under heavy guard. She was due to undergo surgery on her face. She was so traumatized after the attack, Mr. Hammond told WORLD, that she was not told of her friends' beheadings even days after the attack happened.
"This reign of terror has been going on for a number of years and there's a sense of desperation because the government doesn't ever seem to achieve anything," Mr. Hammond said. "The perpetrators never get caught."
Even terrorist strikes every few days or weeks could not prepare the public for the schoolgirl beheadings. Reports of the murders were plastered across Indonesian newspapers. Television footage showed families wailing around the girls' coffins, where the victims lay with heads re-attached wearing white gowns and holding bouquets.
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called an immediate cabinet meeting when he heard of the murders, demanding that police capture the attackers. "I condemn this barbarous killing, whoever the perpetrators are and whatever their motives," he said. Some 1,000 troops and police officers patrolled Poso after the killing to prevent revenge attacks.
While Mr. Yudhoyono pledged that the military would prevent such future murders, Christians in Central Sulawesi know a different story. Terrorist training camps have been functioning for years in the region, with little disturbance from local authorities. They are a well-oiled vestige of the conflict at the turn of the century, when thousands of Muslim jihadis poured into Central Sulawesi and Maluku to fight against Christians. Many of the fighters stayed even after the peace accords, melting into the local population. Others are locals who are still using their jihadi skills to deadly effect.
An Oct. 13 International Crisis Group report explains why the terrorists remain so poisonous. They are a combination of different radical organizations, including Jemaah Islamiyah, often considered the Southeast Asian branch of Al Qaeda. Others are local groups such as KOMPAK and Darul Islam, groups that "believe that parts of Maluku and Poso, but particularly Poso, have the potential to develop into a qoidah aminah, a secure area where residents can live by Islamic principles and apply Islamic law . . . such a base could then serve as the building block of an Islamic state, and Maluku and Poso thus remain a focus for religious outreach and recruitment efforts."
The big question is why the government has done so little in those areas to squelch terrorism. Scott Flipse, East Asia director for the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, has traveled to Sulawesi and said locals were easily able to point out terrorist camps and even their trainees. "If we know where these groups are now, there needs to be the political will to act," he said.
With few prosecutions, local Christians theorize that the government has been impotent because sympathizers with the Islamic militants exist among the security forces and police. An even bigger worry is the military itself.
Since the fall of President Suharto, who ran a military dictatorship until 1998, the military has had little government funding, having to raise 70 percent of its budget from business and other interests. The military has no civilian oversight, leaving it largely unaccountable. At worst, some believe the military is abetting militant attacks, using sectarian violence to justify its size and presence. But, Mr. Flipse asks, "if the military doesn't stomp out terrorism, how is it going to get done?"
Mr. Yudhoyono is also strung across a wide political chasm. When he ascended to the presidency last year, he counted on the support of a broad spectrum of Indonesians. Christians and Muslim extremists alike voted for him, and he had to cobble together a disparate coalition to govern the fractious and farflung archipelago.
"Parts of the political coalition came from more radical fringe groups," Mr. Flipse said. "If they didn't vote for him, they are at least being offered protection to say things and do things they weren't [doing] before the election a year ago."
Fresh hopes for democracy bloomed when Mr. Yudhoyono took power, but now the reality is different. Radical Muslim groups have been issuing fatwas against moderate Islam, extremists have shut down dozens of churches in West Java and three Sunday School teachers are serving prison sentences for "Christianizing" Muslim children. In that climate, the pressure is on the government to protect its minorities. The world's most populous Muslim nation has always enjoyed a reputation as being tolerant and moderate. But as a virulent minority gains both power and publicity, Indonesia will have to battle for its very soul.