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23 February 2021 (closed)
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Over the past two decades Indonesia has made global headlines - on several occasions - due to vicious terrorist attacks and the presence of terrorist networks (including training camps) that are believed to be connected to either the militant Sunni Islamist Al-Qaeda group, the Southeast Asian militant Islamist organization Jemaah Islamiyah, or terrorist militant group Islamic State (IS). It illustrates the existence of a radical Muslim community in Indonesia; one that not only believes Islam should be the sole guidance in life (thereby opposing and undermining the secular government and pluralist society) but also one that is willing to use extreme measures (including vicious violence) to reform and uproot established conditions.
With more than 230 million Muslim inhabitants, Indonesia is home to the largest Muslim population in the world. Not less impressive, around 13 percent of the total number of Muslims in the world, today, live within the borders of Indonesia. Hence, it needs little imagination to understand that the influence of Islamic principles and ethics on Indonesian society, politics, and the economy is huge.
Ongoing Process of Islamization of Indonesia
In fact, a process of Islamization has been ongoing in Indonesia ever since this religion first arrived in the archipelago many centuries ago. There probably has been an Islamic presence in maritime Southeast Asia from early on in the Islamic era when Muslim traders came to the Archipelago, made settlements on the coastal areas, married local women and enjoyed respect due to the wealth they acquired through trade. Those were the early days of the Islamization of Indonesia.
In a later stage (possibly starting from the 13th century) Islamic kingdoms started to be established by local (indigenous) rulers in the Archipelago (mainly in the western part of the Archipelago, such as on the islands of Sumatra, Java and Kalimantan). It is assumed that – after indigenous kings converted – most of their subjects also converted to Islam, thereby strengthening the role of Islam in local societies. However, these local forms of Islam were mixed with preexisting local cultural elements and preexisting local belief-systems (and thus the forms of Islam that were practiced in these indigenous Islamic kingdoms were quite different from, for example, the forms of Islam that were practiced in Mecca, Medina or anywhere else around the same period).
This process of Islamization has not ceased in the contemporary era. Even in recent decades we can clearly detect examples of the ongoing process of Islamization in Indonesia. For instance, the number of Indonesian women who wear the Islamic headscarf (in Indonesian: kerudung or jilbab) has risen rapidly over the past 20-25 years (having become a common sight on the streets of Indonesia today). Another example is that Indonesian government officials – even those who are not Muslim themselves – now always tend to open their speeches or statements using the Arabic phrase As-salāmuʿalaykum (in English: Peace be upon you).
Important to Separate Islamization from Islamism
It is important to emphasize here that this process of Islamization should not be confused with Islamism or radicalism. With the term Islamization we refer to the process of society's (peaceful) shift towards a more Islam-oriented society (which allows room for specific minorities to co-exist, in harmony, in the pluralist society). The terms Islamism or radicalism (or Islamic militancy or fundamentalism), on the other hand, refer to the desire of a specific group (usually a small group that lacks political power) to impose their conservative version of Islam onto society and politics, often using (the threat of) violence to achieve their goal.
Although around 88 percent of the Indonesian population is Muslim, Indonesia is not an Islamic country ruled by Islamic law. Most Indonesian Muslims can in fact be labelled 'moderate Muslims', meaning that the majority approves of a secular democracy and a pluralist society. This attitude is visible in the results of recent legislative elections as those political parties that stress the importance of a dominating and stricter form of Islam within governance and society receive relatively few votes. Meanwhile, the secular political parties that support a moderate and tolerant Islamic democracy and pluralist society always win the elections in Indonesia (by a clear distance).
Nonetheless, it is true that the country's traditional 'secular parties' (such as PDI-P and Golkar) have also been experiencing the process of Islamization. Hence, the chairpersons of these parties will now often be heard using the Arabic phrase As-salāmuʿalaykum when opening a statement or speech. This in fact implies that these parties are not truly secular as they are not neutral in terms of religion.
On other occasions, however, we still detect the desire of high-profile politicians to maintain a secular stance. For example, Indonesian President Joko Widodo often opens his speeches with the following words of greeting (addressing the followers of all of the country's main religions):
Assalamu’alaikum Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh (to Muslims)
Salam Sejahtera Bagi Kita Semua (to Christians/Catholics)
Om Swastyastu (to Hindus)
Namo Buddhaya (to Buddhists)
Salam Kebajikan (to Confucianists)
Varieties of Indonesian Islam
This group of 230 million Indonesian Muslims does not represent a homogeneous group. In fact, much variety can be found in Indonesian Islam as well as in Indonesian Muslims' perceptions regarding the role that Islam should play within Indonesian politics and society.
A significant number of Indonesian Muslims can be labeled ‘cultural Muslim’, locally known as Muslim KTP, meaning they do not practice Islam but do retain an attachment to elements of Islamic culture due to their family background or the social and cultural environment in which they were raised, or, in which they are living (similarly, there are also ‘cultural Christians’, 'cultural Catholics', ‘cultural Hindus’, and ‘cultural Buddhists’ in Indonesia).
On the other hand, there is also a big – and growing – number of Indonesian Muslims who choose to strengthen their Muslim identity, for example by deciding to start wearing the headscarf or other Islamic clothing. Particularly, since 2014 we have detected a boost in Islamization in Indonesia which made many Indonesian Muslims (consciously or unconsciously) strengthen their Muslim identity. This big wave of Islamization has its roots in specific political developments, both at home and abroad.
There is actually a wide array of Muslims in Indonesia, ranging from Muslim KTP to pious and conservative Muslims. But the varieties are even wider as some regions still exhibit traces of Hinduism and Buddhism in their local versions of Islam (while others are much more oriented towards Mecca).
Meanwhile, there is also a group that goes beyond the conservative type of Muslim, namely the radical Muslim. With this term we not only refer to those who use extreme measures (such as violence) to uproot established conditions but also those who silently agree with such measures (although they do not carry those actions out themselves).
In Indonesia, radical Muslims only constitute a small minority. However, they are the ones who are loudest on the streets (often engaging in demonstrations) and - sometimes - willing to take violent action. Moreover, there is concern that this small radical community is growing in number and strength. Indeed, at the fringes of Islamization, there is a process of Islamism that is bound to grow along accordingly. Therefore, it is important for Indonesian authorities to carefully monitor the situation and engage in effective deradicalization programs.
Rising Religious Tensions in Indonesia
The process of Islamization is not a process that goes evenly across time and space. Instead, there are periods when this process gets a sudden boost. A recent example is the 2014-2019 period.
When Jakarta governor Joko Widodo decided to pursue his successful run for president, he was (by law) replaced by the deputy governor of Jakarta. However, this deputy was a Christian, ethnic Chinese man: Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (better known as Ahok). For many Muslims, in particular the conservative Muslims, it was unacceptable to have a non-Muslim rule a Muslim-majority city.
It resulted in a boost in religious tensions that also spread to other parts of Indonesia. When Ahok, during campaigning in the context of Jakarta's 2017 gubernatorial election, made a "blasphemous slip-off-the-tongue" when he stated that a specific Koranic verse should not be used to manipulate voters for political gain. While few would consider this blasphemous speech, Islamic hardline groups started to organize demonstrations, demanding for the arrest of Ahok.
A series of massive demonstrations were organized by hardliners on the streets of Jakarta (labelled the '212 Action' which refers to the 2nd of December 2016 when the first demonstration was held), where up to 200,000 people gathered to protest against Ahok (with many people traveling to Jakarta to join the demonstrations).
These hardline demonstrations put severe pressure on Indonesian society. Under the threat of being labeled anti-Islam, many people felt the need to display their Muslim identity more strongly. For example, people who used to have a profile picture on social media wearing Western style clothes, would suddenly replace this picture by one where they are seen sitting in front of a mosque wearing Islamic clothes; people who previously never used (Islamic) Arabic phrases would suddenly start using those phrases; women who did not wear the headscarf would start wearing one in the public domain.
Hardliners not only successfully put pressure on society, but they also succeeded in preventing Ahok from winning Jakarta's 2017 gubernatorial election. While Ahok had favorable ratings at first, his popularity declined heavily once Jakarta felt the pressure of the massive demonstrations. Moreover, he was later sentenced to two years in prison in a very controversial blasphemy case (it is assumed that the judges were also under pressure).
The tensions in Jakarta spread to the national level. President Widodo, who is seen as an ally of Ahok, became the next target of these hardline groups. In the campaign period for the 2019 presidential election the influence of these hardliners would in fact become big. Defeated presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto embraced the hardline forces as they were a tool to defeat Widodo. It is assumed Subianto was eager to ignite religious tensions in order to repeat the developments of Jakarta in 2017.
However, Widodo made a sudden and unsuspected 'act of self-defense' when he nominated renowned and conservative Muslim cleric Ma'ruf Amin (Chairman of the Ulema Council of Indonesia, or MUI) as his running mate for the 2019 election. Amin has issued various conservative fatwas (non-binding legal opinions) as MUI Chairman, is well respected within hardline circles, and had even testified against Ahok in the blasphemy case. The decision to select Amin as running mate was a great strategic move because it was suddenly impossible for Widodo's political enemies to label him 'anti-Islam' or 'enemy of Islam'. As a result religious tensions ceased.
However, all happenings related to Jakarta's 2017 gubernatorial election and Indonesia's 2019 legislative and presidential elections did have one important side-effect, it caused a boost in the country's Islamization process because those women who suddenly felt the social pressure to start wearing headscarves during the period of religious tensions, did not suddenly stop wearing the headscarf after religious tensions ceased.
In that sense, it is interesting to point out that Ahok's period as Jakarta governor essentially backfired completely. While many Christians and other minorities applauded the fact that Jakarta, a Muslim-majority city, could be governed by a non-Muslim person (claiming it to be a victory for Indonesian pluralism), in the end it would trigger a big wave of Islamization. One could in fact argue that the presence of a conservative Muslim cleric as the country's vice-president (Ma'ruf Amin in the 2019-2024 period) can be attributed to Ahok's period as governor of Jakarta.
Why Do Some Muslims Radicalize?
The underlying reasons for a Muslim to radicalize can be (a mixture of) feelings of political exclusion, feelings that great injustice has been done towards the Muslim community, or, feelings of western domination (which results in the resentment of the West). In addition to that, radical feelings can be nurtured when radical Muslims clump together and arouse each other's sentiments; either horizontally when adults meet to ventilate their feelings of resentment (for example about the secular central government) and watch ISIS videos, or, vertically when children are indoctrinated in, for example, a radical Islamic boarding school (in Indonesian: pesantren). Meanwhile, isolation from pluralist society and from other viewpoints help to strengthen their radical sentiments although such isolation is not always a prerequisite to nurture radical sentiments.
According to a survey that was conducted by the Wahid Institute and Indonesia Survey Circle, social groups that are more susceptible to radical ideologies share several of the following characteristics:
• Believe in a literalist understanding of the concept of jihad as a struggle with violence
• Justify and show verbal support to radical groups
• Deny or oppose the rights of citizenship of other groups that are not favored
• Are highly exposed to religious preaching which contains suspicion and hatred towards other religious or ethnic groups
Although no direct correlation between radicalization and education and/or economic status has been determined, it is true that those who have enjoyed limited education (only primary and/or secondary school) and obtain limited monthly income are more prone to become influenced by radical ideology.
Meanwhile, the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia conducted a study concluding that the inability of an individual to find meaning in his/her life and to pose reflective questions related to the meaning and purpose of life or death, is a contributing reason for people to radicalize (this is not confined to Islamism but to any kind of radicalization). This situation is called the 'saturation point' where matters such as boredom (at work or in life) trigger the individual to move towards a deeper understanding of religion in search of a meaningful life purpose and/or identity.
What is also mentioned by many ex-terrorists is the strong social bond in terrorist groups. The sense that it is "them against the world" causes a deep bond between the radicals, and therefore also attractive to join such groups (in case the individuals have been lacking such affective ties in their lives).
Indonesia's Radical Link to the Middle East
To understand today's context, we need to go back into history a bit because radical Islamic movements in Indonesia are not a new phenomenon but have been present since the colonial era. And one very important characteristic is that all radical Muslim movements in Indonesia - those that exist today or existed in the past - have their roots in reform movements in the Middle East.
Wahhabism, a very strict interpretation that aims for a return to the true nature of Islam as it was practiced during the days of prophet Muhammad, was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia in the mid-18th century. The purification of Islam would strengthen the position of Islam vis-a-vis the growing western powers across the world. Around 1800, Indonesian hajji's (Muslims who have successfully completed the Hajj to Mecca) arriving back in the archipelago after the pilgrimage, brought with them this Wahhabi ideology and aimed for reviving Indonesian Islam. Not coincidentally Wahhabism was spread through the Archipelago in a period when the Dutch began to expand their political role in this area.
Another radical movement that would gain much influence in Indonesia is the Salafi-movement that stems from Egypt at the end of the 19th century (as a response to Western European imperialism). Its ideology is essentially very similar to Wahhabism, advocating a return to the traditions of the salaf (the first three generations of Muslims, including the Islamic prophet Muhammad) in search of the pure form of Islam.
Salafist ideology rejects religious innovation and supports the implementation of sharia (Islamic law). The movement is often divided into three categories: (1) purists who avoid politics, (2) activists who get involved in politics, and (3) jihadists who advocate armed struggle to restore the early Islamic movement. While these jihadists actually form a minority, they are the ones that get most attention in media.
Contact with the Middle East was key in spreading stricter forms of Islam to Indonesia. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869 not only did journeys to Europe quicken significantly but contact with religious centers in the Middle East also intensified. There was not only an increase in the number of Indonesian hajji's, but also many more Indonesians went to study in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Vice versa migrants from Arabia founded Salafi-influenced organizations in the archipelago, for example Al-Irsyad (Union for Reformation and Guidance) and Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union) in West Java, both promoting the purification of Islam.
Today, these links to the Middle East are still very important for contemporary radical movements in Indonesia (which is discussed further below), both for ideological support and in terms of funding.
Continued Suppression in Independent Indonesia
When Indonesia became an independent country, the nation's more conservative Muslim groups were to become disappointed. In Soekarno's secular government there was no room for an Islamic state. Part of the radical Indonesian Muslim community joined the Darul Islam rebellion which aimed for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia. This movement started in the 1940s but was eventually crushed by the Indonesian military in 1962. However, segments of the Darul Islam went underground and would produce and inspire other radical movements.
During Suharto's New Order government radical Muslim voices and organizations were pushed underground even more severely as Muslim activists and militants were imprisoned, often without trial. They were considered a threat to Suharto's political power. Some, such as Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (leaders of the Jema'ah Islamiyah), fled the country to seek a living in Malaysia. The radical religious groups that stayed in Indonesia kept underground and were mostly concentrated around the university campuses in the bigger cities.
Indonesian Radicalism Comes to the Surface
When President Suharto was forced to leave office in 1998, implying the start of the Reformation period, there were suddenly no more political restrictions on the establishment of (radical-inspired) Muslim organizations. Many Indonesian Muslim activists were released from prison and those radicals that had fled the country during the Suharto regime, returned home.
While at the start the Reformation era seemed to become a promising period for these hardliners, they would soon be disappointed, again. In Indonesia's 1999 legislative election, those Islamic political parties that aimed at turning Indonesia into an Islamic country suffered a big defeat, only receiving a relative small amount of the votes. Therefore, just like during the New Order period, the Reformation period would continue to be led by a secular government, thereby not being fertile soil for political Islam, and thus forcing radicals to use extreme tactics to try to make a difference. This explains why terrorist incidents peaked in the early years of Reformation.
Religious Terrorist Incidents in the First Decade of Reformation:
|14 September 2000||A car bomb in the basement of the Jakarta Stock Exchange kills in South Jakarta, kills 15 people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack.|
|24 December 2000||A series of coordinated bombings of churches in eight Indonesian cities kill 18 people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack.|
|12 October 2002||Coordinated bomb attacks occurred in the tourist district of Kuta (Bali) killing 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack. The attack has become known as the deadliest act of terrorism in the history of Indonesia.|
|26 April 2003||A bomb explodes at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant in Indonesia's main airport (Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, located just outside Jakarta). Eleven people were injured. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack.|
|5 August 2003||A bomb detonated outside the lobby of the JW Marriott Hotel in South Jakarta, killing twelve people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack.|
|10 January 2004||A bomb in a cafe in Palopo (Central Sulawesi) kills four people. The perpetrators are believed to have been participants of a Laskar Jihad-run training camp in Poso (Central Sulawesi)|
|9 September 2004||A car bomb exploded outside the Australian embassy in South Jakarta, killing nine people. Jemaah Islamiyah claimed responsibility for the attack|
|28 May 2005||Two bombs detonated at a market in Tentena (Central Sulawesi), killing 22. Local Islamic militants with purported links to Jemaah Islamiyah are believed to be behind the terrorist attack|
|31 December 2005||A suicide bomb and a series of car bombs exploded in Bali (at the Jimbaran Beach Resort and in Kuta), killing 20 people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack|
|31 December 2005||A bomb detonated in a market in Palu (Central Sulawesi), killing eight people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack|
|17 July 2009||Suicide bombs explode at the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotels in Jakarta, killing nine people. Jemaah Islamiyah is believed to be behind this terrorist attack|
Some contemporary radical and/or militant organizations that have been in the spotlight after 1998 are the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Jihad Fighters), the Front Pembela Islam (Front of Islam Defenders), the Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Congregation), the (already disbanded) Laskar Jihad (Warriors of Jihad), and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). All these organizations share the aim for the implementation of shariah law, are anti-western, while its members do not refrain from using violence to achieve their goals. Another feature these radical organizations share is either the Arab background of the founder(s) or the fact that they are inspired by radical movements in the Middle East.
The Jemaah Islamiyah is behind some of the most vicious attacks in the last 20 years (as can be seen in the table above) and they have used one key method: the bomb attack. For example, on 24 December 2000, various bombs exploded at 11 churches across several cities in Indonesia, killing 18 people. But most notorious is probably the 2002 Bali bombings when two bombs exploded (almost simultaneously) in a night club in Kuta, killing 202 people. Most of the victims were foreign tourists.
Jemaah Islamiyah, which has its roots in the radical Darul Islam movement, was established by Abu Bakar Bashir, Abdullah Sungkar and Shahrul Nizam. Bashir and Sungkar are among those radical Muslims who were imprisoned by Suharto's New Order administration. After spending several years in prison both men moved to Malaysia (in 1982) where they recruited people from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and the Philippines. Around that time the group started to name itself Jemaah Islamiyah. After the fall of Suharto in 1998, they returned to Indonesia where Jemaah Islamiyah would soon start to engage in terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, through Sungkar contact with Osama Bin Laden's al-Qaeda network had been established.
Islamic State (IS) Connection
A terrorist group that became quite well-known over the past decade due to vicious acts (including beheadings of hostages) is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or Islamic State (IS). This terrorist militant group, which was founded in 1999 by Jordanian Salafi jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, follows a fundamentalist, Salafi jihadist doctrine of Sunni Islam, and thus promotes religious violence. IS became world news in 2014 after it drove Iraqi government forces out of key cities in its Western Iraq offensive, followed by its capture of Mosul, and the Sinjar massacre. It then also proclaimed a worldwide caliphate (an Islamic state under the leadership of an Islamic steward with the title of caliph, a person considered a political-religious successor to the Islamic prophet Muhammad and a leader of the entire ummah).
For several Indonesian terrorist groups, the peak of IS' power was a source of inspiration. In fact, some of these groups sent people to fight with IS in Syria. This includes the Forum Aktivis Syariat Islam (Islam Sharia Activists Forum, or FAKSI) and Jema'ah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), which is a splinter cell of the Jemaah Islamiyah.
Also the Tauhid Wal Jihad, an unstructured pro-IS group headed by Aman Abdurrahman, is noteworthy. Abdurrahman was later, in 2018, sentenced to death by the South Jakarta District Court as he was found guilty of masterminding terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the Thamrin (Central Jakarta) suicide bombings and shootings in early 2016 as well as the Kampung Melayu bombing in East Jakarta in 2017.
In 2015, Tauhid Wal Jihad, JAT, and the Lamongan branch of the Front Pembela Islam (FPI) merged into one terrorist group, the Jamaah Anshar Daulah (JAD) with Aman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir as the spirituals leaders. JAD too is affiliated with IS. JAD, which is currently one of the most active and threatening Indonesian terrorist organizations, is not believed to be a coherent organization. Instead, it seems to form an umbrella organization consisting of various cells.
Abu Bakar Ba'asyir and Aman Abdurrahman had also teamed up to organize a joint terrorist training camp in Aceh, in 2010, amassing various local terrorist groups that are active across the Archipelago. Densus 88 discovered this paramilitary training camp in the jungles of Aceh where - allegedly - attacks were being prepared against the Indonesian president, against foreigners and against other 'infidels'.
New Phenomenon in Terrorism: the Family Suicide Attack
The JAD is also behind a new vicious phenomenon: the family suicide attack. On 13 May 2018, a six-member family - with suicide bombs - struck nearly simultaneously at three churches in Surabaya (East Java) when Sunday morning services were about to start, or were ongoing. Police said this family was part of the JAD. In fact, the father of the family, Dita Oepriarto, was named the leader of the Surabaya branch of JAD.
That evening, a self-made bomb went off prematurely in an apartment in Sidoarjo (East Java). Indonesian police assumed the bomb was meant to be used in a terrorist attack, similar to the church attacks earlier that day. And just like the case of the church bombings, a six-member family was involved in this premature apartment explosion.
Police see a clear link between the Sidoarjo apartment explosion and the Surabaya church bombings because similar types of explosives were used. Moreover, both families knew each other as they were part of a study group that frequently met to study the Al-Qur’an and watch IS-related movie clips (such as suicide attacks and decapitations).
Before Surabaya (and Indonesia) had time to recover, another explosion occurred, on 14 May 2018, at the entrance of Surabaya’s police headquarters. Two motorcycles carrying a local family (five members) blew themselves up at the entrance. Just like the other incidents that happened on the preceding day it was – again – a family that performed this attack and they were also linked to the same study group.
In the aftermath of these attacks, Indonesia’s special counter-terrorism squad Densus 88 arrested dozens of suspected militants in East Java, including Syamsul Arif (also known as Abu Umar) who is suspected of being the leader of JAD’s East Java chapter. However, opinions vary whether this arrest will have a significant impact. Considering JAD is assumed to consist of a cell system network, it should not destabilize the JAD organization too much.
It is important to emphasize that the family suicides in Surabaya is a new phenomenon. In earlier terrorist attacks in Indonesia it were usually young men who committed the crime by themselves or in small groups (but also in cases of small groups the terrorists would blow themselves up individually or separately; not together in pairs or in a group).
What is behind this change of tactic? Firstly, planning and organizing attacks internally within the family reduces chances of being caught because the more external communication, the better chances Densus 88 has in detecting the plots. Secondly, children are easy “soldiers” to recruit (there is ample room for brainwashing), especially when it involves terrorists’ own children (and some of the children involved in these attacks were indeed kept away from schools). Considering Indonesia’s patriarchal society, children have very limited room to rebel against the father’s wishes. Thirdly, it may require less courage to conduct a terrorist act when it is in cooperation with your loved ones (wife and children) than it would if the act is committed by oneself or with radical friends. After all, in terrorists’ minds they are doing a good deed and will meet their loved ones again in heaven.
These Surabaya attacks could also have been motivated by the arrest and conviction of prominent JAD members, including Abdurrahman and Zaenal Anshari (JAD’s second-in-command and the leader of JAD's East Java chapter). Anshari was convicted for smuggling weapons to Indonesian militants in the southern Philippines.
Indonesian Islamic State (IS) Fighters
In Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia have been the main sources of foreign fighters. It is estimated more than 700 Indonesians have traveled to Syria to join the war and fight for IS.
In February 2020, the Indonesian government announced that it had decided not to repatriate 689 Indonesian citizens who have been stranded in Syria and Turkey (many of whom being women and children). After Indonesian President Joko Widodo had already ventilated his personal objection to the repatriation, his cabinet would later also object to the repatriation (with the exception of children aged below 10 years) as they may spread their radical ideas among the Indonesian population. This case is particularly interesting because there a decision needed to be made between, on the one hand, protecting citizens' rights, and, on the other hand, protecting national security.
Indonesian Coordinating Political, Legal, and Security Affairs Minister Mahfud MD said returnees from Syria could pose social and security threats, specifically as the country's existing deradicalization programs are often unsuccessful at reintegrating former terrorists and terrorist sympathizers back into society.
Government Efforts to Combat Radical Groups
Over the past two decades more than 100 terror suspects have been killed and more than 1,000 have been arrested. It is among the Indonesian government's top priorities to detect radical Islamic groups, monitor their activities, and intervene once they cross the line in terms of terrorist activities.
Indonesia has been working together closely with the United States and the Australian Federal Police to catch terrorists. In 2003 a special counter-terrorism squad, called Densus 88, was established (and is part of the Indonesian National Police). Densus 88 is funded by the American government and is trained by the CIA, FBI and US Secret Service. This unit has had considerable success in weakening terrorist networks, including the Jema'ah Islamiyah. The success of Densus 88 has led a change of tactic by terrorist networks that we explain below.
First, it is important to mention that in May 2018 - after two years of deliberation - Indonesian parliament unanimously approved an anti-terrorism law (which revises Indonesia's 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law). The process of approving the law was sped up significantly after the Surabaya attacks in 2018 as no political party or faction wanted to be seen as obstructing the process. This allowed the legislature and the cabinet to set aside their differences and work quickly toward a compromise.
Indonesia’s 2003 Anti-Terrorism law was regarded a weak tool in the battle against terrorism because in essence police “had to wait for the terrorist to make victims before they could arrest the terrorist or others that could be linked to the perpetrator”. The new law, on the contrary, enables law enforcers to use terrorism prevention measures.
For example, the revised law allows law enforcers to preemptively detain suspects for a longer period. The detention periods are lengthened up to 21 days (without needing any charges at all) and up to 200 days (with official charges). It also allows the prosecution of those who join - or recruit for - militant groups. And those who import explosives or components such as chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or radioactive weapons with the purpose to use these for terrorist activities - or make, receive or possess them - can be charged under Article 10a of the law, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment. Furthermore, people can be charged who mastermind terror attacks, partake in paramilitary training with the purpose of launching terror attacks or join overseas wars related to terrorism, with maximum terms ranging from 12 years, 15 years, 20 years to life sentence and the death penalty.
Amnesty International Indonesia responded to the passing of the bill as follows: “the newly-passed law contains a number of draconian articles that threaten to undermine human rights in Indonesia. The law erodes safeguards against arbitrary detention and against torture and other ill-treatment, as well as expanding the scope of the application of the death penalty. Plans to deploy the military in counter-terrorism operations are also deeply concerning”.
Another (controversial) point is that through the revised law the Indonesian military is now involved in counter-terrorism activities. Previously, this was the task of police. But as there exists rivalry in Indonesia between the police and the army, not everyone is happy to see the army becoming involved in this field.
The passing of the law coincides with the establishment of the Indonesian army's Joint Special Operations Command (in Indonesian: Komando Operasi Khusus Gabungan, or Koopsusgab), which takes charge of the military's involvement in Indonesia's war on terror. Critics are concerned seeing an expanded role for the army in society because of memories of the military-backed Suharto regime. In the era of Reformation (after 1998) many successful efforts were made in order to reduce the role of the army in Indonesian politics and society. This process is now slightly reversed.
Recent Developments in Indonesia's Radical Islam
The various existing terrorist cells that exist in Indonesia today seem to operate rather independently from each other, forming splinter groups. This is a big change from the past; radical Muslims now prefer to operate in smaller networks instead of bigger ones (on a national scale) as it is much more difficult for the authorities to trace such smaller networks. Another difference with the past is that all these terrorist cells seem to have changed tactics regarding the target of their attacks. Previously, targets consisted mainly of western or foreign people and symbols of the western world, such as embassies and certain nightclubs or hotels that are frequently visited or owned by westerners. Since 2010, however, more and more attacks are directed towards symbols of the Indonesian state, particularly Indonesian police officers (probably in reaction to the many arrests made by Densus 88).
Recent Religious Terrorist Incidents in Indonesia:
|15 April 2011||A suicide bomber detonated a bomb in a mosque in a police compound in Cirebon (West Java) during Friday prayer. The bomber was killed and at least 28 people were injured.|
|25 September 2011||A suicide bomb exploded in a church in Solo (Central Java) killing the terrorist and injuring 14 people.|
|14 January 2016||At least three militants detonated explosives in and near a Starbucks in central Jakarta. Four civilians were killed. IS claimed responsibility.|
|24 May 2017||Two explosions occurred at a bus terminal in Kampung Melayu (East Jakarta), killing 5 people, 3 policemen and 2 attackers, while injuring 11 people. IS claimed responsibility.|
|25 June 2017||Two terrorists stabbed a police officer to death at his post in Medan (North Sumatra). IS claimed responsibility.|
|8-10 May 2018||Terrorist inmates in a heavily guarded compound of the local headquarters of the Mobile Brigade Corps (a detention center) staged a riot resulting in the death of 5 police officers and one inmate.|
|13 May 2018||Three suicide bombs exploded in three churches in Surabaya (East Java). The blasts killed all 13 of the bombers, 15 citizens and injured 57 people. The terrorists, a family, were linked to JAD.|
|13 May 2018||A bomb went off prematurely in an apartment in Sidoarjo (East Java) where a family lived that was linked to JAD. The mother and son died by the blast, while the father was killed by police. It was suspected the family was making suicide bombs for a future attack.|
|14 May 2018||A police station in Surabaya (East Java) was attacked by a family of suicide bombers on two motorcycles. Four of the suicide bombers were killed. The family was linked to JAD.|
|16 May 2018||A police station in Pekanbaru (Riau) was attacked by five terrorists with swords, injuring two police officers. The attack was linked to JAD.|
|10 October 2019||Indonesian Chief Security Minister Wiranto was stabbed by an assailant using a sharp weapon during a working visit to Menes (Banten). Following the incident, police arrested two perpetrators; a married couple. The perpetrators had allegedly been exposed to radical teachings and also an alleged Islamic State member that led them to perform the attack. The attack was linked to JAD.|
|13 November 2019||Six people were injured in a suicide bombing at Medan Police headquarters (North Sumatra), while the perpetrator was killed in the blast. The attack was linked to JAD.|