Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Fall of the Teflon Terrorist?

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By Zachary Abuza


On Aug. 9, 2010, members of Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorist police force arrested the militant cleric Abu Bakar Bashir as part of their ongoing investigations into a terrorist training camp discovered in February 2010 in Aceh, plots to kill President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and scheme to launch Mumbai-style attacks in Jakarta. While the government had previously alleged that Bashir was a financier of the cell and training camp, the arrest and his role in terrorist operations took many by surprise. The ongoing counter-terrorist operations, including Bashir’s arrest, says much about the state and metastasisation of Jemaah Islamiah.


The Teflon Terrorist

Bashir is a co-founder of the regional terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiah (JI), which has been responsible for a string of terrorist attacks including the October 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202 people, including 88 Australians; the August 2003 bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta; the October 2004 bombing of the Australian Embassy; the 2005 triple bombings in Bali; and the July 2009 simultaneous bombings of two luxury hotels in Jakarta.

Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar established JI in 1992-93, when they were living in exile in Malaysia, after being imprisoned by Suharto’s New Order regime. Abdullah Sungkar died in 1999, soon after he and Abu Bakar Bashir returned to Indonesia following the collapse of the authoritarian regime and the establishment of a weak democracy. Bashir was always a divisive figure in the organisation. Though the head of the al-Mukmin school – described as the “Ivy league” of terrorism in Southeast Asia, as it is one of JI’s key madrassas (there are about 12 other important schools) – he caused dissension within the group by founding an overt civil society arm in 1999. For the first time in decades, Islamist organisations could operate overtly, and Bashir established the Majlis Mujiheddin Indonesia (MMI) as an umbrella organisation. Bashir also came under fire from some real hard-line elements for not sanctioning more attacks and following the al-Qaeda line.

Bashir had been arrested twice before; the first time following Bali bombings, but was acquitted of terrorism in 2003. He was merely charged with passport violations. Under considerable pressure from the United States and Australia, he was charged again, but acquitted of the most serious charges of being JI’s spiritual leader. He served a token 26-month sentence and was released in 2006. Afterwards, his conviction was overturned. In part, his light sentence was due to the paucity of hard evidence against him. But in many ways it was also a sign that Indonesia’s courts were exercising their newfound independence; they simply were no longer beholden to the prosecutors, and demanded greater professionalism from them.

Upon his release, Bashir set about to revitalise JI’s overt civil-society arm, the MMI, but by 2007 he had a falling out with the group he founded. In 2008, he formed another overt though decidedly more radical organisation, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT).

The 71-year old cleric and the JAT have been active in social welfare, a role that the Indonesian Government seemed to encourage after his release, despite his designation by the UN Security Council’s 1267 Sanctions Committee as a terrorist. Since his release in 2006, Bashir has been careful to slightly distance himself from – though never condemning – JI’s terrorist operatives, arguing that the JAT is a social welfare and dawah organisation that eschewed militancy. He clearly became more cautious about speaking in public. But in private he continued his firebrand attacks on the United States, Australia and Israel.

He has travelled throughout Indonesia, preaching his militant version of Islam, most notoriously in October 2007 when he called on Muslims to attack Western tourists, whom he described as “worms, snakes, and maggots.” “If there are infidels here, just beat them up. Do not tolerate them,” he said before insisting “the youth movement here must aspire to a martyr’s death.”

Indonesian authorities tolerated this, contending that it was free speech, protected by a democratic constitution, and not incitement. But they really thought that Bashir was simply a firebrand preacher, no longer tied to any operational terrorist organisation.


The Aceh Camp: The Evolution of JI

The discovery of the training camp in Aceh in February 2010 was a surprise to Indonesian authorities. JI had tried to set up camp in Aceh in the late-1990s but was rebuffed by the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and the local community. The size and scope of the camp was another cause for concern. Authorities found a cache of M-16 assault rifles, revolvers and thousands of rounds of ammunition at the Aceh training camp. They also said they uncovered plans to launch Mumbai-style terror strikes in Jakarta and to kill President Yudhoyono and other high-profile targets.

Since the camp was discovered, counter-terrorism police have arrested 102 people – 36 at the camp and the remaining 66 in follow-up operations; 13 have been killed. Three members of the JAT were arrested in May 2010, allegedly for funding the camp, which forced Indonesian authorities to re-evaluate their assumptions about Bashir’s role.

More importantly, both Bashir’s arrest and the purpose of the Acehnese training camp, ostensibly run by “al-Qaeda in Aceh,” say a lot about the state of JI and terrorism in Indonesia.

Since 2003, JI has been hit hard by counter-terrorist operations. Real schisms have erupted within the organisation since 2004. The pro-al-Qaeda “Hambali wing” of JI continued to perpetrate attacks: the JW Marriott in Jakarta in 2003, the Australian Embassy in 2004, the triple bag bombings in Bali in 2005. This faction was really headed by Dr. Azahari bin Husin and Noordin Mohammed Top, both Malaysians, following Hambali’s 2003 capture. Though violent, they could only muster the resources for one attack a year, and Azahari and Noordin were clearly unhappy with this tempo. When Dr. Azahari was killed in 2005, his safehouse had 32 bag bombs in various states of construction, indicating that they sought smaller but more frequent attacks. The capture of that cache set the group back a year and there were no attacks in 2006. But in 2007 and 2008, attacks were averted by last minute arrests. In both cases Noordin’s followers, who re-branded themselves as “al-Qaeda in the Malay Archipelago” (AQMA) were able to acquire large caches of weapons and explosives and were in the final stages of attacks on soft targets.

But there was another wing – what is often referred to as “mainstream JI” – that believed that attacking Western venues and soft targets was counter-productive and had resulted in mass arrests. This group articulated a strategy based on going back to JI’s pre-Bali modus operandi of engaging in sectarian attacks in Indonesia’s outer islands, Sulawesi and the Malukus in particular; creating pure Islamist communities and emanating outward.

These strategies were not mutually exclusive. And to be clear, even the mainstream JI camp was not morally opposed to mass-casualty attacks on soft targets; they simply saw it as a bad strategy at the time. Moreover, many suspects in terrorism attacks were actually later arrested in the sectarian conflict zones. The two camps may have disagreed on tactics, but ultimately they worked together and gave each other sanctuary.

Around 2005-06, JI re-organised itself. Indonesian police recovered a new organisational outline/flow chart in a safehouse in central Java in mid-2007. Other documents fleshed out a new organisational flowchart; flatter and more Indonesia-centric than it had been. The document outlined JI’s focus on fomenting sectarian conflict in Sulawesi and the Malukus as a way to regroup and indoctrinate a new generation of members. Indonesian counter-terrorist forces responded appropriately. Densus-88 was put in charge of these regions, replacing the human rights blind paramilitary arm of the police. Since then, sectarian attacks have dropped significantly. While mainstream JI may have wanted to follow a strategy of sectarian violence, they have not achieved any of their goals in the past three years.

Noordin Mohammed Top was clearly dissatisfied with “Mainstream JI’s” focus on the near enemy and continued his attacks on the far enemy. But when Noordin was killed in September 2009, in the course of investigations of the July 2009 bombings of two luxury hotels in Jakarta, a new faction emerged, called “al-Qaeda in Aceh” (AQA), but in some places it referred to itself as Tandzim Alqaedah Serambi Mekkah. Under the leadership of Dulmatin and Abdullah Sunata, AQA tried to bridge the gap between JI’s two extremes, and was critical of both of their approaches.

In a 75-minute AQA recruitment video found online in March 2010, the narrator stated, “To all those in JI, I tell you. You don’t fight jihad with the pen or in a prayer cap and sarong. No, you fight jihad with weapons. Before your hair goes gray with age, join us!” (Associated Press, 22 March 2010). The leader of the group singled out the former “Amir” of JI, Abu Rusdan, who was freed after serving a 3½-year sentence, and is now quiescent. The narrator explicitly said Rusdan should not be trusted because now, all he does is sit in “an office.”

But clearly this group was also somewhat critical of Noordin’s strategy, which they saw as too nihilistic and incapable of de-stabilising the regime through occasional suicide bombings. Though critical of Noordin’s strategy, this is where his followers gravitated after his death: Four people involved in the July 2009 Jakarta bombings were arrested during the February raids on the Aceh camp.

Indonesian counter-terrorism officials contend that AQA planned Mumbai style attacks on hotels in Jakarta and their ultimate goal was to assassinate the Indonesian president and other senior officials during the Independence Day ceremonies on Aug. 17. (Jakarta Globe, 15 May 2010). On Aug. 7, Densus-88 arrested five suspects in a raid on a bomb factory in West Java. They recovered explosives and a vehicle they believe was to be used in a car bombing.


Renewed International Links

The other facet of this case is the international angle. Many pundits had assumed that with the death of Noordin the “mainstream JI” would refocus the group on domestic issues and eschew any sort of global jihadist identity or connections. While AQA’s actual ties to al-Qaeda are unknown, and are probably little more than an ideological affinity, there is concern of a renewed transnational angle.

The Aceh cell was comprised of militants who had ties to both the Middle East and the Philippines. A French national and his Moroccan wife, currently at large, owned the vehicle allegedly used in the car bombing. There is concern that they provided funds from abroad for the camp. Moreover, the leadership of the cell were some of the least parochial of the JI leadership. Dulmatin, one of the Bali bombers, fled to the southern Philippines in 2003 where he trained members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf Group, before returning to Indonesia in mid-2009. He was killed near Jakarta in a shoot out with Densus-88 forces in a follow-up operation in March 2010. Abdullah Sunata, who was first arrested in 2004, was a key intermediary between JI and Philippine militants and al-Qaeda operatives. Sunata was released from prison having gone through Indonesia’s “disengagement” program while incarcerated, but reassumed command once he was released. He was re-arrested in May 2010. As the presidential spokesman put it, “The President hopes, with the arrest of Abdullah Sunata and others, all international links to Indonesian terrorist groups will be cut.” (Associated Press, 24 June 2010.)

In addition to the Aceh cell, the June 2010 conviction of Muhammad Jibril, the son of one of JI’s founding members, for his role in financing the 2009 bombings, revealed renewed international links of JI. JI is not as isolated in Indonesia as many had thought.


Will The Charges Finally Stick?

Bashir’s involvement in the Aceh cell’s operations was deeper than first thought and went far beyond his role as a fund-raiser. “Our investigators found evidence that Abu Bakar Bashir had been actively involved in terror plots and activities including the training,” National police spokesman Edward Aritonang said. (Bangkok Post, 10 Aug. 2010.) He “knew all the connections, training and plans that happened in Aceh, because he routinely received reports from managers in the field.” The police believe that in addition to JAT, Bashir continues to preside over Kompak, an Islamist charity that has been deeply involved in terrorism and sectarian violence, and the group Indonesia Islamic State (NII). (Reuters, 11 Aug. 2010.)

As such, there is greater hope that the evidence against him is stronger and that he will be convicted for a longer term. Bashir, through his lawyer Ahmed Michdan, has denied any involvement in the alleged attacks and asserts that his arrest was at the order of “the US, Israel and their lackeys.” (Reuters, 11 Aug. 2010.) He has not made other comments to the press, and according to recent press reports, he has not revealed anything to police interrogators.

But this is the best chance Indonesian authorities have to incarcerate Bashir for a large portion of his life. Moreover, there is little popular backlash against his arrest, as there had been in the past. Even exhortations by leaders of the Prosperous Justice Party went relatively un-noticed. The Indonesian economy is doing well and most do not want militants to jeopardise a prolonged period of recovery.

While his arrest will not have a huge impact on JI, it will take longer for the group to recover from the closure of the Aceh camp and the arrest and killing of two senior leaders, Abdullah Sunata and Dulmatin, respectively. These events have done far more to cripple JI’s operational capabilities.

Bashir’s arrest also signals that the Indonesian government might now have the confidence to crack down on legal civil society organisations, such as the JAT and MMI, when they incite violence.

How this plays out in terms of the schisms within the organisation, we just don’t know. It could bolster the cause of “Mainstream JI” who may want to continue to foment sectarian violence. While they have achieved little in the past few years, they haven’t been set back through arrests and counter-terrorist operations. But it could also provide fodder for a more al-Qaeda-oriented group of militants who want to step up attacks on the far enemy. I see neither side emerging victorious, which is why the arrest of the Aceh cell was so important: it broke the bridge between them.


Dr. Zachary Abuza is Professor of Southeast Asian Politics at the US National War College in Washington, DC. He is the author of several books and numerous articles on radical Islamism and terrorism in Southeast Asia, including, most recently, A Conspiracy of Silence: The Insurgency in Southern Thailand (US Institute of Peace Press, 2009).

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