Indonesian authorities announced Jan. 31 that they are investigating links among al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and new Islamist militant group Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, headed by Malaysian militant and fugitive Noordin Mohammed Top, a key financier for JI. The inquiry reportedly was spurred by information gathered during interrogations indicating that Top had formed a new regional jihadist group to operate in the Malay Archipelago. The unveiling of the new group highlights the difficulties al Qaeda has had in gaining a following in Indonesia, and offers Jakarta new options in regional and domestic relations regarding its own fight against militants.
On Jan. 31, Indonesian authorities announced that investigations were under way to find ties among terrorist organizations al Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and a newly formed group — "Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad" — allegedly headed by JI militant Noordin Mohammed Top. Indonesian police recently received information that Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad was operating in the Malay Archipelago, which includes Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines — the same areas originally covered by JI. Top — known for his alleged involvement in the 2002 Bali resort bombings, attacks against Jakarta's Marriot Hotel in 2003 and the Australian Embassy in 2004 and the 2005 Bali bombing — is the former partner of suspected JI bomb-maker Azahari bin Husin, whom Indonesian police killed Nov. 9 in the East Java district of Malang. The announcement reinforces earlier assessments that JI is a split organization, and comes at a key time for Jakarta, which is in the process of signing an important security pact with Australia. In naming the group "Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad," or "Organization for the Base of Jihad," Top has intentionally established a clear association with Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda, mimicking early moves by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as he was seeking to establish his credibility in Iraq. For Top, this is an attempt to maintain legitimacy in the eyes of international Islamist militants and financiers, particularly after bin Husin's death. But it also highlights JI's failure to fully take root in Indonesia. Initially a domestic movement, JI was co-opted by Ridhwan Isam al-Deen al-Hanbali to take on a more internationalist tone. While its ostensible leader Abu Bakar Bashir was in prison and al-Hanbali was detained in Thailand, JI fractured. The internationalist faction headed by Top and Husin continued its annual operations, and the more Indonesian faction returned to its local focus — with most acts of violence involving smashing bars and other "un-Islamic" locales. This does not mean militancy in Indonesia has ended; there were militants of Islamist and other bents long before JI's emergence, and these have not gone away. However, the schism between JI's factions shows that the Wahhabist ideology and the internationalism of JI and al Qaeda continue to face recruiting trouble in Indonesia, despite the nation's massive Muslim population. Indonesian Islam is much different from that which al Qaeda proselytizes. For Jakarta, the announcement that Top has spun off from JI to form his own regional group offers benefits both in dealing with internal sentiments and in tightening security relations with Australia and other Western nations. Australia has incentive to aid in Top's capture, as Indonesian police recovered a videotape believed to be from Top in November, which threatened attacks against Australia, the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom. Furthermore, with Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad being run by an outsider — Top is Malaysian — Jakarta can couch the militant Islamist threat as one of an external force exploiting and damaging Indonesia. Indonesia becomes the victim, as it were, rather than the source of terrorism. Internally, this will help better sell defense and counterterrorism cooperation with Australia, as the Australian police and security forces would be assisting in going after Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad rather than targeting the local JI, which has much sympathy in the country. Externally, it shows that Indonesia is serious and ready to target the militant problem, rather than walk softly to avoid causing too much internal disruption over action against JI and Bashir. Top's reappearance confirms for Jakarta that it still faces an internal Islamist militant threat; however, the government can now present Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad as an international concern, given the initial reference to al Qaeda and Top's affiliation with JI — effectively allowing Jakarta to reshape its international image.