Indonesia and the Global War on Terrorism: Jakarta’s Mediocre Response to Terror

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 2

In October of 2002 the worst international terrorist incident since the September 11 suicide strikes in Washington and New York took place on the island of Bali. It involved a series of coordinated explosions in a popular tourist nightspot district that collectively killed 202 people, almost half of whom were Australians. The attack highlighted Indonesia as an emergent base for Jemaah Islamiyya (JI), which is widely regarded to be acting as al Qaeda’s operational wing in Southeast Asia. In the fifteen months since the bombings, considerable regional and international attention has focused on Jakarta’s willingness (and ability) to concertedly crack down on transnational extremist Islamic elements existing in the country. While the Megawati government has made some decisive moves in this direction–notably arresting and convicting the key ringleaders behind the Bali atrocity–questions remain as to the Republic’s overall capacity to play a meaningful role in the global war on terrorism.

Indonesia’s Contemporary History With Islamic Extremism

Islamic extremism has emerged as an increasingly salient threat in Indonesia since the overthrow of President Soeharto in 1998. Almost overnight, the Republic moved to shed the vestiges of nearly four decades of military-authoritarian rule in favor of a political system based on democratic principles. Successfully achieving such an outcome was always going to be fraught with difficulties. The increasingly critical state of the country’s financial situation, however, combined with a succession of poor leaders (not to mention the army’s general unwillingness to remove itself from the central structures of power), served to dramatically heighten the latent threats associated with this transition. Not only have poverty, inflation and unemployment interacted with a more fluid political domestic environment to produce major outbursts of civil violence, but general dissatisfaction with the administrative performance of Jakarta has reawakened an atavistic Muslim identity that has further radicalized popular identity across the archipelago.

In the six years since the fall of Soeharto, numerous militant entities have materialized in Indonesia advocating the institution of a more fundamentalist Islamic order in the Republic. Notable examples include Laskar Jihad (LJ), Front Pembela Islam (LPI, the armed wing of the Islamic Defenders Forces/FPI), the Islamic Youth Movement (GPI) and Laskar Jundallah. These various groups have been tied to attacks on bars, massage parlors, karaoke lounges and gambling dens in Jakarta; to the inciting of street protests against the United States, its invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and the general global war on terrorism; and to communal/religious violence in Sulawesi and the Malukus during 2000-2002.

In addition to these emergent groups, Indonesia continues to confront an entrenched Islamic insurgency in Aceh, which has been fought largely at the behest of the Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM) since the mid-1970s. Although the current Megawati administration has attempted to improve center-periphery relations through the institution of autonomy packages and more equitable economic resource sharing initiatives, local resentment over the writ of Jakarta remains palpable. In large part this is due to a continuing police and military presence that remains both over-bearing and insensitive to indigenous grievances and frustrations. Indeed, in May of 2003 the Indonesian military launched a full-scale assault on Aceh (including the use of F-16 fighter jets) that has since resulted in more than 1000 deaths. Overall, an estimated 10,000 people have been killed in the province over the last three decades, the vast bulk of whom have been civilians.

Indonesia And Transnational Islamic Extremism

It is Indonesia’s role as an emergent center for transnational Islamic extremism, however, that has generated most regional and international concern. Not only has the Republic served as the territorial base of JI since 1998 (U.S. officials claim that the movement fields as many as 750 operatives across Southeast Asia, of which an estimated 400 are currently in Indonesia), but associated militants in the country are now known to have played a central role in the October 2002 Bali bombings.

Evidence presented during the trial of four Indonesians implicated as the main planners behind the Bali attack–Imam Sumadra, Ali Ghufron (alias “Mukhlas”), Ali Imran and Amrozi bin Nurasyim–showed that all had attended a secret gathering in Java in January of 2002. There, while allegedly acting under the aegis of JI, they were given the “green light” to bomb soft targets of opportunity across the archipelago in pursuit of wider Islamic designs. Intelligence analysts believe that the subsequent attack on the U.S.-owned JW Marriott Hotel in August of 2003 (which killed thirteen people and left dozens injured) was a result of the same meeting, as were alleged plans to carry out a series of coordinated bombings against various tourist venues in Jakarta, Surabaya and Medan last December.

More directly, Indonesia has been identified as the main recruiting ground for front-line JI cadres and future leaders. A concerted “enlistment” drive is already reported to have begun in the Republic, and in November of 2003 Aris Sumarsono (alias “Zulkarnaen”), one of the first Indonesian nationals to have signed up for the anti-Soviet mujahideen struggle in Afghanistan during the 1980s, was identified as the new operations chief of JI (he replaced Riduan Isamuddin, alias “Hambalik,” who was arrested in Thailand four months earlier). According to Steve Gutkin of the UK-based Guardian Newspaper, “[Zulkarnaen is] among al Qaeda’s [main] pointmen in Southeast Asia and is one of the few people in Indonesia to have direct contact with Osama Bin Laden’s terror network…[His] quiet demeanor…belies a ferocious commitment to radical Islam and a determination to wage violent jihad [in pursuit of wider Islamic goals].”

No less seriously, at least residual ties appear to remain between domestic Indonesian Muslim radicals and outside forces under the umbrella of the Majilis Mujahideen Indonesia (MMI), an ostensibly peaceful civil society organization based in Yogyakarta. A sizeable component of LJ (now disbanded), for instance, is known to have been recruited from Central and South Asia while the group itself is alleged to have provided terrorist training facilities for JI militants near to the port city of Poso. Equally significant, the leader of Laskar Jundallah (which reputedly acts as the paramilitary arm of the MMI), Agus Dwirkana, has been identified as one of the main planners behind a series of bomb attacks that rocked Manila and Jakarta in December of 2002 (the so-called Christmas bombings), which regional intelligence sources insist were instituted with the explicit endorsement and support of Bin Laden’s terror network. Finally, several observers of Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia believe that GAM has instituted mutually beneficial ties with external jihadist entities, receiving money and weapons in exchange for facilitating the creation of local logistical and operational bases in Aceh.

While decisive evidence tying Indonesia into a wider regional terror network has yet to emerge, governments throughout Southeast Asia, Europe, Oceania and North America consider such a potentiality to be a highly realistic threat contingency. In particular, they remain concerned that al Qaeda and Taliban leaders have sought to co-opt local militant structures to abet the relocation of jihadist forces post-Afghanistan and are now seeking to further benefit the transmigration of Islamist global terror networks by exploiting the Republic’s general permissive and chaotic climate. Certainly this remains one of the key fears of the Bush administration, aptly reflected in the following statement by U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz: “You see the potential for Muslim extremists to link up with radicals in Indonesia and establish themselves in a soft corner of that [part of the world].”

Indonesia’s Response To Terrorism

Despite declaring its support for the U.S.-led war on terrorism in the months immediately following the 9-11 attacks, Indonesia was soon censured for its general unwillingness to take concerted action against radical Islamic elements existing in the country. While the Megawati administration did initiate certain moves against indigenous groups such as LJ and LPI, these were ad hoc, sporadic and carried out largely in the context of containing small scale deviant threats to law and order (such as preventing attacks on nightclubs). Particularly irksome to governments in the United States, Australia, the UK, Singapore and the Philippines was Jakarta’s refusal either to admit the existence of JI or to arrest its 65-year old founder, Sheikh Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, as the ideological force behind the movement and the inspiration for acts of terrorism carried out in its name.

It was only after the 2002 Bali attacks that Indonesia began to undertake more directed responses to transnational Islamic extremism. No longer able to dismiss the reality of terrorist challenges associated with explicitly defined cross-border jihadist imperatives, Jakarta quickly moved to identify, apprehend and try the key players responsible for the Bali attacks (see above)–three of whom (Sumadra, Ghufron and Amrozi)–were given the death penalty. Complementing these detentions was the arrest of Ba’asyir in mid-2003. He subsequently received a combined sentence of four years for both conspiring to overthrow the Megawati administration and being complicit in the 2000 Christmas bombings.

Just as importantly, the police and intelligence services have begun to cooperate with their regional counterparts, exchanging tactical information and participating in joint operations designed to break up militant JI/al Qaeda linked cells existing across Southeast Asia. At the time of writing, over 200 suspects connected with one or other of these networked movements had been rounded up across the region, including in Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand and Cambodia.

This being said, questions continue to be raised about the overall efficacy (and credibility) of Indonesia’s response to transnational Islamic extremism. Although Ba’asyir was tried for treason, he was never indicted on the more serious charges of ideologically heading JI and sanctioning its attacks in Bali. More tellingly, his initial conviction for sedition was overturned by an appellate court in December of 2003; the court also reduced the cleric’s four year sentence to three.

In addition, Indonesia’s governing establishment has still to finesse a response that would serve to decisively marginalize outside extremist elements from the mainstream Muslim community. Groups such as JI and al Qaeda have, as a result, been able to benefit from a logistical and tactical environment that remains instrumental in terms of affording a high degree of operational “space” as well as being conducive to feeding wider recruitment and indoctrination efforts.

Finally, internal coordination between Jakarta’s police and military apparatus continues to be confounded by jurisdictional turf wars, highly charged political ceilings and entrenched bureaucratic resistance to information cross-fertilization. This type of stove-piped response is completely at odds with the reality of contemporary Southeast Asian transnational terrorism, which as in other parts of the world, can no longer be assumed to accord with a neatly defined internal/external, military/non-military dichotomy.