Indonesia’s Counter-terrorism successes and shortcomings
By Allon Lee
In the six years since Jemaah Islamiah (JI) carried out the deadly October 12 bombing of a Bali nightclub that claimed 202 lives, Indonesia has made great strides in tackling terror. But according to some of the world’s top terrorism experts contacted by AIR, the job will remain incomplete until Indonesia proscribes JI as an official terror group.
Noted southeast Asia terrorism specialist Dr. Zachary Abuza, of Simmons College in Boston, said the absence of successful terrorist attacks in Indonesia does not mean there is an absence of terrorism or terrorists.
“I think there is a tendency among diplomats and the media to portray Indonesia as this overwhelming success story. I just don’t think that’s balanced,” Dr. Abuza said.
He credits Indonesia’s Counter-terrorism police work as “spectacular and so far above every country’s expectations,” and particularly singles out for praise Detachment 88, created in 2003 as a dedicated Counter-terrorism unit.
But it “took them four years after the Bali bombing to accept the full extent of the threat,” Dr. Abuza said.
“I mean JI in 2003, 2004 and 2005 was just throwing everything it had at restarting the insurgencies, the [Christian-Muslim] sectarian bloodletting in the Malukus and Sulawesi and the Indonesian government just didn’t take this seriously until 2006,” Dr. Abuza said.
A raid on a JI safehouse in 2006 unearthed a cache of smoking gun documents that “basically said ‘this is our strategy,’” Dr. Abuza explained.
JI was reportedly formed on Jan. 1, 1993 in Malaysia by Indonesian clerics Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar with the intent of establishing an Islamic caliphate across southeast Asia. Upon the collapse of the Suharto regime in 1998, Bashir and Sungkar returned to Indonesia and developed links with al-Qaeda via southeast Asian veterans who fought alongside the mujahedeen during the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.
In fairness to Indonesia, up until October 2002, the attitude that Indonesia was not likely to foster a terrorist attack was the norm among a number of governments, academics, intelligence services and the media.
International terrorism expert Dr. Rohan Gunaratna, head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore, warned Indonesia of the risk of ignoring JI prior to October 2002.
“The Bali bombings demonstrated to Indonesia that JI was active because it was in denial [up until then],” Dr. Gunaratna said.
“I myself briefed Indonesia before Bali that there was a terrorist group and they are likely to attack. I also made these statements openly before Bali, but now there is acceptance that there is a terrorist network in Indonesia.
“And there were many academics and media in Australia who did not believe there was a terrorist network. In fact, the Australian government itself didn’t take the threat seriously. There were some specialists who argued that JI had no links to al-Qaeda. There were other specialists who were of the view that JI did not pose a credible threat, But Bali changed all that. There were few Australians who had the vision and knowledge,” Dr. Gunaratna explained.
Before the first Bali bombing, a joint JI and al-Qaeda plot to attack Western embassies and interests in Singapore was uncovered in early 2002.
Dr. Gunaratna said it was the failure of JI to carry out attacks in Singapore and the Philippines that led to the Bali bombings and these failures should have been a warning sign for Indonesia.
“The tier three target was Indonesia. JI could not attack in Singapore and the Philippines, so they decided to attack in Indonesia because it presented the most permissive environment,” he said.
He noted that the links between JI and al-Qaeda were institutional and not just ideological.
“JI is very dangerous because it is the group that had the closest relationship with al-Qaeda. Of all the 30 to 40 groups of the global jihad movement that worked with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, I would say that JI was one of the closest groups – where JI members served on some of the most important committees of al-Qaeda,” he said.
Al-Qaeda funding accounted for, amongst other terrorist acts, the 2002 Bali bombings; the August 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta that killed 12 people; the September 2004 Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta that killed nine people; and another Bali bombing in 2005.
The Politics of Proscribing JI
To date, Indonesia has captured or executed an estimated 600 JI trained operatives, with a further 400 still at large, according to Dr. Gunaratna.
But Indonesia’s reluctance to ban JI means that it is free to fundraise, run charities, operate schools and offer social services. Allowing JI to operate these services will ensure the ongoing recruitment of new JI members and is therefore a real long-term threat, he warned.
Despite JI’s terrorist outrages and the impact they had on Indonesia’s image and economy, criminalisation of JI has not happened “because of the pressure from the Islamic political parties and the lack of will of the Indonesian leadership to move in that direction,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
“Today, it is perfectly legal to be a JI member, engage in propaganda… do fundraising and even train and you cannot be arrested in Indonesia.
“Only someone who carries out a terrorist attack or if an attack is imminent, say a group has procured arms, ammunition and explosives and there is evidence an attack is imminent, then that person can be prosecuted,” he said.
Unless there is another series of bombings and a critical mass of public pressure on the government, JI will not be banned, Dr. Gunaratna predicted.
“They are going only for people that are linked to terrorist incidents, but mere membership in an organisation is not going to get you any jail time in Indonesia,” Dr. Abuza said.
The issue of terrorism and how to respond to it is wrapped up in politics and extends beyond the proscribing of JI.
“Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono is a great leader, he has done a lot for Indonesia. He is a pragmatic politician and he knows if he bans JI he will lose the support of the Islamic parties,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
In Indonesia, the Islamic parties are politically marginal but electorally significant, he said, estimating support among ordinary Indonesians for JI and Hizb ut-Tahrir, the other significant Islamist group, to be no less than two percent of the population.
“JI is putting pressure on the mainstream Islamic parties and the mainstream Islamic parties are putting pressure on the secular parties. They exercise constituency pressure. A very small party can exert disproportionate pressure and influence and this is what is happening,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
The Indonesian Government’s refusal to ban the broadcast of Hezbollah’s TV station, al-Manar, and the passive attitude the Indonesian police have taken to the persecution of members of the Amadiyah sect – an insignificant minority Islamic breakaway group in Indonesia – are a consequence of political jockeying in the lead up to Indonesia’s presidential elections in 2009.
“I doubt that Yudhoyono will win votes [via the Amadiyah issue] but I assume he expects that parties like the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) will stay in his coalition,” Dr. Abuza said.
Dr. Carl Ungerer, Director of the Australian National Security Project at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, agreed, saying the violence against the Amadiyah sect caused, “people to raise their eyebrows because it seemed to accommodate the Islamic Defenders Front in a way that was not defensible… but was part of the political jockeying in the lead-up to the presidential race where Yudhoyono needs to at least placate the Islamists in the political space.”
The most visible face of JI is Abu Bakar Bashir, who spent time in prison for political conspiracy but not, as is popularly thought, for involvement in terrorism.
Dr. Abuza said Bashir’s influence has waned, but that he still matters.
“He’s still the most senior religious figure out there, but what is really the most important thing is that he is willing to go out there and be the lightning rod and take the hits so the younger clerics take important roles in JI but without the attention. Bashir likes the limelight but it is also strategic because we don’t focus on anyone but him,” Dr. Abuza said.
The leadership of JI has fragmented along tactical lines, with some members supporting the use of violence – led by Noordin Mohammed Top – and those who do not.
“It is unclear that JI sees Bashir as the emir – he seems to have taken on the titular role of the ‘old man.’ People talk about Zulkarnaen as the current emir of JI and he has clear connections to al-Qaeda,” Dr. Ungerer said.
“But Bashir’s influence is subtle but enduring, in the way in which his speeches rail against the West and Israel, which builds the base,” he added.
A radical de-radicalisation program
Despite the Indonesian Government’s continuing refusal to outlaw JI, an important weapon in countering JI’s message is the unique de-radicalisation program employed to convince its members to renounce the terror cause.
Dr. Ungerer described the de-radicalisation program as based on a “personalised approach” where former JI members speak to captured JI members and Counter-terrorism officials dine with JI members, to build up a personal relationship to challenge their beliefs.
“There are a number of different aspects to it. One is this very personalised kind of dialogue that they have had with senior JI people they have caught, to try and simply talk them around. They use also senior Indonesian Counter-terrorism police,” Dr. Ungerer said.
Overall, Dr. Ungerer is undecided on the efficacy of the de-radicalisation program.
“Australia’s counter-radicalisation efforts in the region appear to me to be ill-disciplined and unfocused and not hitting enough targets, so who’s not to say what the Indonesians are doing isn’t the right way to go about it?
“We [Australia] do things like holding interfaith dialogues. But who’s to say that [Indonesia’s de-radicalisation approach] doesn’t work in that cultural context? That that isn’t the most appropriate way?” Dr. Ungerer asked.
Dr. Abuza described the program as ad hoc and is more sceptical of its efficacy, noting, “the closer you are to a terrorist incident in the organisation, the less likely you are to be de-radicalised. The people more likely to be de-radicalised are in ancillary positions.”
“The Indonesian government really believes they can wean people off of terrorism. I personally don’t think you can. Members of JI are smart enough to realise that if they engage in military activities they go to jail. And they don’t like jail,” Dr. Abuza observed.
Dr. Gunaratna agreed the program needed to be more systematic, criticising it for occurring only in prisons where there is communal detention.
“Detainees must be isolated and must be disciplined and there cannot be terrorist and extremist literature in the same prisons. And in Indonesian prisons there is such literature floating around,” he said.
Ultimately, he wants to see significant numbers of mainstream Muslim leaders speak out against terrorism.
Evidence has recently emerged of a reconnection of the Afghan/Pakistan mujahedeen in southeast Asia and north Africa, Dr. Ungerer said.
“There’s all sorts of impediments today, but when the original JI leadership went to Afghanistan to make those connectivities there was much greater freedom of movement than today, so the Indonesian police are much more carefully watching who is going where.
“There will be no return to the days of JI members going to the Afghan mujahedeen to get their training, but the connectivity question is an interesting one if it’s linking north Africa to southeast Asia. And I dare say that there would be some kind of al-Qaeda money,” Dr. Ungerer said.
Dr. Abuza said the very success of the Indonesians in preventing more devastating terrorist attacks has given rise to a misleading impression that the threat has diminished, noting the arrest of a terror cell known as the Sumatran Nine in July 2008.
“We should take pause and realise… under intense security dragnets, how close they really came… We tend to downplay how close they have come in the last few years,” Dr. Abuza warned.
The Sumatran Nine arrests were important, according to Dr. Ungerer, because the group “had already made 20 ammonium nitrate bombs that would have caused a lot of damage. So it shows capability and intent are both still there.”
The long-term goal of an Islamic caliphate is not a priority issue at the moment, Dr. Gunaratna explained, and that is the influence of al-Qaeda on JI over the last six years.
“Most of the attacks they are mounting are against Western targets, plus Christian targets… Their tier one priority is not to create a caliphate in southeast Asia, but to attack Western targets.
“[This] is because of al-Qaeda’s influence on JI’s operational leadership but… also JI’s huge hatred for the United States and its allies. JI’s objective is to call for the withdrawal of US forces from Muslim countries,” Dr. Gunaratna said.
Dr. Abuza said the West cannot comprehend the mindset of JI because “these guys have an exceptionally long timetable. There’s no face lost for them to go underground and beat a strategic retreat, because the Prophet Muhammad had to flee Mecca for Medina. So no JI guy would tell you right now that they haven’t suffered setbacks in the past five or six years.”
For Dr. Gunaratna, the mental breakthrough the Indonesian Government needs to make is the fact that “terrorism is a byproduct of extremism.”
“But to fight extremism, to counter the radicalisation and politicisation of society, there needs to be new capabilities built. So in the past five years governments have focused on building the operational capabilities to fight terrorism. The next five years, government will focus to build the ideological platforms to counter extremism,” Dr. Gunaratna said.