Domestic political sensitivities were sepverely tested by the worldwide response to the Tsunami crisis, particularly as armed forces from Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore and the United States poured into the province of Aceh which has been waging a separatist conflict with the central government for more than three decades. It took a news conference held by military spokesman Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin in Jakarta to allay fears of U.S. espionage activities aimed at the setting up of a long-term base in Aceh, with a potential for creating a new East Timor as part of a broader effort to break up Indonesia. Even so, the political mixture of separatism and military rule in Aceh has raised sensibilities, so that the army has imposed escorts on foreign relief workers and announced that foreign troops providing tsunami disaster relief must leave the country by the end of March.
But these suspicions were overshadowed by the reaction of Islamic organizations. On January 14 Indonesia’s most influential group of Islamic clerics warned of a widespread Muslim backlash if international aid groups indulged in Christian proselytizing or attempted to adopt orphans to raise in Christian children’s homes. However, more sinister manifestations emerged with evidence of the participation in the relief work by radical Islamist groups, known more for their militant jihadist activities than any humanitarian functions. Hopes expressed by Secretary of State Colin Powell that the rescue missions would showcase American compassion and improve the country’s image in the Muslim world well might prove to carry some weight on the broad international level, but on the ground radical Islamists demonstrated their equal interest in the disaster’s public relations potential. In Aceh, where the population has been pre-occupied until now with a political struggle, the Tsunami has offered radical Islamist groups an opportunity to establish a presence.
Observers quickly noted the presence of the following groups in Aceh:
· Laskar Mujahideen (Mujahideen Army) has set up four posts in the province and by January 8 it had established a camp at Banda Aceh’s military airport (the hub of the international aid operation) with a strength of over 100 activists. The militant group founded in the late 1990s has become notorious for leading sectarian violence in the Maluku islands, where some 9,000 Christians were killed over the period 1999-2001. The leader of this group is at present in prison accused of the 2002 Bali bombings.
· The Jakarta-based Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) quickly announced its intention to pour up to 5,000 members into Banda Aceh. By the end of the first week of January just under 1,000 members had established themselves. FPI leader Dr. Almascaty openly demonstrated the purpose of the Front’s presence when he went on record stating that “if anyone who comes here does not respect the Shari’ah law, traditions and constitution, we must give them a warning and then we must attack”, and said that he had already requested the Indonesian military to set aside special areas “to keep the U.S. apart.”
· The FPI maintained that it was co-ordinating its efforts to curtail any potential Westernizing influence at Aceh with the international organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, which had stationed themselves near Banda Aceh’s central Raya Baiturrahman mosque. Its website (www.alokab.com) has posted an article pouring cold water on any claims Western authorities or societies can claim to humanitarian instincts.
· The Indonesian Mujahedeen Council (MMI), established a command post at the Iskandar Muda Air Force base in Banda Aceh city to ‘help evacuate dead bodies, distribute aid and give spiritual guidance to survivors.’ The group was founded in August 2000 by Abu Bakar Baasyir, suspected of being their spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah group and at present standing trial accused of inciting his followers to carry out the October 2002 Bali nightclub bombings and the August 2003 bombing at Jakarta’s J.W. Marriott Hotel.
Foreigners in Indonesia have been reminded of the need to stay vigilant, both as a general precaution and from more specific warnings. Medecins du Monde workers are steering clear of flying in American army helicopters, considering them to offer a particular target. On January 14 the British and Thai embassies in Jakarta temporarily closed their doors following an anonymous bomb threat, amid reports of further attacks planned on Westerners and Western interests. South Korea, which has troops in Iraq, also issued a warning that it had “acquired intelligence that our relief groups in Indonesia … are becoming a possible target of terror attacks.” On January 17 it was Denmark’s turn to warn its citizens of a planned operation against aid workers in Aceh.
However the intricacies of domestic politics may be placing restrictions on Indonesian radical groups themselves. So far, they have had to exercise restraint, playing down the anti-Western part of their message while foreigners remain conspicuous in the relief work and public support for them remains positive. The groups know that their presence in the province is controversial. Three years ago, residents drove out another radical Islamic group, Laskar Jihad, which tried to open branches in the province. Local religious leaders have also voiced their concern, fearing that the uncompromising Wahhabi brand of Islam they are attempting to import will further destabilize Aceh’s precarious situation.
More specific opposition came from the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). On January 9 GAM leaders in Sweden issued a statement demanding the expulsion of the MMI and the Islamic Defenders Front from Aceh. The Indonesian site carrying the report, LaksmanaNet, noted how GAM openly “deplores the arrival in Aceh of members of the thuggish so-called Islamic Defenders Front and the terroristic Indonesia Mujahidin Council” and that “The FPI and MMI are not welcome in Aceh and have never been supported by the Acehnese people, nor has their presence been requested.” Whether as a result of this pressure, or conversely from suspicions of co-operation with GAM, a number of MMI members were expelled from the province by the Indonesian Air Force (www.laksamana.net).
The tsunami disaster has certainly shaken up the political landscape. Cooperation between Jakarta and the GAM has occurred to the extent of “a gentlemen’s agreement” not to launch an offensive and to ensure help reached the needy. Even if this turns out to be temporary on the local level, there may still be some positive fallout internationally as the suspicion accorded the Islamist groups in Aceh becomes mirrored globally. The PR dividends for Western interests may turn out more limited than they would wish. But for organizations such as al-Qaeda and hardline Islamic personalities, purporting to be fighting to safeguard the interests of Muslims, their failure to have anything to say in the face of the tragedy (other than intimations of the “Wrath of God”) may come back to haunt them.