Indonesia: Jemaah Islamiyah is Back

Commentary by Zachary Abuza and Alif Satria
Indonesia: Jemaah Islamiyah is Back Indonesian security personnel patrol the perimeter of Gunung Sindur prison in Bogor where radical cleric and former Jemaah Islamiyah emir Abu Bakar Bashir is jailed, Jan. 22, 2019.

Indonesian security forces lately announced a series of arrests of high-profile Jemaah Islamiyah suspects. These include Siswanto (Ustad Arif) and Aris Sumarsono (better known as Zulkarnaen), alleged, respectively, to be the terrorist group’s overall head and its longtime operations chief.

Siswanto’s arrest is the second one of a JI leader in as many years, but some reporting suggests he is merely a senior religious figure who headed the committee to select the group’s next emir – or spiritual leader. This year alone has seen the arrest of more than 30 JI suspected members.

All of this is surprising for a group that has been out of the limelight for nearly a decade, during which JI members have stepped back from their campaign of violence. The last bombing perpetrated by JI was a suicide attack in 2011 that targeted a mosque in a police compound in Cirebon.

Since then, JI members did not necessarily renounce violence but focused on rebuilding their depleted ranks after they realized that terrorism by itself proved counterproductive.

While some JI members, including their former emir, Abu Bakar Bashir, split off in 2014 and declared allegiance to the extremist group known as Islamic State, most members did not.

Although Indonesia banned Jemaah Islamiyah in 2008, the government gave it space and autonomy to engage in social welfare, charitable, educational and religious activities, as long as its members eschewed violence.

Indeed, in 2018, some Indonesian officials naively saw JI as a potential off-ramp for members of Islamic State and sought JI’s assistance in de-radicalization programs in exchange for a “green light” to operate.

In 2019, Indonesian authorities arrested JI’s leader, Para Wijayanto, and were shocked to uncover the wealth of the organization as well as its size – several thousand members.

Unsurprisingly, JI has used the Indonesian government’s lenience to rebuild its core foundations systematically. It has set up palm-oil plantations in Sumatra and Kalimantan to fund its leaders and expansion – allocating U.S. $9,900 to its training camps and raising $27,700 for its education division.

Additionally, JI sent preachers across the archipelago to build local pockets of support and engage with university students to find recruits. JI also participated in mass demonstrations such as the “212 movement” that helped bring down then- Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama in 2017.

Internally, Para reorganized JI’s structure. Court records from his trial showed he instituted a dispute settlement division, internal intelligence unit and a communication and reporting system. All this was to ensure members adhered to JI’s new strategic timeline: To survive 2005-2015 and rise up again after 2016.

Nonetheless, there were only some signs at the time that JI was re-assessing a campaign of violence.

Members developed home-made gun factories and funded training camps. They also raised money to send militants to Iraq and Syria where they fought alongside the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front. However, there was not much evidence that JI was ready to resume violence back in Indonesia.


The recent arrests suggest that their current strategy may be changing.

In addition to Siswanto, Indonesian police arrested the group’s top bomb maker, Upik Lawanga. He was a student of Azahari bin Hussein, who was a Malaysian academic and JI’s top bomb-maker until security forces killed him in East Java in 2005. Upik was found with equipment to manufacture small arms.

Last week, Indonesian police also arrested Zulkarnaen, JI’s operations chief since 2003. The al-Qaeda-trained and Afghan alumnus had served as an assistant to Abdullah Sungkar, who founded JI in the early 1990s along with Abu Bakar Bashir. He was in charge of most of the major JI terrorist attacks including Bali (2002), the J.W. Mariott Hotel (2003), the Australian Embassy (2004), and the Ritz Carlton and Marriott hotels (2009).

Zulkarnaen and Upik were in hiding and had security details to protect them. This again suggests that JI was simply biding time to resume their operations.

JI, today, is as strong an organization as it has ever been. Because of the actions and investments of Para Wijayanto, JI has sufficient funds to pay core cadres, as well as provide social welfare to its community.

Indeed, JI’s charities have sufficient funds – both legal and illicit – to provide social services beyond their group to attract members. Police have uncovered other sources of funding, including charitable boxes.

JI has patiently laid low and allowed the pro-Islamic State groups, such as Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), to bear the brunt of operations by Indonesian security forces since 2014. But it never renounced violence.

Indeed, pre-emptive arrests in Banten and Lampung this year showed that the group is still planning attacks – and getting ever closer to carrying them out with success.

Fluid membership

Moreover, JI seems poised to pick up the pieces of Islamic State. Unlike other regions, people have drifted between groups without little repercussions. Membership in terrorist organizations in Southeast Asia has always been more fluid.

In Indonesia, JI and pro-IS groups – though rivals – emerged from the same milieu. Many of the same mosques and madrassas were key nodes of radicalization and recruitment for both groups. Consequently, many of their members share personal ties, and with its organizational and financial wherewithal, JI is poised to absorb the pieces of Islamic State.

Does this mean violence is in the offing? Not in the short term.

For one thing, the Indonesian security forces are focused on JI’s revival. There have been more than 30 arrests in 2020 alone, so we know that the police have been proactive at mitigating the threat.

For another thing, it’s still in JI’s interest to lie low. Pro-IS groups are weaker but they are not defeated and they remain determined to carry on with their violent campaign even though since 2014 it has been wildly uneven in lethality and professionalism. JI still benefits from IS attacks. 

JI will try to regain leadership over the sectarian violence in Central Sulawesi, which remains the origin story of every militant group in Indonesia.

The Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) is thought to have fewer than a dozen members, though it doggedly persists. Though the MIT’s former leader declared allegiance to the Islamic State, it previously was tied to JI, and could swing back.

That said, it is important to understand that JI is not monolithic. The group always had internal factions that are often more eager to act than the leadership wants.

As we continue to see key JI leaders being arrested, these factions will have more free rein to act – going against the best wishes of everyone involved, including JI itself.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and at Georgetown University in Washington.

Alif Satria is a master’s candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia.

The views expressed in this column are their own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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