The Jakarta Bombings/ Understanding the Taliban

Jul 24, 2009 | AIJAC staff

Update from AIJAC

July 24, 2009
Number 07/09 #10

Today, we offer an interpretation of the most recent Jakarta hotel bombings from one of the world’s top experts on extremist terrorism in Southeast Asia, Dr. Zachary Abuza of Simmons College in the US. Abuza agrees with the dominant view that Malaysian-born  terrorist Noordin Mohammed Top was likely behind the latest bombings but takes issue with arguments, particularly in the Australian media, that Top is operating largely independently of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). He looks at the debates within JI at the moment, and argues that, while the movement is down, it is not out, and more terror attacks can be expected, For the rest of Abuza’s analysis, CLICK HERE. Also, for those who haven’t seen them in the Australian, Sadanand Dhume analysed the attraction of hotels as a target for Islamist terrorists, while Sally Neighbour discussed Noordin Mohammed Top and his hatred for Australia.

Meanwhile, Canada’s National Post has run a valuable four part series on the history and present status of the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we feature two contributions. First up, former journalist turned Washington thnktanker Clifford May looks at the history of the Afghan Taliban movement, as well as its current status, and what military officials in Afghanistan are saying about what must be done to fight the movement successfully. One important points he makes is that the Taliban, as a unified group, no longer exists, and the name is now claimed by a variety of entities, including branches of al-Qaeda, warlords, and simple criminal gangs. For this essential background for the current public debate on the war in Afghanistan, CLICK HERE. More on policy (especially development policy) for dealing with the Taliban in Afghanistan from the same National Post series is here.

Next, from the same series, Shuja Nawaz, Pakistan expert at the Atlantic Council looks at the Pakistani branch of the Taliban, and how Pakistan has coped with it. He details a long history of ignoring the problem or attempting to make deals with the Pakistani Taliban, before recognising this serious threat. He recommends a program for dealing with the Taliban in Pakistan’s north, including a sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy which follows up military efforts to clear the Taliban from an area with policies which will help win over the larger population. For the complete argument, CLICK HERE. As part of the same National Post series, Daveed Gartenstein-Ross looks at the history of the interaction between the Pakistani state and radical Islamist groups like the Taliban. Meanwhile, the National Post also published a piece by  Dr. Sebastian Gorka which defines the differences and links between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and discusses the ideology that unites them.

Readers may also be interested in:

Making Sense of the Jakarta Bombings: The Shades of Grey

By Zachary Abuza

Counterterrorism Blog, July 23, 2009

Last week’s bombings of two luxury hotels in Jakart, which killed 7 and wounded 53, raises two important questions about JI and the future of terrorism in Indonesia.

1. Was this a JI Attack?

This was clearly the handiwork of Noordin Mohammed Top, a 40-year old Malaysian national, who has been a fugitive in Indonesia since 2003. Top was a close associate of JI’s premier bomb-maker Dr. Azahari bin Hussin, also a Malaysian, who was killed when Indonesian CT police tracked him down to a safehouse in East Java in November 2005. By all accounts, Noordin was not the primary bomb-maker. He was a money man and recruiter of suicide bombers, including the 2003 JW Marriott bombings, the 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy and the 2005, simultaneous triple bombings in Bali. The bombs used in the 17 July bombings in Jakarta are reported to be identical to those used in the 2005 Bali bombings.

The question, though, is whether Noordin runs his own organization separate from JI. It has been reported that he established his own group, Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, in 2006. A synopsis of this analysis, which states that JI was not behind the attack, can be found here.

It is not so black and white. Yes, there are distinct differences of opinion in JI about the efficacy – though not always the morality – of a bombing campaign that targets western interests. Those who caution against it, simply believe that it has been counterproductive to the organizations – especially in the post-9/11 security environment. Since then, JI’s formal organization has been gutted, and the group has reeled from more than 500 arrests across the region. Many articulate efforts on dawah and social work until the security environment becomes more favorable and the ranks of JI have been bolstered. (For example, see the author’s Jemaah Islamiyah Adopts the Hezbollah Model). Others want to maintain a low-level sectarian campaign.

But to say this was completely separate from JI is a fallacy.

Noordin relies considerably on JI social networks and JI-linked madrassas for support and recruitment. While “mainstream” JI members may disagree with Noordin, no one has ever turned him in. He and his supporters rely on and recruit from some 50-60 JI madrassas. Indeed one of the alleged suicide bombers was once again, a graduate of Al Mukmin, founded by Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir, JI’s founders and spiritual leaders, and which graduated more than one dozen people with direct ties to terrorist acts.

Moreover, the two positions are not mutually exclusive, and the factionalism is not zero-sum. To wit, several of the 2003 JW Marriott bombers were arrested where? In Poso, the epicenter of JI’s sectarian bloodletting. Killing Christians was what the bombers did in their down time.

While Noordin may not inform other JI leaders of his operations, that has to do with intense operational security mandated. Noordin knows better than anyone the degree to which JI’s ranks have been decimated. Moreover, documents found in a Javanese safehouse in 2007 show that JI has been dramatically restructured. It is a much more horizontal organization, with no real chain of command. To put this another way, JI has adopted the organizational and operational model espoused by Abu Musab al-Suri (the Syrian-born Mustafa bin Abd al-Qadir Setmariam Nasar) who stated that “Al Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be… It is a call, a reference, a methodology.” Al-Suri called for “leader-less resistance” across “open fronts.”

No JI leader or theologian is denouncing Noordin. No one would doubt that Muchlas was mainstream JI, and he was the leader of the 2002 bombing. Before his execution he wrote proliflicly justifying the bombings and calling for more.

Interviewed this week, by Paul Toohey of the The Australian, Abu Bakar Bashir gave the routine song and dance. Why terrorism? The apostate Indonesian state and the CIA:

• “The main cause of this disaster (the bombings) is the Indonesian government, which undermines the supremacy of Islamic law. This (terror) will not end until the government follows the right path.”
• “There are no Muslim terrorists. The terrorists are the CIA, the Americans and the Australians. They’re the ones who terrorise Muslims.

The media-savvy Bashir asserted that he felt some remorse. “What makes me sad about the bombings was that it involved innocent people being killed. People such as women and children who are not involved in the fight against Muslims should not be killed.”

Except the victims were not innocents: “But the problem is we don’t know for sure that the victims weren’t involved in the fight against Islam. Even the thought of fighting against Islam is involvement. Everyone that thinks like that is allowed to be killed.” The westerners pay taxes to governments that are in his eyes, at war with Islam, and thus treated as combatants.

When asked about Noordin, Bashir gave a verbatim response as he gave me in 2002 when I asked him about Hambali: “If Noordin M.Top has bad intentions, then he should be apprehended,” said Bashir. “If he is right, then Allah will protect him. What I know about Noordin M.Top is that he is a Malaysian who fights to defend Islam.”

In a widely-replayed You-Tube sermon from a March 2008, in which Bashir called on his followers to take violent action against tourists, whom he described “Worms, snakes, maggots, he implored them to seek martyrdom: “The youth movement here must aspire to a martyrdom death. The young must be first at the frontline — don’t hide at the back. You must be at the front, die as martyrs and all your sins will be forgiven. Don’t be scared if you are called a hardliner Muslim.”

If mainstream JI was really appalled by Noordin and rejected his campaign then why do they endorse his activities and give him sanctuary, while fueling his pipeline of recruits, indoctrinating them to aspire towards martyrdom? To say, as one prominent Australian academic did, that this was not the work of JI is absurd and dangerous. There is no way that Noordin could operate without JI support and its social networks.

2. Does this Portent More Attacks?

Between 2002 and 2005, JI perpetrated terrorist attacks in Indonesia on roughly a yearly basis (October 2002, August 2003, September 2004, and October 2005). That was the best they could muster, indicating limits of finances, personnel, materiels, and an increasingly hostile security environment. Until last week, there had not been a bombing since 2005; nearly 4 years of peace and security. This was not just the result of excellent police work and intelligence gathering. As mentioned above, many JI leaders began to shift strategies. Upon release from prison, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abu Jibril got involved in social welfare – for no other reason than not wanting to get re-arrested. It also reflected the fact that when JI bombmaker Dr. Azahari was killed in November 2005, police captured his entire cache of explosives, more than 20 bag bombs.

This is not to say that JI did not come close. They came really close on several occasions, including two separate March 2007 raids and a mid-2008 raid that netted huge caches of explosives. More importantly was the foiled plot in July 2008 to bomb a tourist bar in Pekanbaru. Police recovered 22 explosive devices packed with bullets.

JI is down, it is not out. More attacks are likely, but at a lower rate.

This attack, in which the bombers figured out how to work around hotel security, was indicative of the preparation that they put into their attacks. This was a small but meticulous operation. Indeed, one suspect is thought to have worked as a florist in one of the hotels.

This week Indonesian authorities took into custody two individuals: a would be suicide bomber who, according to police officials, admitted to have been recruited by Noordin as a suicide bomber, and Arina Rochmah, a 25-year old woman, allegedly Noordin’s third wife. It was at her father’s madrassah that police raided two weeks ago in Cilacap. There, police discovered a bomb that was identical to the ones used in the July 17 bombings in Jakarta. Arina’s father, Bahrudin Latif, the 60 year old cleric is on the run. Police are also looking for two other suspects Nur Hasbi (Nur Said) and Ibrahim. The real prize, however, is the charismatic 40-year old Noordin.

Back to Top

The Taliban: A Brief History

Clifford D. May,

National Post, Friday, July 17, 2009

For eight years, NATO forces and their local allies have been battling Taliban militia and terrorists. But who are the Taliban, exactly? Many Canadians still do not know. In the last instalment of “Know Thine Enemy,” a four-part series presented in partnership with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Clifford D. May and Sebastian Gorka explain the origins of the Taliban, and the best strategies for defeating them.

‘Afghanistan is the most foreign country in the world,” William Wood told me last fall as he was concluding his term as America’s ambassador in Kabul. He added: “It’s a ferociously foreign country.”

Mountainous, landlocked and remote, populated by legendary warriors — Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek — Afghanistan is rich in history but poor in just about everything else. For 30 years — since the Soviet invasion of 1979–it has been in continual turmoil. It is a country used to violence. It also is a country traumatized by violence.

In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in defeat and disgrace. This was a great and consequential victory for Afghan fighters, achieved with assistance from the United States — particularly after 1981, thanks to the efforts of Charlie Wilson and CIA officer Gust Avrakotos. Tom Hanks’ film Charlie Wilson’s War is not quite accurate on the details, but it does convey the essential spirit of the conflict and the enthusiasm there was then, among some in the West, for what were seen as allies in the Cold War.

Once the Russians were gone, however, Americans and Europeans lost interest in what became, again, an isolated corner of the world. Afghan warlords fought among themselves for land, power and poppies (from which heroin is made). Chaos and corruption ensued and life only grew harder for many Afghans.

In 1994, a group of provincial vigilantes led by Mullah Mohammed Omar, the administrator of a religious school, rose up against these forces. He and his followers called themselves “the students” — the taliban in the Pashto language.

The Taliban imposed a strict version of Islamic law and order. At first, many Afghans welcomed that. The Taliban also had the support of Islamists entrenched in Pakistan’s intelligence service. The Saudis approved as well.

Before long, the Taliban’s extremist agenda became manifest. Girls were no longer permitted to attend school. Women could not leave their homes unless covered from head to toe in a burka and accompanied by a male. Singing, dancing, playing music, watching television, sports, even flying kites — an Afghan national pastime depicted in the marvellous novel The Kite Runner — were prohibited. Prayer five times a day became compulsory.

Those who transgressed were sentenced to beatings, amputations, executions — by the thousands, often in public. Traditional tribal leaders were murdered and replaced by fire-breathing mullahs who broke with Afghan tradition by melding religious and political power.

In March 2001, the Taliban dynamited the Buddhas of Bamiyan–giant statues, great works of religion and art, built in the sixth century. Why? Because they were “idols” and deserved destruction — like all things not Islamic. “It is purely a religious issue,” then-Afghan foreign minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil explained to a Japanese reporter.

The Taliban, wrote Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, represented a new kind of Islamic fundamentalism: “aggressive, expansionist and uncompromising in its purist demands to turn Afghan society back to an imagined model of seventh-century Arabia at the time of the Prophet Muhammad.”

At this same time, of course, the Taliban also were providing refuge to an Islamist Saudi exile by the name of Osama bin Laden. He was plotting his own assault against the despised infidels and their symbols.

The Taliban remained loyal to bin Laden and al-Qaeda after the atrocities of Sept. 11, 2001. The result was an American-led invasion of Afghanistan and the toppling of the Taliban regime. Both bin Laden and Mullah Omar escaped across the border to the wild reaches of northwestern Pakistan.

Over the years since, American and NATO forces have remained in Afghanistan fighting an on-again, off-again conflict against Afghan Taliban forces bolstered by Arabs, Chechens, Pakistanis and other “foreign fighters.” The Taliban have used the same techniques employed by al-Qaeda in Iraq: violence and intimidation, assassinations of local officials and policemen, improvised roadside bombs and — while I was in Afghanistan — throwing acid in the faces of young girls walking to school. “The Taliban are not sentimental people,” a European diplomat in Kabul told me.

Like other militant Islamist groups — Hamas and Hezbollah, for example– the Taliban act locally but think globally. “We want to eradicate Britain and America,” Ay’atulah Mahsoud, the emir of the Pakistani Taliban, has said, “and to shatter the arrogance and tyranny of the infidels. We pray that Allah will enable us to destroy the White House, New York and London.”

The Taliban is no longer a unitary organization. There are many groups that call themselves Taliban. Some are closely and ideologically aligned to al-Qaeda. Others are believed to be nothing more than criminal enterprises that find it useful to use the brand.

The available evidence suggests most Afghans would not welcome the Taliban’s return to power. And despite what has been described as a Taliban “resurgence,” the group has not managed to regain control of a single city. In recent days, a new American “surge” has begun to clear the Taliban from its rural strongholds. Meanwhile, the Pakistani military has taken the fight to Taliban forces on its side of the border.

Military commanders and analysts say beating the Taliban on the battlefield is not the hard part. What is? Holding those battlefields afterward. When NATO troops liberate an area from Taliban control, trained Afghan security forces must be ready and able to take over security responsibilities. If that does not happen, and Western troops leave, the Taliban will return — and cut the throats of everyone they suspect of having co-operated with NATO in the past.

For this reason, General Stanley A. McChrystal, the newly arrived top commander in Afghanistan, has reportedly concluded that more American troops will be needed, both to fight and to train Afghan security forces. It is not clear whether President Barack Obama and Congress will provide those resources.

An American general in Kandahar made the argument for more resources succinctly. “Do it right,” he told me, “and we won’t have to come back here years from now.”

 Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.

Back to Top

At war with Pakistan’s Taliban

Shuja Nawaz,

 National Post, Tuesday, July 14, 2009

For eight years, NATO forces and their local allies have been battling Taliban militia and terrorists. But who are the Taliban, exactly? Many Canadians still do not know. In the first instalment of “Know Thine Enemy,” a four-part series presented in partnership with the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Shuja Nawaz explains the roots of the Taliban insurgency in Pakistan.

After years of self-denial, Pakistani society and its government now face the reality of a dangerous –nay, existential– threat to their polity from a home-grown variant of the Afghan Taliban, a movement that was spawned by the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and grew into a potent political force in the past three years.

The Islamist movement is headed by Baitullah Mehsud, a youthful third-tier Mehsud tribal leader at one time, and now the avowed leader of a regional rebellion against the Pakistani state. He has also declared war against the U. S. forces in Afghanistan, but in the main remains focused on asserting control over Pakistan’s largely autonomous Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and, through surrogates, over the nearby North West Frontier Province. The fear inside Pakistan and among Western allies is that, after consolidating control over these border areas, he may want to launch a takeover of the Pakistani state itself, along with its nuclear assets –a true nightmare scenario.

What makes this Tehreek-e-Taliban of Pakistan (TTP) especially dangerous is that it has managed to pull together a congeries of disparate tribal and regional malcontents, brigands, religious leaders and even the militant Sunni Punjabi groups that once were trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence Service of Pakistan (ISI) for use against India in Kashmir. The TTP and some of its components also have franchise arrangements with al-Qaeda. Indeed, suicide bombings, an import into the region by al-Qaeda’s Arab contingent, has become the hallmark of many attacks launched by the TTP.

Pakistan’s first instinct was to ignore the TTP. It tried the old British tactic of making deals with militants in the area of South Waziristan, bending even to garland rebel leaders and going to their territory to make peace: a sign of weakness in tribal culture. Such deals did not last long. Yet the government persisted. And even when a civilian government led by the Pakistan People’s Party replaced that of president Pervez Musharraf, this method of dealing with the Pakistani Taliban continued — with the same disastrous results. Some 14 deals have been made and broken over the past three years. It seems that the government has no other arrows in its quiver –except the military.

The Pakistani army recently entered into the FATA in force, with close to 120,000 troops of the regular army (since increased to over 150,000) and the paramilitary Frontier Force, trying to control the 3.5 million population of the FATA and the limited number of militants embedded within them. This was the first time since independence in 1947 that the Pakistan army entered FATA.

It soon felt itself as an alien force and was so regarded by the locals, with its predominantly Punjabi force structure unable to communicate with the local Pashto-speaking tribesmen. Moreover, a conventional force, trained for battles against India, found itself having to re-learn frontier warfare. The result was heavy losses: some 1,400 killed and many more wounded, and embarrassing surrenders to tribal fighters who took advantage of the hilly terrain to ambush unguarded convoys.

Pakistan’s government and army were slow to realize that the military was capable of addressing only the symptoms of the insurgency. The heart of the insurgency has been an attempt to impose a convoluted view of Islam in the name of shariah. The government has made no attempt to fight back using the language of Islam and thereby expose the invalidity of the horrific actions of the insurgents against their opponents, including attacks on girls’ schools and mosques and beheadings.

Nor has the new civilian government made an attempt to try to bring FATA into Pakistan’s political system or to upgrade the 1901 Frontier Crimes Regulations that imposed fines on whole tribes for individuals’ actions. Neither did it try to improve the justice system — until forced by the Taliban in the Swat region to press for a new Islamic system of justice, a step that led to the creation of an anachronistic system within Pakistani law.

What must be done?

Pakistan needs to stop making deals and ceding space to the Taliban. It needs to begin addressing the political and economic grievances of the people of the region by allowing greater autonomy for them and involving them in economic development decisions. It can physically and economically connect FATA to Pakistan proper with a network of east-west roads and start major infrastructure projects, including building river embankments and small dams and installing tube wells.

If Pakistan creates some 300,000 jobs, it will mop up the entire 17% “youth bulge” that currently characterizes FATA’s population profile. If this is done, the entire recruitment pool of the TTP will be eliminated.

As for the army, it must be used only for clearing the militants, and then must be supported by a paramilitary and local police force embedded in the community. The army is not equipped nor trained to hold areas besieged by local insurgents. Experience from around the world indicates that good governance, justice and strong police forces, not military, are best able to defeat such insurgencies.

The danger of keeping the army continuously involved has been proven by Pakistan’s own fractured history. Discontent among the military rank and file permeates the force, and as it reaches the upper levels often produces military coups d’etat.

Pakistan does not deserve another coup. Its civilian politicians must understand that this is not time for business as usual. They need to stop thinking for the short term and think about the future of Pakistan’s polity and its very existence as a state. Time is running out on them. And the Taliban are at the gates. –

Shuja Nawaz is director of the South Asia Center of the Atlantic Council, and the author of Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army and the Wars Within (Oxford 2008) and “FATA: A Most Dangerous Place (CSIS 2009).

Back to Top


Palestinian Red Crescent workers from Al-Najjar Hospital in the city of Rafah, south of the Gaza Strip, on January 10, 2024 (Image: Shutterstock)

Hamas’ impossible casualty figures

Mar 28, 2024 | Update
455daec3 C2a8 8752 C215 B7bd062c6bbc

After the Israel-Hamas ceasefire for hostages deal

Nov 29, 2023 | Update
Screenshot of Hamas bodycam footage as terrorists approach an Israeli vehicle during the terror organisation's October 7, 2023 attack in southern Israel, released by the IDF and GPO (Screenshot)

Horror on Video / International Law and the Hamas War

Oct 31, 2023 | Update
Sderot, Israel. 7th Oct, 2023. Bodies of dead Israelis lie on the ground following the attacks of Hamas (Image: Ilia Yefimovich/dpa/Alamy Live News)

Israel’s Sept. 11, only worse

Oct 11, 2023 | Update
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu (r) gets his long-awaited face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden in New York (Photo: Avi Ohayon, Israeli Government Press Office)

Netanyahu meets Biden, other world leaders, in New York

Sep 27, 2023 | Update
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who gave an address on Aug. 28 threatening the US and laying out the Iranian-led axis's new "unity of the arenas" doctrine. (Photo: Shutterstock, mohammad kassir)

US-Iran prisoner swap deal set to go through

Sep 12, 2023 | Update




Move to recognise Palestine comes at the worst possible time

Screenshot 2024 04 16 At 3.14.28 Pm

‘Flipping of the narrative’: Israel ‘depicted as victim’ after Iranian attack – Ran Porat on France 24 television

Large anti-Israel protest in Washington, DC, in October. No other issue turns out so many protestors so consistently and globally (image: Shutterstock/ Volodymyr Tverdokhlib)

Where is everybody when Israel isn’t involved?

Image: Shutterstock

AIJAC calls on Government to join coordinated international efforts against Iran in wake of attacks on Israel

Image: X/ Twitter

Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel was a strategic miscalculation. Can all-out war now be averted?


Move to recognise Palestine comes at the worst possible time

Screenshot 2024 04 16 At 3.14.28 Pm

‘Flipping of the narrative’: Israel ‘depicted as victim’ after Iranian attack – Ran Porat on France 24 television

Large anti-Israel protest in Washington, DC, in October. No other issue turns out so many protestors so consistently and globally (image: Shutterstock/ Volodymyr Tverdokhlib)

Where is everybody when Israel isn’t involved?

Image: Shutterstock

AIJAC calls on Government to join coordinated international efforts against Iran in wake of attacks on Israel

Image: X/ Twitter

Iran’s unprecedented attack on Israel was a strategic miscalculation. Can all-out war now be averted?