Indonesia: Southeast Asia’s Emergent Front For Transnational

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 1 Issue: 1

August’s bombing of the U.S.-owned Marriott Hotel in Jakarta has once again thrust Indonesia into the spotlight as an emergent territorial front for anti-Western transnational Islamic extremism. The attack, which killed dozens and injured over 100, exhibited strong similarities to last year’s atrocity in Bali–the worst act of international terrorism since September 11. While the latest tragedy does give cause for concern that outside fanatics linked to the pan-border Jemaah Islamiya (JI, literally “Islamic Communities”) network have made in-roads into Indonesia, it remains far less clear that radical Islamic sentiment in the Republic has taken on a concerted transnational dimension.


Initial speculation as to who was behind the Marriott bombing almost immediately fell on JI, al Qaeda’s alleged operational wing in Southeast Asia. The group–whose formative development appears to have taken place in Malaysia during the 1980s and 1990s–seeks the establishment of a transnational Islamic caliphate (Nusantara Raya) embracing Indonesia, southern Thailand, the southern Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. The claimed spiritual leader of JI is Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, a radical cleric who founded the Majelis Mujahadeen of Indonesia (MMI) in 1999 and who was recently convicted on charges of treason for his complicity in thirty-eight church explosions that struck Jakarta on December 24, 2000 (the so-called Christmas bombings).

JI is thought to work in much the same networked manner as al Qaeda, employing an operational structure that is composed of a Regional Advisory Council (RAC), which is a militant hard core of some 200 dedicated “jihadists,” and a wider associate base drawn from established regional organizations. According to a 2002 Philippine military intelligence report, the group has four specific territorial cells–known an mantiqis–each of which comes under the overall control of the RAC but is believed to operate in a semi-autonomous manner. Riduan Isamuddin (aka “Hambali”), a close disciple of Ba’asyir and an alleged senior lieutenant in al Qaeda who was captured in Thailand on August 14, 2003, is thought to act as the main point of contact between these four sub-units. In this capacity he helps to coordinate operations, the movement of personnel and the arrangement of necessary logistics and materiel. Isamuddin has also been identified as one of the key figures behind JI’s Malaysian and Indonesian network, which several analysts claim forms the principal conduit for al Qaeda operations between Southwest and Southeast Asia.

According to regional commentators, Osama bin Laden began seeking a base in Asia as far back as 1993, dispatching several emissaries to establish logistical links with pre-existing Islamic militants in the southern Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. It was these contacts that are thought to have proven so crucial to the contemporary development of the JI network, which is now alleged to include extremists from the Kumpulan Majelis Mujahadeen Malaysia (KMM), Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Laskar Jihad and Laskar Jundallah, as well as loosely based radicals in Sulawesi, Ambon, northern Sumatra, southern Thailand and Singapore.

JI has been implicated in several acts of violence since 1999. The group has been tied to the Jakarta Christmas bombings of 2000; a series of planned attacks that were to have been carried out in Singapore during December of 2001; and the 2002 Bali explosions, which destroyed 424 buildings and left 202 people dead. Prior to the August Marriott incident bombing, the organization had also been held responsible for a devastating bombing campaign that hit Manila last October as well as a subsequent (aborted) plot to blow up the British and Australian international schools in Jakarta and the U.S. Embassy in Singapore.


Indonesia has been singled out as a country of particular concern in terms of the operational activities of JI, and through the network, of transnational Islamic militantism. Not only has the Republic acted as Ba’asyir’s main political base since the fall of Soeharto in 1998 (prior to which he was exiled in Malaysia), the archipelago is seen also to be characterized by several “environmental” features that make it acutely vulnerable to radical outside penetration. They include:

– Porous land and sea borders, which are conducive to the covert smuggling of arms, people and materiel;

– Extensive hinterlands that exist beyond any formal degree of central government control;

– Internal security structures that are corrupt and insensitive to local grievances;

– A thriving underground remittance system that is well suited to the rapid and covert transfer of funds;

– Weak regulatory financial controls that have proven unable to keep track of monetary transactions made through regular banking channels;

– Large Muslim contexts that remain susceptible to external proselytizing influences as a result of dissatisfaction with existing socio-economic and political setups; and

– Zones of opportunity in the guise of established Islamic insurgencies seeking a fundamental reordering of the Indonesian State.

Although it would be difficult to take major issue with any of these factors, a precise delineation of the extent to which Indonesia now acts as a primary base for transnational Islamic extremism is somewhat more difficult to discern. Some connections undoubtedly exist. At the very least, radicals based within the country are now generally acknowledged to have played a central role in the Bali bombings, including, notably, Imam Samudra, Ali Ghufron, Ali Imran and Amrozi bin Nurasyim (who has since received the death penalty for his part in the attack). All four individuals have been accused of attending a secret planning meeting in Java in 2002. There, under the alleged aegis of JI, they were given the “green light” to bomb soft targets of opportunity across Indonesia in pursuit of wider Islamic designs.

In addition, some residual ties seem to have been forged between domestic Muslim rebel groups and outside forces. A sizable component of Laskar Jihad (which was behind much of the anti-Christian violence that broke out across Sulawesi in 2000) is known to have been recruited from Central and South Asia and the group itself is thought to have provided terrorist training facilities for JI militants near the port city of Poso. Equally, Laskar Jundallah (a hard line Islamic group committed to imposing Sharia law throughout Indonesia) has been linked to JI through its leader, Agus Dwirkana. He was arrested in Manila in 2002 and has since confessed to working with foreign elements in seeking the overthrow of the present Megawati government.

Nonetheless, no decisive evidence has yet emerged to suggest that Islamists within Indonesia have been coopted by outside extremists in the same manner that has occurred in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Algeria and Egypt. Both Laskar Jihad and Laskar Jundallah continue to couch their justifying rhetoric very much in local terms, and the vast bulk of their membership does not appear to attach any great salience to the concept of international jihad as espoused by bin Laden, Ba’asyir or their principal associates and deputies.

More tellingly, questions exist over the evidence that has been presented in terms of directly tying Indonesia into a wider Islamist operational front. It is still not clear, for instance, whether the real masterminds behind the Bali attacks were renegade elements within the armed forces (rather than JI) seeking to institute a strategy of tension in order to bolster the military’s declining grip on political power in Jakarta. The veracity of the alleged JI terrorist training camp in Poso has also been challenged, not least by non-governmental human rights groups who insist the facility was in fact a refugee holding area for Muslims fleeing the ethno-religious violence in Sulawesi.

Beyond these considerations, it is worth bearing in mind that many of the statements pertaining to the existence of concerted links between Indonesian and transnational militants are based either on testimonies extracted from detainees in prison (who may have good reason to tell their captors what they want to hear) or the claims of low level security functionaries who are unlikely to have a detailed knowledge of threat contingencies beyond their immediate area of responsibility. As one prominent journalist in the region observed to the author, evidence of this sort would certainly not be receiving the credibility it is without the general sense of paranoia that has been unleashed by the events of September 11.

Indonesia’s association with transnational Islamic militantism is not simply a matter of academic debate; it is an issue that carries extremely important policy ramifications. Inappropriately conflating and penalizing domestic groups on the basis of a pre-assumed connection to outside fanaticism will not only dangerously destabilize sensitive internal Islamic contexts, it will also make it far harder to reach accommodation with groups currently existing outside the framework of mainstream political activity. Both outcomes are highly undesirable and liable to provide fertile ground for the growth of the very radicalism that Western and regional governments so fear in this part of the world.