Indonesian Jemaah Islamiya Founder Abubakar Baasyir’s Quiet Release From Prison
In 2019, the Indonesian government decided it would release Jemaah Islamiya founder Abubakar Baasyir from prison earlier than initially scheduled. He had been tried in 2011 and sentenced to 15 years in prison for setting up an “al-Qaeda in Aceh” training camp that Indonesia’s counter-terrorism special operations unit, Densus-88, raided and dismantled (Terrorism Monitor, April 7, 2011). Notwithstanding Baasyir’s imprisonment, some camp members, including most notably Santoso, leader of the East Indonesian Mujahideen and known most popularly by the singular name, continued on the jihadist path. Santoso relocated to Poso, Sulawesi, conducted several terrorist attacks, and eventually pledged loyalty to Islamic State (Jakarta Post, April 1, 2016). However, Santoso, the most wanted terrorist in the county at the time, was killed by Indonesian security shortly after the pledge in 2016 (straitstimes.com, July 19, 2016).
Baasyir had also been imprisoned in 2004 (Terrorism Monitor, November 4, 2004). Between his release after that imprisonment and 2011, he continued his jihadist leadership activities. In contrast, it does not appear that Baasyir is currently engaging in any new jihadist planning after his most recent release. Several reasons that may explain this. First, Baasyir is now 82-years old and in poor health, which may make it more difficult to continue leading jihadist activities. Second, Indonesia’s terrorism infrastructure has largely been decimated by Densus-88, with attacks occurring only sporadically, and not nearly with the lethality resembling Baasyir’s heyday in the years surrounding 9/11, when the infamous Bali bombings occurred in 2002 and 2005. Third, key Indonesian jihadists, including most recently Upik Lawanga and Zulkarnaen in late 2020, have been arrested, meaning the ‘old guard’ from Baasyir’s heyday has given way to a new generation of less experienced jihadists (Jakarta Post, December 15, 2020). Fourth, the new generation of Indonesian jihadists has become increasingly loyal to Islamic State, like Santoso had become, while Baasyir came of age during the Afghan jihad and had been influenced by al-Qaeda. This represents another disconnect between Baasyir and prospective recruits at present.
Credit also must be given to the Indonesian government and especially Densus-88. Indonesia has become much more inhospitable to jihadism now compared to after 9/11. Madrassas where jihadists used to be recruit are no longer teaching the same ideologies and Indonesia has engaged in various de-radicalization and countering violent extremists to accompany Densus 88’s work that have often been effective (benarnews.org, March 6, 2020). As a result, there is relatively little concern that Baasyir’s release this time will lead to an increase in terrorism in Indonesia. However, a large number of Indonesians and foreigners who count their family members among the victims of Jemaah Islamiyah’s attacks view Baasyir’s early release from prison as unjust. Other Indonesians also note the human rights inconsistency where Baasyir can be released from prison early, but a woman is currently imprisoned for complaining about a mosque’s loud call to prayer (Jakarta Post, January 22, 2019).
U.S. Counter-Terrorism Campaign Continues Against al-Shabaab
On January 30, the United States reportedly carried out a drone strike against al-Shabaab in a town controlled by the terrorist group in Somalia’s Bakool province (Halgan Media, January 30). This was the first drone strike in Somalia under the Biden administration and indicates that drone strikes will continue despite the change of administrations in the United States. In addition, it shows that the Trump administration’s relocation of all U.S. forces out of Somalia will not necessarily limit continued counter-terrorism operations in Somalia (wltx.com, January 18).
U.S. attention to counter-terrorism in Somalia is also unlikely to be altered by the Biden administration because al-Shabaab continues to show a high level of military capability in the country. One of the latest examples of al-Shabaab’s sophistication was its use of a drone to film an attack on Manda Bay base in Kenya, which killed three Americans, on January 5, 2020 (voasomalia.com, December 19, 2021). Drones could also be used in attacks themselves, and the Manda Bay base attack is a reminder that even in Kenya, U.S. forces are not necessarily safe from al-Shabaab. Not only has al-Shabaab carried out several previous major attacks in the country, but, as the al-Shabaab video claim of the Manda Bay base attack demonstrated, the group also fields Swahili-speaking Kenyan fighters (Morad News, January 30; Quarterly Special Report, April 2015).
Meanwhile, in Somalia, al-Shabaab continues to strike Mogadishu. On January 31, for example, al-Shabaab fighters attacked Hotel Afrik, conducted a suicide car bombing targeting a retired army general and engaged in a firefight with Somali forces that led to nine deaths (arabnews.com, January 31; Shabelle Media Network, February 4). Al-Shabaab, therefore, predominates the rural areas outside Mogadishu and maintains an asymmetric warfare presence in Mogadishu itself (polgenow.com, August 2019).
The new Biden administration may seek to reorient U.S. foreign policy to East Asia in order to deal with China and will maintain a focus on preventing Islamic State’s resurgence in Syria and Iraq, but it will not be able to afford to ignore Africa. Al-Shabaab, among other al-Qaeda affiliates in Mali and Islamic State provinces in Mozambique and Nigeria, illustrate how Africa is becoming the primary area of operations for jihadist expansion.