Confusion over Indonesia’s stance towards Jemaah Islamiyah, the Islamist militant group blamed for a host of attacks and plots throughout Southeast Asia, continues. On March 21 Ansyaad Mbai, head of the counter-terrorism desk at Indonesia’s Coordinating Ministry for Political and Security Affairs, said that the government was intending to outlaw the group which in Indonesia is accused of the October 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202, a blast at Jakarta’s J.W. Marriott hotel the following year that killed 12, and a suicide car bombing at the Australian Embassy last September that killed 10. Ever since the opening of the trial of Jemaah Islamiyah’s alleged spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Baasyir, it appeared Jakarta was finally grasping the nettle. The unexpectedly lenient 30-month jail sentence issued against Baasyir on March 3 illustrated the limitations on the government’s freedom to act, and hopes were now raised that new legislation outlawing the group would help bring stronger cases against activists.
However, two days after the announcement online, Indonesian political magazine Laksamana Net quoted a spokesman for President Yudhoyono denying there were any such plans, and dismissing Ansyaad Mbai as ‘out of the loop’ of government policy [www.laksamana.net].
So far, the political costs of such a move, from the influence of broader Islamic groups suspicious of foreign pressure, have dissuaded the government from changing its official position: it remains ‘sceptical’ that the group has a presence in the country. This accounts for the odd position of security authorities having had to imprison over 150 active militants over the last three years, without publicly accusing them of belonging to Jemaah Islamiyah, or of being motivated by sympathy for al-Qaeda. Since both organizations enjoy enough passive support in Indonesia to make any moves made against them politically perilous, President Yudhoyono will have to invest in a massive public relations campaign before taking a stand.