Indonesia: A Closer Look at Jemaah Islamiyah

5 MINS READJul 17, 2009 | 20:51 GMT
Luis Enrique Ascui/Getty Images
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesian Islamist militant group, most likely carried out the July 17 bombings at the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia. JI has been slowed down in recent years by arrests, seizures and the resulting splits within the group over how to proceed. The July 17 attack does not necessarily indicate that the group will resume launching consistent, large-scale attacks, but it does show that individual cells maintain the bomb-making capability and operational tradecraft to carry out relatively simple attacks.
The July 17 attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia, were most likely the work of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a local Islamist militant group that has not carried out a major attack for nearly four years. The targets of the attack — foreigners in hotels where Westerners are known to stay — are in line with JI's usual target set. In recent years, arrests and seizures have led to splits within JI, which have slowed the group down. While the July 17 attacks do not necessarily indicate that the group will resume launching consistent, large-scale attacks, they do show that some JI cells are capable of carrying out relatively simple attacks. JI, like its cousin jihadist groups across the Muslim world, seeks to create an Islamic state in the country that serves as its primary base of operations and institute sharia, or Islamic law, across the region. This sentiment has existed in southeast Asia since the days of colonial rule early in the early 20th century, when groups like Darul Islam advocated sharia over Dutch rule in Indonesia. During the decades since then, many different groups have adopted the policy of sharia, with some favoring peaceful tactics and some opting for violent tactics as a means of achieving their goal. JI itself is split many ways in how to best accomplish its objective, but a significant portion of the group favors violence. Al Qaeda played a significant role in cultivating the support for violent tactics within JI during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Leaders such as Riduan Isamuddin (also known as Hambali) and Abu Dujana are believed to have received training from al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the late 1990s. This training is evident in the use of suicide bombers and suicide car bombers in JI's attacks in Bali and Jakarta from 2002 to 2005. JI became the vanguard of Islamic militarism in southeast Asia by passing on its training and operational knowledge to other groups in the region. JI members are known to have traveled to Mindanao, Philippines, to train groups like Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which continue fighting the Philippine government today. JI also supported Kampulan Mujahideen Malaysia and Laskar Jihad in Indonesia (both of whom support the overthrow of moderate governments and the installation of conservative Islamic law) with training and materials. Foreign connections were largely handled by JI's core leadership. Before their arrests in 2003 and 2007 respectively, Isamuddin and Dujana were instrumental in transferring tactical know-how while JI's ideological leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, used his contacts across the Muslim world (including members of al Qaeda) gained during years of exile to collaborate with ideologically similar groups. Bashir was imprisoned for a brief period following the 2002 Bali bombings but was released in 2006 and has recently increased his rhetoric. On June 14, he called for Indonesians to support attacks in Thailand and called for the beheading of U.S. President Barack Obama (who had recently addressed the Muslim world in a Cairo speech) and former U.S. President George Bush. Noordin Mohammed Top is an operational commander from Malaysia with known bomb-making skills who has evaded capture by Indonesian authorities for years. He contributed to the fracturing of JI by branching off and forming his own faction, called Tanzim Qaidat al-Jihad, which is more radical and violent than the rest of JI. He is more than capable of constructing the explosive devices that were used in the dual July 17 bombings, or might have trained someone else to do it. The undetonated device police recovered from the Marriott hotel will provide forensic evidence that will give authorities insight into how the device was constructed and a "signature" of the bomb maker — clues as to who might have built it. Indonesia is the world's largest Muslim country (some 90 percent of the county's nearly 240 million people consider themselves Muslims) with a population that tends to be politically moderate. This moderation, in addition to counterterrorism assistance from Australia and the United States, has made it difficult for extremists to gain broad support within the country and has fomented disagreements within the JI leadership over strategy and tactics, ensuring that the group will face challenges in its attempt to consolidate its disparate regional factions and strategies. The arrests of key operational leaders and seizures of materiel have created large disparities among JI's fractured remnants, leaving some smaller groups unable to carry out consistent attacks, while other splinter groups have rejected violence. Still other factions have been forced into hiding. Because JI had become so fractured before the July 17 attacks, the group was believed to have changed its strategy from carrying out large, spectacular attacks against foreigners (such as the 2002 Bali bombings) to conducting more precise attacks against locally significant targets. However, the splits within JI mean that the group is not operating under a single strategy, and as was made clear from the July 17 attacks there are obviously still elements within the group who favor violent attacks against foreign targets. The July 17 attacks do not necessarily indicate that JI has overcome its internal fractures or abandoned the strategy of attacking locally significant targets. JI has many regional cells operating all over the archipelago, with each one more or less pursuing its own prerogative. Though JI is still too fractured to pose a serious threat to the government, the July 17 hotel bombings show that at least one cell maintains the services of an experienced bomb-maker (the devices were successful, after all) and had the operational tradecraft to plan the attack and evade police long enough to carry it out.

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