Jemaah Islamiyah disbands: End of an era or strategic transformation?

Some experts have expressed skepticism about the Islamic militant organization’s motives and raised concerns about splinter groups.
Kusumasari Ayuningtyas
2024.07.05
Yogyakarta, Indonesia
Jemaah Islamiyah disbands: End of an era or strategic transformation? The aftermath of the bombing of the Sari night club and surrounding buildings are seen in this aerial view Oct. 15, 2002 in Kuta, Bali.
AP Photo

Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian Islamist militant group once linked to al-Qaeda, has publicly disbanded, marking a potential turning point in the fight against terrorism in Indonesia, amid concern about the potential for continued underground activity.

The announcement, made by JI leaders on Sunday, has been met with mixed reactions, with some experts expressing skepticism about the group’s motives and the potential for continued underground activity.

JI carried out some of Indonesia’s most deadly terrorist attacks, targeting Western interests and Indonesian security forces, including the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people.

We stand “ready to actively contribute to Indonesia’s progress and dignity,” declared Abu Rusydan, one of the group’s leaders, as he read from a prepared statement in the presence of other senior members in Bogor, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Jakarta.

Mohammad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Center for the Study of Radicalism and Deradicalization (PAKAR), said JI had already shifted away from violence under the leadership of Para Wijayanto, who was granted leave from jail to attend Sunday’s declaration. 

“Senior JI figures...have chosen the most logical path by dissolving JI,” Adhe told BenarNews.

However, he expressed concern that lower-level members may not follow suit. 

“I am worried that splinter groups will emerge at the lower levels,” he said.

Abdul Rahim Ba’asyir, the son of one of JI’s founders, Abu Bakar Bashir, also welcomed the move.

“It’s a good thing for them to disband and declare their return to the fold of the Indonesian state,” Abdul Rahim told BenarNews. 

“It helps dispel the false notion that Muslims are terrorists.”

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Members of the Densus 88 counter-terrorism police cordon off a road as they search a house in Surabaya, East Java province, on June 19, 2017, following the arrest of a man suspected of links with the Islamic State (IS) group. [AFP]

JI was established in the 1990s with the explicit aim of creating an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia.

In addition to the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, the group was behind the 2003 and 2009 attacks on the Marriott hotel in Jakarta, and the bombing of the Australian embassy in the Indonesian capital in 2004.

The Indonesian government cracked down on JI after the first Bali bombings, arresting and imprisoning many of its leaders. 

The group was officially banned in 2008, but it continued to operate underground, recruiting members, raising funds and conducting military training, officials and analysts have said.

The decision to disband comes after years of pressure from Indonesian authorities, who have arrested dozens of JI members in the past few years. 

The group’s current leader, Para, who was sentenced to seven years in prison for terrorism in 2020, is believed to have favored a more moderate approach, focusing on Islamic outreach and education rather than violence, analysts said.

However, the disbandment has been met with skepticism by some, who believe it may be a ploy to protect the group’s assets and funding sources, particularly its network of Islamic schools. 

Sofyan Tsauri, a former JI member, said he observed anger over the disbandment declaration within JI’s internal groups. He warned of the potential formation of a new, possibly more radical, “neo-JI.”

“Post-dissolution, there must be monitoring and guidance, which is the government’s responsibility. Without it, the disbandment is meaningless,” Sofyan told BenarNews.

He also expressed concern about the group's network of nearly 100 schools, which he said teach a literalist, puritan version of Islam. 

“This must be changed,” he said. 

In their declaration, JI leaders committed to overhauling the syllabus of the group’s schools to align with mainstream Islamic teachings.

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People sign on a banner to remember victims of the bomb blasts outside JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta July 20, 2009. [Reuters]

Sidney Jones, a senior advisor to the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, described the disbandment as “the culmination of a long move toward ending JI’s existence as a covert organization and operating openly in the interests of Islamic outreach and education.”

“It's for real. In some ways the move began in 2009 but it gathered strength after Para Wijayanto became emir,” she told BenarNews.

However, she also acknowledged the potential for splinter factions. 

"Surely some in JI will see it as a betrayal,” she said.

In a May interview with BenarNews, Ali Imron, serving a life sentence for his role in the 2002 Bali bombings, said JI had been leaderless since the mid-2000s. 

Indonesian authorities’ crackdown on extremist groups has left JI without clear leadership, he said. 

“There is no official leader of JI now,” Imron said, adding that an internal agreement suggested JI had ceased to exist as an official entity.

Amid the decline in JI-led violence, the Islamic State-inspired Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) emerged as a new threat. 

Founded in 2015 and now banned, JAD was responsible for attacks on churches in Surabaya in 2018 and a cathedral in Makassar during Palm Sunday. 

A JAD-affiliated attacker also bombed a police headquarters in Medan in 2019. However, there have been no reported JAD attacks since then.

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In this June 18, 2014, file photo, a man wears a headband showing the Islamic State group's symbol during a protest calling for the closure of a local prostitution complex in Surabaya, Indonesia. [AP Photo]

Irfan Idris, director of prevention at the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), said that the JI leaders’ declaration was a tangible success for security forces and society in combating terrorism and achieving a “zero-attack” status in Indonesia.

“We operate under the law and will remain vigilant against any threats that may arise,” he said. “Terrorism and its ideology pose a grave danger to the nation’s unity.”

The announcement of JI’s disbandment might seem like a positive development on the surface, but a closer look reveals a more complex and potentially concerning reality, according to Bilveer Singh, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

Singh cautions that the history of extremist groups in Indonesia, like JI, is marked by transformation and reemergence. 

“Radical groups have never disappeared in Indonesia since 1945,” he told BenarNews, adding that JI itself has a history of evolving every 15-20 years.

He warned that the disbandment could be perceived as a strategic move, with some members continuing their activities underground and potentially forming a new, more dangerous group.

“The Bogor declaration may disband JI, but there is a risk that a more dangerous organization than JI could emerge in Indonesia,” Singh said. 

Arie Firdaus in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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