Australia/Israel Review

Essay: The Rebound

Apr 28, 2009 | Zachary Abuza

By Zachary Abuza

Islamist terrorism may have its roots in the Middle East, but it has long since expanded globally. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, is no exception. Jemaah Islamiah has for more than 15 years fought to transform Indonesia into an Islamist state. In recent years, its terrorist campaign has suffered setbacks. As Jemaah Islamiah regroups, it builds upon the experience of Middle East terrorist groups. From al-Qaeda, it adopts philosophical underpinnings that guide its dual strategy. From Hamas and Hezbollah, it borrows an “inverse triangle model” in which a broad network of social services supports a smaller jihadist core, and from Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf emirates it adopts a model of charities and NGOs that help Jemaah Islamiah advance its jihadist goals.

What Is Jemaah Islamiah?

Jemaah Islamiah was founded sometime in 1992 or 1993 by former members of Darul Islam, an Islamist movement that emerged during Indonesia’s fight for independence from the Netherlands but that continued armed struggle for more than a decade after independence. Members of Darul Islam grew especially frustrated with their political emasculation under General Suharto’s rule (1965-98). Jemaah Islamiah’s founders, Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir, conceptualised the group as a covert organisation that would topple the secular state through a combination of political agitation and violence. Jemaah Islamiah’s primary founding document, Pedoman Umum Perjuangan al-Jama’ah al-Islamiyyah (PUPJI, “The General Guidebook for the Struggle of Jemaah Islamiah”) outlines the role of clandestine cells and describes the Islamist struggle in terms of guerilla warfare. By the end of the decade, Jemaah Islamiah had become an al-Qaeda affiliate, receiving financial and material support from the group. Several top Jemaah Islamiah operatives even received instruction in Afghan training camps.

Jemaah Islamiah sought advantage from the collapse of Suharto’s authoritarian rule and Indonesia’s descent into a chaotic decentralised democracy. Beginning in 1998, Jemaah Islamiah launched the “Uhud Project,” whose goal was ridding regions of the country of both Christians and Hindus in order to establish pure Muslim enclaves, governed by Sharia (Islamic law). Its two paramilitaries, Laskar Mujahidin in the Moluccas and Laskar Jundullah in Central Sulawesi, engaged in sectarian bloodletting against Christians and Hindus until, in 2002, the government was able to broker the Malino accords, enabling a fragile truce. Meanwhile, Jemaah Islamiah began a bombing campaign in 2000, killing several hundred people, including 202 in one attack in October 2002 at a Bali nightclub.

Indonesian authorities fought back. Security forces arrested more than 450 Jemaah Islamiah members, prosecuted over 250 terrorists, and eviscerated the organisation’s regional cell system. Victory was not complete, however. More than a dozen hardened Jemaah Islamiah leaders remain at large; some, such as Noordin Muhammad Top, have significant organisational skills. Others, such as Zulkarnaen and Dulmatin, have technical and military capabilities. As recently as June 2008, police raids have netted large caches of bombs and bomb-making material, suggesting that Jemaah Islamiah’s commitment to terrorism remains high.

Justifying a Soft Power Strategy

With the exception of Ali Ghufron (known also as Mukhlas), executed last November for his role in the 2002 Bali bombing, Southeast Asian jihadists have no important homegrown theoreticians. Jemaah Islamiah has filled the gap by drawing upon the works of al-Qaeda’s three most important thinkers – Abu Musab as-Suri, whose main work is the 2002 tract “Call to Worldwide Islamic Resistance”; Abu Bakr Naji, who wrote the 2004 document “The Management of Savagery”; and Abdul Qadir (Dr. Fadl), who, in November 2007, penned “Rationalising Jihad in Egypt and the World.”

Together, these authors provide theoretical sustenance to Jemaah Islamiah’s revitalisation of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, a civil society organisation affiliated with Jemaah Islamiah, and other overt organisations. Suri, for example, argued that al-Qaeda’s blanket opposition to democracy was counterproductive and that jihadists should instead work with Islamist political leaders and parties. Naji concurred. “If we meditate on the factor common to the movements which have remained, we find there is political action in addition to military action,” he explained. “We urge that the leaders work to master political science just as they would to master military science.” Naji’s specific recommendations that jihadists be able to justify their actions in Islamic law and reach the people directly without reliance on state media parallel the strategy implemented in Egypt by Sayyid Qutb who, in the Muslim Brotherhood, combined a mass-based movement and a network of covert cells.

Today, Jemaah Islamiah pursues a three-front strategy of recruitment and expansion of cells, religious indoctrination and training of its members, and instigation of sectarian conflict.

The PUPJI outlines the three phases of jihad: iman (faith of individuals), hijrah (building a base of operations), and then jihad qital (fighting the enemies of Islam). One section of the PUPJI states that Jemaah Islamiah can engage in overt activities in order to proselytise and build a base of support. But the bulk of the document is a guide for clandestine operations and cell-building, the path Jemaah Islamiah leaders most closely follow.

The Rebound

After the Indonesian crackdown that began in 2003, Jemaah Islamiah reverted to recruitment and indoctrination for several years, but it has again begun to build a base of operations, especially in Central Sulawesi and the Moluccas. As the group sought to recover from the blows inflicted by Indonesian counterterror forces, debate raged about how to move forward. The International Crisis Group’s Sydney Jones, a leading expert on Indonesia, describes factional rifts inside Jemaah Islamiah between proponents of sectarian bloodletting and those who wish to target the Indonesian government and Western targets. Such strategies, however, are not mutually exclusive. Since 2004, Jemaah Islamiah has increased bombings, assassinations, and raids on military and police facilities. The November 2005 beheadings of three Hindu schoolgirls was meant to undermine confidence in the state.

By provoking sectarian attacks, Jemaah Islamiah can broaden its definition of a defensive jihad. Such vigilantism enables it to contend that Jakarta has abdicated responsibility by not coming to the defence of the Muslim community, enabling Jemaah Islamiah to pursue its goals with greater popular support. Since mid-2006, the Indonesian police have taken seriously the threat of sectarian violence after uncovering documents emphasising the centrality of sectarian bloodletting to Jemaah Islamiah’s efforts to regroup.

Religious indoctrination has become a parallel component of Jemaah Islamiah strategy. The group has sent high-level cells to Pakistan for advanced religious training. In 2003, for example, Jemaah Islamiah sent 19 children or brothers of high-ranking Jemaah Islamiah members to study in the Lashkar e-Toiba madrassa, an Islamic school in Lahore, Pakistan, which has ties to the Taliban. Although Pakistani security arrested and deported them in fall 2004, Jemaah Islamiah has been able to conduct more such training in Indonesia where the group runs a network of approximately 60 madrassas and has launched its own publishing houses: al-Alaq, the Arafah Group, the al-Qowam Group, the Aqwam Group, and Kafayeh Cipta Media.

Such a strategy is not unique to Indonesia and, indeed, has been frequently practised in the Middle East. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood regrouped in the wake of the Egyptian government’s mid-1990s crackdown by concentrating on mosques, publishing, and proselytising. Likewise, for more than a decade before Israeli Arabs became involved in Palestinian violence, the Islamic Movement within Israel maintained its own educational institutions and publication houses in the Israeli town of Umm al-Fahm. Lebanon, too, has become home to a number of Islamist publishing houses.

Jemaah Islamiah’s Inverse Triangle

Like many Middle Eastern Islamist groups, Jemaah Islamiah has embraced the inverse triangle in which a broad range of charities and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) serve as cover for a narrower terrorist mission. And like many Islamist groups in the Middle East, as Jemaah Islamiah regroups, it shows no intention of abandoning its core ideology even as some Indonesian officials wishfully see moderation where none exists. As the organisation seeks to rebuild, it becomes an example of how al-Qaeda affiliates, beaten back by successful counterterror strategies, regroup using both the democratic process they simultaneously fight and the legitimacy naively bestowed by the international community on any organisation that calls itself a non-governmental organisation.

Jemaah Islamiah has adopted a Hezbollah model of social organisation in which most of the group’s activities are overt charitable work and provision of social services even as a component of the organisation clandestinely pursues terrorism. Beginning in the 1980s, Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shi’ite political group founded by Iran in the wake of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, began to construct a large network of educational institutions and social services both to complement their military wing and to serve as a recruitment tool. Slowly, Hezbollah built a state within a state in Lebanon, preventing anyone within its territory the option of remaining outside the group’s influence. Even as Hezbollah conducts terrorist activities against Israel and within Lebanon itself, many in the international community refuse to define the group as a terrorist organisation, in effect arguing that social work is exculpatory

Hamas has implemented the same model. While Hamas is a lethal terrorist organisation that has employed at least 60 suicide bombings since the second intifada began in September 2000, many Palestinians and Europeans argue that the group’s network of schools, orphanages, clinics, and social welfare organisations bestows some legitimacy.

In Jemaah Islamiah’s case, the base of the inverse triangle is Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, an umbrella organisation for political parties, NGOs, civil society organisations, and individuals committed to transforming Indonesia into an Islamic state. Created in 1999, the organisation has an office in Yogyakarta, publishes conspiracy-laden and vehemently antisemitic and anti-American books through Wihdah Press and its own magazine, Risalah Mujahidin, lobbies political officials, and in 2001 and 2003, held high-profile national conferences. Muhammad Jibril, son of Jemaah Islamiah leader Muhammad Iqbal Abdurrahman, runs Ar-Rahman Media, its multimedia publishing house. The use of diverse institutions is deliberate, even as the antipathy toward Indonesian democracy is pronounced. Muhammad Jibril told al-Jazeera,

We want an Islamic state where Islamic law is not just in the books but enforced, and enforced with determination. There is no space and no room for democratic consultation.

At a November 2006 sermon at a mosque in Kediri, East Java, Jemaah Islamiah founder Bashir urged his followers to go abroad to wage jihad, though without explaining why. “If you want to go on jihad, do not do it here [Indonesia] but in the southern Philippines or even in Iraq.” He said the Bali bombers were legitimate jihadis even if their jihad was “not at the right time or place.” Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia may have switched tactics with regard to the desirability of terrorism inside Indonesia, but they have not altered their commitment to violent jihad.

Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia has to some extent become Jemaah Islamiah’s equivalent of Sinn Fein, the political party that existed solely to mirror the Irish Republican Army’s aims. Jemaah Islamiah uses Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia to achieve whatever aims it can through the democratic process. Thus, the Majelis Mujahidin advocates for Islamic law components to all major bills and laws. It seeks, for example, to push Indonesian penal law into conformity with Islamic law and has urged local Islamic communities to lobby regional representatives for Islamic law at the local level. It is a strategy that is both well organised and effective. Nearly 40 regional governments have taken steps to implement Islamic law, regulate interaction between men and women, obligate Koran reading, and ban alcohol.

Jemaah Islamiah’s engagement in the political process is a cynical short-term tactic in its longer-term strategy to eradicate democracy. “The democratic system is not the Islamic way,” Bashir explained. “It is forbidden. Democracy is based on people, but the state must be based on God’s law – I call it Allahcracy…Islam’s victory can only come through da’wa and jihad, not elections.” Many Jemaah Islamiah leaders hold concurrent positions in Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, giving themselves a patina of legitimacy and political cover. Since his release from prison in October 2004, Abdurrahman (Abu Jibril), for example, has used Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia as his base of operations. But his message has not necessarily changed. In one recruiting film produced by Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, Abdurrahman calls on his congregants to wage a violent jihad. Armed with a pistol extended into the air he exclaimed, “You can’t just have the Koran without the steel. You will bring down the steel.”

Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia has grown increasingly confident and combative in dealing with the government, which it accuses of leading a witch hunt against Muslims. Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia has begun issuing “summons,” or official complaints, to the police in order to intimidate them and influence investigations of suspected terrorists.

Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia also serves as a link between Jemaah Islamiah and Saudi financiers. Many Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia leaders hold or have held concurrent positions in Saudi charities and their Indonesian counterparts that have been used to support terrorist activities. These include the Saudi al-Haramain and the International Islamic Relief Organisation. Two Indonesian charities, KOMPAK and the Medical Emergency Relief Charity, respectively serve as their counterpart or executing agencies. While US Executive Order 13224 and the UN’s 1267 Committee on Jan. 22, 2004 designated the Indonesian branch of al-Haramain as a funder of terrorism, four months after the designation, al-Haramain was operating openly in East Java.


Jemaah Islamiah used or co-opted many charities between 1999 and 2001, during a period of sectarian bloodletting in the Molucca Islands between Jemaah Islamiah’s paramilitaries and Christian and Hindu citizens. Dewan Dakwah Islam Indonesia, a hard-line Islamist offshoot of the Muhammadiyah, the national Islamic organisation, established KOMPAK in late 1998 ostensibly to provide relief assistance to people in conflict areas, such as Kalimantan, the Moluccas, and Central Sulawesi. It immediately partnered with the Saudi International Islamic Relief Organisation. While KOMPAK did not engage in conflict directly, its aid won support for Jemaah Islamiah and its paramilitary organisations such as Laskar Jundullah and Laskar Mujahidin.

Of the 13 regional directors of KOMPAK, at least three were top-level Jemaah Islamiah operatives. In 2003, Indonesian forces arrested several KOMPAK leaders for their involvement in sectarian violence and terrorism; several others went underground.

As with other jihadist organisations and corollary charities in North Africa, Iraq, Chechnya, and elsewhere, KOMPAK’s support is not entirely indigenous. It serves as the executing agency of many Saudi and Persian Gulf funds.

Aris Munandar, a top KOMPAK and al-Haramain official, was a key financial conduit between al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiah. Agus Dwikarna not only served as head of KOMPAK for South Sulawesi but was also the regional branch officer for the International Islamic Relief Organisation and treasurer of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia. Munandar, who was a leading member of Jemaah Islamiah, used KOMPAK to support both the sectarian bloodletting in the Moluccas and Sulawesi and al-Qaeda operatives’ training of Jemaah Islamiah members. KOMPAK also produced a number of jihadi videos for fundraising and recruitment purposes.

The Indonesian crackdown broke KOMPAK into disparate cells, but the organisation did not cease its commitment to radicalisation. One such splinter group, KOMPAK in Ambon, conducted the October 2005 Bali II bombings. Indonesian prosecutors believe that one mid-level Jemaah Islamiah operative, Abdullah Sonata, received 11 million rupiah (US$15,000) and 100,000 Saudi riyals (US$36,500) in 2004 from a Saudi named Sheikh Abu Muhammad to finance militant operations and to send Jemaah Islamiah terrorists to Mindanao. Other KOMPAK members acquired weaponry with which to instigate a new wave of sectarian bloodletting in Central Sulawesi and the Moluccas. Dulmatin, who is one of Jemaah Islamiah’s leading operatives and has been in hiding in the southern Philippines since early 2004, ordered other KOMPAK members to dispatch suicide bombers to the Philippines.

It is clear, therefore, that the KOMPAK network, funded by Saudi charities, helped develop Jemaah Islamiah. It also illustrates clearly that terrorist organisations can be created from social networks.

While the Indonesian military has made inroads tracking down terrorist leaders, the Indonesian government has been more willing to tolerate Jemaah Islamiah charities in the belief that it can wean Jemaah Islamiah leaders from violence and that it is better to have them involved in overt and non-violent activities. Jakarta has, therefore, been unwilling to enforce United Nations Security Council 1267 Committee or US Department of the Treasury designations which make it illegal to raise funds for or donate to any proscribed individual or organisation.

Tsunami and Earthquake

The December 2004 tsunami and the May 2006 earthquake in central Java, both massive humanitarian crises, provide a window into just how Jemaah Islamiah and its charities operate to further Islamist agendas.

On Dec. 26, 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra caused a tsunami which killed more than 165,000 Indonesians and displaced half a million others. Jakarta, overwhelmed by the magnitude of the disaster, sought to tap Jemaah Islamiah’s social service network. On Jan. 4, 2005, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia dispatched the first group of 77 volunteers to Aceh from their Yogyakarta based headquarters. Among them was a top Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia official who was a suspect in the Oct. 12, 2002 Bali blasts that killed 202 people. Not all Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia personnel were engaged explicitly in humanitarian work; the group indicated that their primary goal was to provide “spiritual guidance” to victims, assist in the reconstruction of mosques, and guard against proselytising by non-Muslim relief agencies. Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia’s non-humanitarian agenda led the Indonesian Air Force to expel 19 Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia members from Aceh on Jan. 11, 2005

Abdurrahman’s Laskar Mujahidin also used the tsunami to propel itself to new relevance. Founded in January 2000 by Abdurrahman and Hambali, both of whom had experience fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan, the group fielded approximately 500 armed combatants in the Moluccas who were equipped with high-speed motor boats, which they used to attack remote Christian and Hindu communities. After the tsunami, they established four base camps in Aceh including one outside the airport, adjacent to the camps of other domestic and international relief organisations, beneath a sign that read, “Islamic Law Enforcement.” Unlike Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, which was more concerned with providing “spiritual guidance” and restoring “infrastructure in places of religious duties,” the Laskar Mujahidin was deeply involved in relief work, including the distribution of aid and especially the burial of corpses. Though the organisation is vehemently anti-American, it gave cautious backing to the presence of US and Australian troops. It was clear, however, that their lobbying did persuade the government to call for the early departure of foreign troops.

The Islamist charities flocked to Aceh for three reasons. The first was to garner good press and media attention, providing a needed makeover for groups associated with terrorism and sectarian violence while simultaneously highlighting the secular government’s failure. Second, the Islamist charities sought to counter any Western influence. Hence, Din Syamsudin, the head of the quasi-official Indonesian Ulema Council and president of the second largest Muslim organisation in the country, Muhammadiyah, who has subsequently acted as a fundraiser for Hamas, warned:

All nongovernmental organisations, either domestic or international … This is a reminder. Do not do this [proselytise] in this kind of situation. The Muslim community will not remain quiet. This is a clear statement, and it is serious.

Paranoia about Western influence has become a prime motivator for Islamist groups in the Middle East. Prior to the rise of al-Qaeda, for example, Saudi clergy preached that the Muslim world was subject to a Western “cultural attack” and “intellectual attack.” Defence against a “cultural NATO” is a theme that Iranian hardliners have also recently adapted.

Third, these groups saw the disaster as an opportunity to proselytise. Several groups in addition to Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia indicated that their primary goal was to provide “spiritual guidance” to victims, ensure that Islamic law was being followed, and to assist in the reconstruction of mosques.

The cynicism of the Islamist parties grated on local political movements. While Aceh is nearly 100 percent Muslim, the Acehnese secessionist movement, the Free Aceh Movement known by its acronym GAM (Gerakan Aceh Meredeka), urged the international community to force the Islamist groups to leave in apparent frustration with the government’s unwillingness to do so:

We therefore call on the international community to demand that the FPI [Front Pembela Islam] and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia leave Aceh… The FPI and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia are not welcome in Aceh and have never been supported by the Acehnese people, nor has their presence been requested. The FPI has been involved in sectarian killings in Maluku and Central Sulawesi and illegal attacks against non-Muslims and others in Java and elsewhere. Their intervention in Aceh is therefore counterproductive

Tsunami relief efforts provided a template for subsequent operations, most notably in the May 27, 2006 earthquake in central Java. The magnitude 6.2 earthquake killed more than 6,000 people, injured 78,000, and left up to 1.5 million homeless. The United Nations’ World Food Program moved quickly into central Java and chose Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia as one of eight partner organisations to deliver 95 tons of food aid. The Australian government immediately protested Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia’s contract, but World Food Program spokesman Barry Came said, “We don’t pick groups to distribute aid based on their religious or political beliefs. We choose based on the ability to deliver, and so far they’ve performed up to standard. We have no complaints.” He backed down, however, under international pressure. Both Bashir and Abdurrahman had been proscribed under UN Security Council 1267 Committee lists as specially designated terrorist financiers, and Bashir, just released from prison, was reportedly planning to deliver the World Food Program aid personally.

The episode highlights a major problem facing the West when combating Islamism: The United Nations and international agencies either refuse to perform due diligence or use moral equivalency to justify support for Islamist organisations.

The Hezbollah model is not new to terrorist organisations, but it is new to Jemaah Islamiah. Jemaah Islamiah has taken advantage of an opening: Political will in Indonesia to dismantle terrorist infrastructure has waned as the nature of the group’s militancy has become apparent. Released from prison, the group’s leaders have been able to focus on political, religious, and charitable work. The civilian infrastructure they have developed will make the group – still committed to terrorism – more durable over the long term.

Policymakers in Indonesia need to understand precedent. The existence of charities and social service networks has not made Hamas or Hezbollah any less violent although they have contributed to de-legitimisation of governments. The Indonesian government should do what the Lebanese, Israeli, and Palestinian Authority governments did not: They must uproot social networks.

There is intense international pressure on the Indonesian government to ban Jemaah Islamiah, but no politician in the world’s largest Muslim community has the political courage to do so. As Indonesia’s top counterterrorism official, Ansyaad Mbai, stated, the reason there is no ban on Jemaah Islamiah “is because the political situation is still very sensitive.” Complacency and political expediency rule the day in Jakarta. As long as Jemaah Islamiah members do not blow things up or simply target Western interests, Jakarta will do little.

It is not just courts and counterterrorism officials who have grown frustrated. A handful of Muslim reformers and liberals have been at the centre of a push to rewrite Law No. 8 (1995) on non-governmental organisations to tighten both the process of NGO incorporation and increase oversight. The proposed law will make fundraising by unregistered (or de-registered) NGOs illegal. The proposed law would make Jemaah Islamiah’s fundraising illegal under Indonesian domestic law

This unwillingness to take on terrorist infrastructure is regrettable. First, like Hezbollah and Hamas, Jemaah Islamiah has a long-term timetable. Second, by pursuing overt strategies, Jemaah Islamiah is able to forge closer ties and common cause with Islamists who might otherwise eschew their violence. Many Indonesians no longer see Jemaah Islamiah as a radical fringe organisation even though the group’s agenda has not changed. Third, there is little evidence that Jemaah Islamiah will abandon terrorism. Tactics may shift, but strategy does not. Herein, Hamas again provides an example that should worry Indonesian authorities. Its assumption of political control in Gaza has not tempered its commitment to terrorism; indeed, Hamas has become even more aggressive since the January 2006 Palestinian elections.

Herein, Washington and other Western governments have an interest. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world, and the United States should not cede the Indonesian population to the same Saudi-funded Islamists who radicalised their Arab brethren, recruited unencumbered for years in Afghan and Pakistani refugee camps, and profess an inflexible hatred of the United States, Israel, and the West. Washington should pressure Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines to uproot Jemaah Islamiah’s overt presence and cede it no political space where it can recruit and indoctrinate anew. Targeting their financial and social networks is essential to the long-term fight against terrorism.

Zachary Abuza is a professor of political science at Simmons College and author of Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror (Lynne Rienner, 2003), Muslims, Politics and Violence in Indonesia (Routledge, 2006), and Conspiracy of Silence: Islam and Insurgency in Thailand (US Institute of Peace, forthcoming 2009). © Middle East Quarterly, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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