Analysis: Jakarta attack may show evolution of Islamist terror group

Splinter factions of Jemaah Islamiyah 'might now seek to re-energize the movement through violent attacks,' according to a report issued only 24 hours before Friday's bombings.

Tatan Syuflana/AP
An Indonesian boy holds a poster as people lay flowers outside the Ritz Carlton hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, on Friday.

Twin bomb blasts at two luxury hotels popular with foreign businessmen in Indonesia's capital have renewed fears of terrorist attacks after a four-year lull in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country.

The explosions present recently reelected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono with a new set of security challenges and are evidence that medium-term success in disrupting terrorist networks can't guarantee security since small numbers of motivated operatives are extremely difficult to completely eliminate.

Indonesia has been one of the great antiterror success stories of the past five years as it has hunted down and disrupted – often with US and Australian help – the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network, an Islamist group that has murdered hundreds and has in the past had ties to Al Qaeda. The group carried out five mass casualty attacks in Indonesia between 2000 and 2005 and another attack in the Philippines. Now, though, violent splinter factions may be hoping to revitalize JI with more sophisticated attacks, analysts say.

"It is too early to tell for sure," says Noor Huda Ismail, executive director of the Institute for International Peacebuilding and a onetime student at an Islamic boarding school run by Abu Bakar Bashir, the Sunni cleric who serves as the JI's spiritual leader. "But the pattern of attack, target, and method suggests the violent faction [of JI]."

JI's different factions

JI partly responded to the crackdown, Mr. Ismail says, by breaking into separate factions. One is a "mainstream," or nonviolent faction that believes high-profile attacks on Westerners don't advance the group's ultimate goal of a Pan-Southeast Asian Islamic caliphate. The other is a smaller group that prefers a strategy of violent confrontation with the secular Indonesian government and Western interests.

In a report released a day before today's attack, Ismail and Australian analyst Carl Ungerer warned that the group might be revitalized by a number of operatives whose prison terms have ended this year.

They wrote that the philosophical divisions within JI's leadership could drive new young recruits toward the network's violent wing. "We argue that two recent developments – the current leadership tensions and the release from prison of former JI members – at least raise the possibility that splinter factions might now seek to re-energise the movement through violent attacks," the two wrote in a report issued only 24 hours before Friday's attack.

No claims of responsibility yet

To be sure, Indonesia has not publicly named a perpetrator and no group has claimed responsibility. Mr. Yudhoyono said that state intelligence has evidence that terrorist groups are training to kill him, but he didn't name them. Yet there's no question that the four-year lull from attacks Indonesia has enjoyed has been largely due to hundreds of arrests and the killings of about a dozen senior JI operatives.

"The police have done a great job," says Eric Gerstein, a former FBI agent and now security consultant with Assessments Group Indonesia, a security consultancy. "But those [terrorist] elements are still out there."

Police pressure – coupled with the damage JI's cause suffered because of public revulsion at murdering civilians – had convinced most of the group's surviving leaders to abandon terror tactics, analysts say. Today's attack, they say, could indicate that a violent splinter faction committed to the old methods remains at large. The International Crisis Group estimates JI's active supporters could be as low as 1,000.

Blast hits high-powered business breakfast

The blasts hit the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott Hotels, leaving nine dead and 50 injured. One of the attacks was on a high-powered business breakfast hosted by James Castle, an American who has lived in Indonesia for decades and runs a consultancy. Mr. Castle - who was also in the Marriott when it was attacked in 2003 – was injured, as were a senior official from the Australian trade agency and an executive from Freeport McMoRan, which runs the world's largest copper and gold mine in Indonesia. Timothy Mackay, the CEO of the Indonesian subsidiary of Holcim, the world's second-largest cement company, was killed.

Footage from a Marriott hotel security camera carried on Indonesia's TVOne network showed a man who police have identified as a suspected suicide bomber wearing a baseball cap and carrying a bag.

New level of sophistication?

The Friday attacks also show an evolution of terrorist tactics and methods. Previous attacks by JI – in Bali 2002, on the same J.W. Mariott Hotel in 2003, and on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004 involved car bombs.

"It's a new level of sophistication and the most elaborate operation they've [terrorists] done so far," says one former Australian intelligence official, remarking on the apparent success the attackers had in posing as guests at the hotel and setting up a planning center in one of its rooms as a way to avoid the security measures that have made frontal assaults very difficult.

Yudhoyono was reelected on July 8 in a landslide victory after promising to cut corruption and boost economic growth. But Yudhoyono, whose five-year administration oversaw a historic peace process in Aceh Province that in 2005 ended a 28-year conflict with separatist rebels and renewed military ties with the US, has also claimed credit for improved security in Indonesia. The US- and Australian-funded and trained elite police unit Detachment 88 has arrested and caught more than 400 terrorists in recent years. Court documents show police and intelligence units have penetrated and disrupted terrorist cells, even persuading some former Islamist militants to work with authorities.

Roots of Islamism in Indonesia

About 88 percent of Indonesia's 230 million population proclaims Islam as their faith. Christians, Hindu, and Buddhist minorities are protected under the nation's Constitution.

Some groups here have opposed a secular state since Indonesia was founded in 1945, including the Darul Islam, the forerunner to the JI. The older Islamist group based in West Java led a guerrilla rebellion in the 1940s in a bid to establish an Islamist state. After a heavy government crackdown in the 1960s, Darul Islam was driven underground, but veterans spread their message of Islamist jihad through schools and sympathetic mosques. Their successor, JI, now appears to be doing likewise, and he says their ideology caries danger, even when its teachers are not themselves violent. "As long as the ideology exists, there will be violent people."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.