Indonesian terror group hobbled
President Yudhoyono warned Monday that the terrorist threat remains, and more attacks could come.
JAKARTA, INDONESIA — The ability of Jemaah Islamiyah, the most feared terrorist network in Southeast Asia, to execute attacks in the region has been greatly sapped by hundreds of arrests since 2002, according to security officials, analysts, and a former JI member.
Cut adrift from its Al Qaeda sponsors, JI appears to be splintered by the loss of its leaders and internal divisions over attacks on civilians. Its spiritual head, Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is behind bars. The group's last confirmed attack, on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta almost a year ago, failed to penetrate the compound.
Despite the crackdown's success, Indonesia's president issued a warning Monday of possible terrorist attacks ahead. "Terrorist cells are still active. They are still hiding, recruiting, networking, trying to find new funding sources, and even planning," said President Susilo Yudhoyono at a seminar in Jakarta. "There will be an increase of terrorist activities in the region."
Why the concern? JI's deadliest bombmakers are still at large in Indonesia and continue to plot attacks against Western targets there. Even as the group appears paralyzed, informal personal networks are emerging to provide new sources of recruiting, training, and fundraising. Other extremist groups are also stepping up. And the overriding ideological glue for extremism here - a desire for a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia - has not gone away.
"If we look at the threat today in Indonesia, it's not only Jemaah Islamiyah. They recruit from other groups with the same ideology and mind-set," says Ansyaad Mbai, head of the counterterrorism unit in the national security ministry. "After each attack, we've found that the young bombers aren't necessarily JI members. They're new recruits."
In the Australian Embassy attack, JI operatives trained Muslims from a decades-old banned group, Darul Islam, as foot soldiers.
Officials believe they probably foiled another anti-Western attack when they detained 14 suspects in July in central Java. But the cell's ringleader, Malaysian-born engineer Azahari Husin, escaped the police dragnet, as he has done on previous occasions. Police are also hunting another senior JI member, Noordin Mohamed Top.
The two men are among a handful of surviving JI operatives that heeded Osama bin Laden's 1998 fatwa against the US and its allies for the occupation of Muslim lands as justification for anti-Western violence. In its original conception, JI sought to use political and military tactics to overthrow secular regimes to create an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Instead, Al Qaeda enlisted the group's regional cells into a global terror campaign.
The fuse was lit in October 2002 when an Indonesian cell bombed two nightclubs on Bali, killing over 200 people. The following year, the group struck again at a Western hotel in Jakarta.
But the arrest of 270 JI suspects, of whom 140 have been convicted and sentenced, has crippled the group's command structure in Indonesia. Aided by Australian and other foreign forces, Indonesia's police have boosted their counterterrorist capacity.
The result, according to analysts and a former JI trainer, has been a mounting backlash against Azahari and other Al Qaeda-linked militants accused of hijacking the group for their cause and alienating the public by killing innocent civilians, including Muslims.
"There are serious differences within JI.... Largely, JI doesn't want to participate in the violence. They want to go back to their political agenda of creating an Islamic state in Asia," says Rohan Gunaratna, author of 'Inside Al-Qaeda.'
That agenda took Abas Nasir from his home in Malaysia to the Afghan border in the late 1980s where he joined other Asian Muslims eager to join the anti-Soviet jihad. On his return to Malaysia, he joined JI in 1993 and was sent to Mindanao in the Philippines to oversee military training of recruits, including key members of the Bali cell.
Last year, after cooperating with prosecutors and serving 10 months in an Indonesian prison, Abas was released. Interviewed in a Jakarta cafe, Abas readily denounces the "deviant" path of JI's bombmakers, while insisting on the purity of the group's original aims.
"We were to use our knowledge to help other Muslims," he says. "Some of the JI members misused this knowledge and adopted the wrong ideology to attack civilians."
Abas says he has left JI and is urging former colleagues to stop terrorism. Last year he testified against Bashir and has written a book critical of the group.
But Abas says he still dreams of an Islamic state in Malaysia and Indonesia, both secular multifaith states with Muslim majorities. He draws a distinction between attacks against civilians, which he condemns, and his own past militarism, which he justifies on the grounds of self-defense for oppressed Muslims, including those fighting in the largely extinguished sectarian wars that raged in eastern Indonesia.
This tension between secular governments and the dream of Islamic rule is unlikely to fade, say analysts, even as it moves back to the political arena. What lies ahead is a long-term ideological contest to win over disaffected Muslims drawn to extremism. "It's more than law enforcement. It's a war of ideas," says counterterrorism chief Mbai.