Old and new faces of Indonesian terror By Clifford McCoy
The arrest last week of radical Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir was the highlight of a government crackdown on Islamic militants following the discovery in February of a training camp in Aceh province. Once regarded as the spiritual leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terror group, Bashir’s popularity has wavered in recent years and his position is emblematic of the evolving nature of militant Islam in Southeast Asia.
The 72-year-old Bashir was arrested together with his wife and five bodyguards on August 9 while traveling to deliver a sermon in West Java. The arrest came only a day before the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and a week before Indonesia’s nationally celebrated independence day on August 17. Bashir has denied any involvement with the camp, and even claimed that his arrest was arranged by the United States.
Bashir’s arrest is the latest in an ongoing crackdown since the discovery of a jihadi training camp in northern Aceh run by a new coalition of militant groups. The training camp was established by seven groups who joined together to form the lintas tanzim, or cross-organizational project.
The coalition was led by one of Southeast Asia’s most wanted terrorists, Dulmatin, who is also believed to have been one of the leaders of the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over 200 people. Until February, Dulmatin was believed to be in hiding in the Philippines.
Analysts and counter-terrorism officials see the group as a new strain of militant Islam in Indonesia. The grouping was highly critical of JI and rejected what it perceived as its overly passive and soft approach to jihad.
Members of the new group have also reportedly criticized now deceased Noordin Top’s more violent form of terrorism for its lack of long-term direction. Noordin Top masterminded the July 2009 bombings of the JW Marriot and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta, among other bombings, and was killed in a police raid in September 2009.
Instead, the new group aims to establish Islamic law across all of Indonesia, and to do so without the collateral killing of fellow Muslims, as happened with JI attacks. According to an April 2010 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), the new group’s enemy has become defined as ”not simply the US or allied countries, but as anyone who obstructed the application of Islamic law – and that meant that many Indonesian officials were high on the list.”
Indonesian authorities say the group was allegedly planning a Mumbai-style attack on luxury hotels in Jakarta frequented by foreigners, as well as several assassinations of high profile public figures, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Although the group referred to itself as “al-Qaeda in Aceh”, there is so far no evidence of any concrete ties to Osama bin Laden’s organization.
Since the raid on the camp in February, some 100 members of the group have been captured or killed by police, including Dulmatin. Among those arrested, and only two days before Bashir’s arrest, were five suspected terrorists in three different locations in West Java on charges of plotting a car bombing. An explosive device and bomb-making materials were reportedly found in one of the locations. Police claim all five men are members of an organization established by Bashir in 2008 called the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT).
With Bashir as its alleged chairman, JAT reportedly aims to establish Islamic sharia law across Indonesia. As an above-ground organization, the group largely concentrates on religious outreach, albeit with a distinctly jihadi bent. Combined with Bashir’s celebrity status, the group rapidly expanded a nationwide membership in only two years.
Bashir’s involvement in the organization made it suspect to counter-terrorism officials from the start and this was reinforced by the group’s embrace of individuals with known ties to extremist organizations, especially JI and Noordin Top’s splinter group. According to ICG, many members of JI either became members of JAT or maintained dual memberships in both organizations.
Police claim that many suspected terrorists, captured or killed in the raid on the Aceh camp, have links to JAT. One JAT executive committee member, Lutfi Haedaroh, alias Ubeid, had previously spent time in prison for involvement in Noordin Top’s bombing campaign. Ubeid was captured fleeing the Aceh camp in February. A May 6 raid on JAT’s offices nabbed three officials charged with providing funds to the training camp.
Counter-terrorism officials say Bashir, through JAT, was involved in setting up and providing funding for the Aceh camp and received regular reports from the field. He is also believed to have had a role in appointing operational leaders to the new group. According to ICG, the establishment of the camp is in line with what Bashir has been preaching for years.
Radical past, evolving future It is not the first time that Bashir has been linked to a violent and radical Islamic movement. Intelligence agencies have claimed he was the spiritual head of JI, although the cleric has consistently denied any involvement with terrorist activities.
Two prior attempts to convict Bashir on charges related to terrorism, including his alleged role in the 2002 Bali bombing and the 2000 Christmas bombings that killed 18 people, were unsuccessful due to lack of evidence. While he was widely believed to lead JI at the time of the 2002 attack, no conclusive evidence has ever been produced that he ordered or endorsed the attack. Bashir was eventually sentenced to 18 months for immigration violations and illegally sending Indonesians abroad for military training.
Bashir was also charged in October 2004 with inciting the 2003 JW Marriot Hotel bombing and another charge related to the 2002 Bali bombing. He was sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but released in June 2006 after his conviction for conspiracy in the Bali bombing was overturned.
Indonesian security officials must be more confident of their evidence this time around if they intend to avoid a third strike. That legal confidence is reflected in the nature of the charges against the cleric. While past attempts have only linked Bashir to JI and terrorism through his spiritual and moral leadership as a well-known Islamic cleric, this time he is accused of direct involvement in funding and organizing the training of militants, appointing key leaders and receiving reports on the group’s activity from extremists in the field.
One other notable difference amid the new charges is Bashir’s flagging popularity and shifts in Indonesian attitudes towards violent Islamic movements since 2002, which so far has limited the domestic political fallout from his arrest. Frequent terror bombings have not been popular among the majority of Indonesians and Bashir’s message of violent jihad and public moral support for both the Bali bombers and the suicide bombers in last year’s hotel bombings has dented his mass appeal.
According to a July 2010 report by the ICG entitled ”The dark side of Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)”, the cleric has been a problem for successive Indonesian governments since the 1970s and is recognized as the ”elder statesman of the radical movement”. However, the report argued, he is no longer that movement’s driving force or even its most influential ideologue.
In recent years, Bashir has come under criticism even within jihadi circles for his poor strategic judgment and a lack of managerial talent. He is also believed to be at odds with JI over their current preference for religious outreach over violent jihad. JI members have allegedly said that it lacks the resources and that the timing is not right to wage a militant campaign against Yudhoyono’s secular elected government.
Bashir’s declining influence may mean that his arrest will have little impact on extremism in Indonesia. He does, however, remain the most prominent radical figure in the country and is believed to maintain the respect of many extremists. His sermons and pronouncements have made him a potent symbol of defiance towards the US and West, although this message has carried less resonance with Indonesians in recent years.
Bashir’s popularity could grow with his imprisonment if authorities are not watchful. Given Indonesia’s notoriously lax prisons, Bashir may be able to use the time to preach, recruit and even lead his followers from inside prison walls. As an unconvicted prisoner, he is by default a symbol of government repression to his followers, especially if public prosecutors again fail to prove his direct involvement in terrorism.
More worrying for security officials, however, is the changing nature of terrorism in the country. Jakarta has received international praise for its recent counter-terrorism efforts. But while analysts say terrorism is not necessarily increasing, it also has not been entirely eradicated. As shown by Noordin Top’s splinter group, a small cell can inflict serious damage and loss of life.
What is taking place instead is a mutation in the nature of militant Islam in Indonesia. Previously prospective militants gravitated either towards JI, even with its current passive stance based on simply teaching jihad and religious outreach, or to Noordin Top’s attack-oriented splinter group. With the discovery of the lintas tanzim, there is now a third option of targeted assassinations that avoid killing Muslims in order to bring Islamic law to Indonesia. Its a worry that extends to the nearby Philippines, considering the cross-border nature of the group.
With Bashir now in lockup and the lintas tanzim at least temporarily upended, there is still the prospect for further evolution of Islamic extremism in Indonesia. Indonesia deserves praise for the way it has recently handled its domestic terrorist threat, but as long as figures like Bashir are able to arouse extremist sympathies, the government cannot rest on its laurels.
Clifford McCoy is a freelance journalist.
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Old and new faces of Indonesian terror By Clifford McCoy