The Disconnection of Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiya and al-Qaeda from the Afghan Jihad Experience

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 39

The aftermath of twin bombings of the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels in Jakarta

In legitimizing their acts of terror, al-Qaeda and Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiah (JI) frequently draw inspiration from the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad experience of the 1980s. To what extent, however, does the Afghan event justify their violent operations?

On July 17, 2009 the twin Jakarta bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels served as a grim reminder to the world that the threat of terrorism is still unceasing.  After a four-year hiatus of major jihad operations in Indonesia, the perpetrators of the bombings have succeeded in sending a message that terrorism is still “in business.” These incidents underscored the continuous importance of combating the extremist ideology that underlies these violent acts.

Investigators have established that the bomb signatures bore a striking resemblance to those of previous JI operations. However, there was a July 26 online claim of responsibility for the Jakarta bombings that was allegedly circulated on the internet by Noordin Muhammad Top, believed to be the mastermind of the Bali bombings and leader of a JI breakaway group, Tandzim al-Qaeda Indonesia, which read: “It is retribution for all the acts by the United States and its lackeys against Muslims and Muslim holy warriors.[1] Top was eventually killed on September 17 in a police raid in Central Java (New Straits Times, September 19). Whether JI, al-Qaeda or its affiliates are eventually proven to be the perpetrator of these incidents, their ideology has justified similar attacks in the past.

Justifying Extremism

The proponents of violent jihad rely heavily on the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s for justification of their violence. Potential recruits are riveted to stories of past victories and miraculous incidents on the battlefield. A pro-jihadist website,, used stories of martyrs who died during the Afghan jihad period to inspire Muslims to support jihadist groups in various places. [2]

This “jihad curriculum” is central to the movement’s narrative, and omnipresent on the jihadists’ websites and forums. Osama bin Laden himself described the late Shaykh Abdullah Azzam (1941-1989), the spiritual leader of the Arab Afghan mujahidin and the symbol of the Afghan jihad, in a 1999 interview with al-Jazeera: “Shaykh Abdullah Azzam was not an individual, but an entire nation by himself. Muslim women have proven themselves incapable of giving birth to a man like him after he was killed.” [3]

The use of Azzam’s name for the above-mentioned website is a testimony to the use of Afghan jihad as a source of inspiration and legitimacy for extremist activities. For the same reasons, Abdullah Azzam’s name was used for various jihadi fighting units, such as the one that claimed responsibility for the attack on the Egyptian resort of Sharm al-Shaykh in July 2005.  This latter use of the Shaykh’s name invited condemnation from his immediate family members (Reuters, September 13; Daily Times [Lahore], June 11).

Within the Indonesian Jemaah Islamiyah, “the Afghan generation continues to enjoy high prestige and influence” among the membership. [5] The reason is obvious; the jihadists perceive and use the past as their source of inspiration and religious and military legitimacy. This begs the critical question:  Does their reverence and constant reference to the alumni of the anti-Soviet jihad legitimize their violent actions?

The Real Picture

If the past were to be studied carefully, one would find that these extremists have deviated from the experience of the Afghan jihad. In more ways than one, the Afghan experience, like much of the jihadist worldview, has been largely manipulated. Today’s repertoire of bombing attacks and indiscriminate violence by jihadist groups has no precedence in the Afghan jihad. Using this jihad to justify indiscriminate killing demonstrates the degree to which the extremists are willing to manipulate events to justify their extreme violence.

During the Afghan jihad, there was no targeting of Soviet or Afghan communist interests in Pakistan or any other part of the world beyond the Afghan borders. Attacks were confined to targets within the conflict zone and the mujahideen never intentionally targeted civilians. [6] During that particular period, the use of indiscriminate violence was well-known elsewhere. Hijackings, kidnappings, and other terrorist tactics were common to groups such as the IRA and PLO. But terrorism was virtually unheard of during the Afghan jihad. The mujahideen also rejected suicide bombings. All this shows that the non-utilization of terrorist tactics was intentional. It was Osama bin Laden, someone with virtually no ideological influence during the anti-Soviet jihad, who issued his so-called fatwa in 1998, which justified attacking enemies wherever they could be found, in stark contrast to the focused mission of the Afghan jihad.

The Testimony of the Afghan Jihadis

While one “Afghan Arab” (who was not heavily involved militarily) espouses extreme global violence, other veterans reject any connection between today’s terrorism and the anti-Soviet struggle.  A growing literature of the Afghan jihad written by Afghan Arabs such as Algerian Abdullah Anas (a.k.a. Boudjema Bounoua), rejects bin Laden’s declarations. In 2002, Anas wrote The Birth of the Afghan Arabs, in which he stressed that the Afghan jihad in the 1980s did not introduce the culture of kidnapping civilians and killing them. [7] The mujahideen were also not enjoined to overthrow their governments upon return to their homelands. Moreover, the Russian and Afghanistan embassies abroad were left unharmed by the Afghan mujahideen. [8] Abdullah Anas is now reported to be acting as a mediator in indirect backchannel talks between the Taliban and the United States, undertaken through intermediaries in Saudi and Pakistani intelligence (PK Mirror, December 4).

Anas further mentioned that Abdullah Azzam (his father-in-law) respected the lives of foreigners in Afghanistan. There was one night during which he was with Azzam in a vehicle when they picked up three female Westerners who were waiting for a taxi to get home at a very late hour. When asked the reason why he gave them a lift, Azzam said that they were exposed to harm as the village they were passing by was well-known for banditry. [9]

Another Afghan veteran who has openly condemned al-Qaeda is Libyan Nu’man bin Uthman, better known in the Western media as Noman Benotman (see Spotlight on Terror, March 21, 2005).  Bin Uthman attended a conference of jihadists from across the Arab world in 1996 where Osama bin Laden and Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri were galvanizing support to spread their ideological virus. In that conference, Bin Uthman argued that attacking the United States would lead them nowhere (The Australian, June 28, 2008).  In a November 2007 open letter to al-Zawahiri, he argued that citizens of Western countries were not to be blamed and killed. [10] Bin Uthman called instead for “a cessation of military activities in the West, in order to withdraw the terrorist card used by some extremist and malicious Western countries against Islam and Muslims. This will neutralize public opinion in those countries whose people believe, whether we like it or not, in freedom, democracy and the respect of human rights.” [11]

During the last decade, Muslim individuals and Islamic groups have begun one by one to denounce the violence advocated by al-Qaeda and its affiliates. Major jihadist groups such as the two largest in Egypt – Gama’a al-Islamiya and Egyptian Islamic Jihad – have disengaged from violence and distanced themselves from the militant extremists. Gama’a al-Islamiya announced their “Non-Violence Initiative” in 1997, while Egyptian Islamic Jihad announced their jihad revisions in 2007 via their key ideologue, Sayyid Imam Abdulaziz al-Sharif, also known in jihadist circles as Dr. Fadl (see Terrorism Monitor, December 10, 2007; Terrorism Focus, January 8, 2008; Terrorism Focus, April 30, 2008). Prominent Islamists who were once seen as hardliners have also condemned Bin Laden publicly, such as Salman al-Oadah, the Saudi cleric who was once imprisoned for supporting violent jihad. [12] As seen above, Afghan veterans are also prominent in condemning al-Qaeda’s ideology and tactics.


The remaining question then is why, in the face of resistance, Afghanistan’s anti-Soviet jihad is being used as validation for extremism? Al-Qaeda and its fellow travelers are desperate to be seen as the voice of a pure and resurgent faith. They need to be associated with ideas and events that are unquestionably seen as good, which is how the 1980s struggle in Afghanistan is viewed in the Islamic world. The flaw in the argument of the jihadists is that their actions do not have roots in the anti-Soviet jihad.  By confronting the jihadist community with these facts, it may be able to slow, if not stop, the spread of this extreme ideological virus. The larger Islamic community must be shown the true nature of the jihadist claims in countering their narrative.

The above serves to demonstrate that, in terms of terror tactics, there is an apparent disconnection, be it ideological or strategic, between the ideology of al-Qaeda and the first generation of foreign Muslim fighters in Afghanistan – commonly described as the “Afghan Arabs.” The critical battle now is in exploiting this weakness.


1. See press release in Arabic and Bahasa Indonesian by Tandzim Al-Qaeda Indonesia at
2. The website was shut down after the 9/11 attacks but can still be viewed at
3. Interview with Osama bin Laden by Salah Najm, aired by al-Jazeera on June 10, 1999. The transcript in English is available at
4. Interview with Huzaifah, son of Abdullah Azzam by al-Arabiyah, July 26, 2005,
5. “ ‘Deradicalisation’ and Indonesian Prisons,” International Crisis Group, Asia Report, No. 142, November 19, 2007, p. 14.
6. Interview with Abdullah Anas by al-Arabiyah, January 2,. 2006, available at
7. Interview with Abdullah Anas by al-Arabiyah, December 27,.2005, available at
8. Interview with Abdullah Anas by Al-Arabiyah, January 2, 2006, available at
9. Ibid
10. See
11. Ibid
12. Salman Al-Oadah is a Saudi cleric who has a website,, under his general supervision. His letter to Bin Laden can be found here: