Re-Examining Jemaah Islamiyah in the Wake of the Zawahiri Letter

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 21

On October 11, 2005, the website of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence posted a letter believed to be from al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri to Iraqi insurgent leader and commander of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Dated July 9, 2005, this letter provided not only a window into al-Qaeda’s strategic outlook, but also showed the significance it places on the outcome of the war in Iraq and obtaining popular support within the larger context of global jihad [1]. Assuming the letter is genuine, a re-examination of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) as a node within this wider movement is necessary. The central question, to which no definitive answer is yet available, is: to what degree and in what manner does al-Qaeda factor Southeast Asia—JI in particular—into its strategic outlook? Furthermore, what might this mean for the future of JI in Southeast Asia? While it is beyond the scope of this article to comprehensively engage these questions, it hopes to raise timely questions and posit general conclusions regarding the current trajectory of JI in the context of the wider jihadi movement.

Al-Qaeda’s Narrowing Agenda

One theme resonating out of the Zawahiri letter is the changing focus and narrowing scope of al-Qaeda’s agenda. While “al-Qaeda’s strategic Arab ideologues” [2] still pay homage to the concept of the global ummah, endogenous and exogenous forces now direct al-Qaeda’s resources and energies to key battlefields in the heart of the Islamic world, seemingly moving it back from peripheral conflicts to a struggle for the heartland. Pre-eminent among these battlefields is Iraq. This is not to imply that al-Qaeda has abandoned the end-state of a global caliphate; however, the leadership understands that in its decentralized if not weakened state, al-Qaeda must leverage its resources and attention against the most important and geographically central conflict. Furthermore, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s elevation, arguably as the dominant Salafi-jihadi figure, has forced a shift in al-Qaeda’s focus.

Zawahiri emphasized Iraq’s centrality to the Salafi-jihadi cause in his letter to Zarqawi. He stated, “I want to congratulate you for what God has blessed you with in terms of fighting battle in the heart of the Islamic world… what is not the place for the greatest battle of Islam in this era… It has always been my belief that the victory of Islam will never take place until a Muslim state is established in the manner of the Prophet in the heart of the Islamic world, specifically in the Levant, Egypt, and the neighboring states of the Peninsula and Iraq” [3].

Zawahiri raises doubts with regard to JI’s strategic importance to the global jihad by analyzing what he determined to be the supporting battles ongoing in the Islamic world, “As for the battles that are going on in the far-flung regions of the Islamic world, such as Chechnya, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and Bosnia, they are just the groundwork and the vanguard for the major battles which have begun in the heart of the Islamic world” [4]. Perhaps a simple oversight on the part of Zawahiri, his failure to include jihadist campaigns in regions such as Pattani, Sulawesi and Mindanao could be evidence that Southeast Asia’s battlegrounds are no longer of primary importance. This is a more reasonable assertion considering that al-Qaeda first regarded Southeast Asia as an excellent logistical “back-office” as opposed to a primary battle space [5]. The fact that decentralization, grassroots ideology and leaderless resistance are all dominant themes of al-Qaeda’s warfare may mean that the region, which once served as an exceptional logistical base, may no longer be needed.

In the face of al-Qaeda’s seeming disengagement from Southeast Asia’s jihadist activities, JI would need strong central leadership and ideological continuity in order to maintain its pre-2002 structure and agenda. Neither of these prerequisites have materialized. In fact, JI has become even more decentralized, and perhaps even ideologically splintered. According to analysts such as Sydney Jones, JI’s current members are divided between those who seek to continue al-Qaeda’s strategy of attacking the “far enemy” through large-scale bombings and suicide tactics, and those who wish to pursue a comparatively local agenda of Islamization through participation in dawa and sectarian violence [6]. Although such a dichotomy is an obvious oversimplification, it suggests that JI is less unified at a time when al-Qaeda increasingly sees its near-term interests lying elsewhere. This juxtaposition will undoubtedly widen the gap between Southeast Asia’s jihadists and the Arab leadership of the global jihad.

Physical Isolation and Command-and-Control

Evidently, al-Qaeda no longer maintains the overarching global jihadist shura (council) and networked coordination it once did. As in Iraq, its concurrent physical isolation from JI affects its level of coordination and involvement in Southeast Asian jihadist activity. Osama bin Laden and al-Zawahiri no longer appear to have the ability to provide tactical guidance, directly transfer logistical resources or forge strategic alliances through inter-personal contacts and marriage. Also critical vis-à-vis al-Qaeda’s downsized presence is that key JI deputies probably no longer have direct access to al-Qaeda’s upper cadres, as was the case with Hambali who was both JI’s operations chief and al-Qaeda’s most senior operative in East Asia [7]. Since 2002, tactical and strategic linkages between the al-Qaeda core and JI have markedly deteriorated. The social networks and communication infrastructures connecting the two entities were severed as a result of U.S. operations in Afghanistan and an increasingly stringent security environment in Southeast Asia following the 2002 Bali bombings.

It can be argued that within the context of al-Qaeda’s new structure, the movement can operate without these linkages; however, the same may not be true for JI. Abdullah Sungkar, the key ideological force behind JI’s vision of a regional caliphate, pledged bayat (allegiance) to Osama bin Laden in 1993. Sungkar accrued legitimacy for his vision in part from his personal associations with the Afghan jihad and his contacts within the global jihadist leadership—legitimacy and strength that helped consolidate local jihadist movements under a more unified vision. JI’s current structural composition, a blend of ad-hoc networks and decentralized sectarian jihadists, is no longer conducive to ensuring dissemination of the Arab ideologues’ vision.

Southeast Asia’s Culture of Jihad

JI’s isolation from al-Qaeda is not limited to the physical realm, nor is it solely a function of al-Qaeda’s changing structure and refined interests. The organizational cultures differentiating al-Qaeda and JI in the wake of current internal splits are accentuated by Zawahiri’s statements. Zawahiri’s calls for the secession of current tactics demonstrate that Zawahiri and Zarqawi do not share the same interpretation of the doctrine of takfir (excommunication or accusation of apostasy). Similarly, ideological and strategic fragmentation within JI is a function of differing perceptions regarding the utility and morality of Muslim collateral damage in attacks against Western targets, which has been significant in attacks such as the 2002 Bali bombings. These divisions over takfir not only demonstrate further JI fragmentation, but also raise questions as to the true acceptance of the Zarqawi-style jihadist warfare in Southeast Asia.

Even on the subject of martyrdom, JI is not as virulent in its rhetoric, nor is it as tactically committed to that mode of conflict. In a recent interview with Dr. Scott Atran, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (JI’s spiritual leader) appears more tempered on the cathartic nature of suicide attacks (perhaps a function of his incarceration). While condoning their use, and emphasizing the honor of dying as a shaheed, he also points out that if alternative means are available, then suicide terrorism is not justified [8].


At one level, potential strategic disconnects between al-Qaeda and JI may be a net positive for Southeast Asian security. As this region declines in importance to an otherwise pre-occupied al-Qaeda, the ideological and logistic support for the “pro-bombing” faction within JI will eventually erode [9]. As other commentators have observed, JI’s ability to commit large-scale, coordinated bombings against Western targets will dissipate—evidence of which may be the differences in scale and methodology between the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings.

An al-Qaeda that is more focused on the center of the Islamic world than its periphery, in addition to being decentralized and disconnected from Southeast Asian jihadist leaders, may be an al-Qaeda incapable of sustaining JI’s once unified and centralized goals of transforming the region into a caliphate. The demands and interests of local jihadist movements will likely resurface. Unlike the al-Qaeda-inspired bombers in Madrid or London, jihadists in Southeast Asia are not immigrants or converts isolated in Western communities. Southeast Asian societies have a myriad insurgents, Islamist organizations (and reformist Salafi movements), and civil society organizations through which to voice their grievances. Yet, the exception to these trends may be Thailand. Here, the rapidly deteriorating security situation coupled with Thailand’s political and ideological investment in the Western model and the current Bush administration may serve to keep the global jihad agenda alive.


1. “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, October 11, 2005. (accessed October 14, 2005).

2. Author’s email correspondence with Jeffrey B. Cozzens (October 20, 2005). The author would like to thank Mr. Cozzens for his insightful comments regarding this article.

3. “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” 2005.

4. “Letter from al-Zawahiri to al-Zarqawi,” 2005.

5. Zachary Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia (Colorado: Lynne Rienner, 2003), pg: 89.

6. Sidney Jones, “New Developments within Jemaah Islamiyah,” ISEAS, July 5, 2005. (webcast).

7. Abuza, 2003, pg: 129.

8. Scott Atran, “The Emir: An Interview with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Alleged Leader of the Southeast Asian Jemaah Islamiyah Organization,” The Jamestown Foundation, August 13 and 15, 2005.

9. Jones, 2005 (webcast).