Indonesia: bombs and politics

Charles Reading
20 July 2009

The coordinated bombings that on 17 July 2009 ripped through two leading hotels, the JW Marriott and the Ritz Carlton, in Indonesia's capital city killed nine people (including two as-yet-unidentified perpetrators) and injured fifty. This major terrorist attack, closely following the presidential election of 8 July which saw the clear re-election of the incumbent Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has been widely viewed - inside and outside Indonesia - as the work of homegrown Islamically-inspired operatives loosely associated to the outlawed group, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).  Indeed, within hours of the event and before time for a serious investigation to get underway, reports were circulating that were connecting JI elements to the bombings.  

Charles Reading is the pseudonym of a Jakarta-based security analyst

This rush to judgment, in advance of a full inquiry, is problematic on two related grounds: it over-simplifies the incident, and portrays Jemaah Islamiyah as a coherent entity. A more careful approach would take note of two recent reports by the International Crisis Group (ICG) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), each of which highlights significant ruptures within JI.

The key variable

After the Bali bombings of October 2002, the majority "traditionalists" inside the movement (currently led by Abu Rusdan) distanced themselves from more "radical" elements (aligned to Noordin Mohammad Top). It is Noordin Top who is thought to have been behind the attacks on the same JW Marriott hotel in August 2003, the Australian embassy in September 2004 and the Bali attacks of October 2002 and October 2005. The traditionalists see violent jihad as detrimental to their goals and thus reject violence as a tool in circumstances where Muslims are not directly threatened. In contrast the more radical elements maintain a belief in violent jihadist struggle. Indeed, Noordin Top - regarded as a prime suspect in the 17 July attacks - is reported to have claimed leadership of a previously unknown group called Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad (Organisation for the Base of Jihad) in 2006. 

But this does not mean that the split between JI and Noordin Top should be seen as all-encompassing. Many JI members, whether or not they have renounced violence, maintain a support-network of shelters and educational institutions that can be used both by traditionalists and more militant activists. The ICG report focusing on Islamic militancy in Palembang, south Sumatra, highlights the ability of individual militant jihadists to use their previous links with JI to seek refuge and employment at Islamic boarding-schools.  

Also in openDemocracy on jihadism in southeast Asia:

Tani Bhargava, "Travelling by sun-bird: Bali in Indian sight" (31 October 2002)

Pere Vilanova, "Indonesian democracy: lessons for the west" (30 September 2004)

Jan McGirk, "Bali's message of dialogue" (2 August 2005)

Jan McGirk, "Bali's agony, Thailand's turmoil" (3 October 2005)

Jan McGirk, "Thailand's endemic insurgency" (28 November 2005)

John Virgoe, "Thailand's southern fix" (17 November 2008)

Mark Dearn, "Mindanao: poverty on the frontlines" (4 June 2009)

Plus: regular reports on terrorism.openDemocracy.net

The report also highlights the ability of small cells of militants to plan operations with little financial support or planning from any central leadership. This capability of splinter-groups to pursue the jihadist cause on their own account belies the image of a coherent network of JI cells spread throughout southeast Asia.

The fact that over a hundred JI members have in been released from jail because they have finished their prison sentence and/or have undertaken some process of rehabilitation should also be acknowledged as an important factor in the resurgence of violent activity. The Indonesian government has done much to rehabilitate and reintegrate former militants into society, yet not all seem to have given up their belief in religiously inspired violence.  If these members still hold militant ideals, then they are less likely to gravitate towards the traditionalists - who view the violent struggle of those arrested as detrimental to their cause, and may shun their former brothers - than to be co-opted by more violent fractions such as the one led by Noordin Mohammad Top.  

This process of fragmentation creates substantial difficulties for law-enforcement agencies in identifying and countering newly active jihadist activists. Indeed, the profile of an Islamic jihadist as a young, religiously devout male living on the fringes of society seems outdated and no longer reflects the broader membership of Jemaah Islamiyah and any splinter-groups. The logic here is that the key variable that shapes contemporary jihadist militants is the complex and ever-evolving radicalisation processes linked to internal leadership debates and small-group actions, rather than conformity to a rather simplistic and mechanistic terrorist "profile".

The cost of rivalry

The timing of the Jakarta attacks hold further importance with regard to both Indonesian national politics and international events. The fact that they occurred just before the scheduled arrival of the Manchester United football squad for the Jakarta leg of a regional tour - and led to the club's decision to cancel its visit - may not be coincidental; for any attack perpetrated at such a time would necessarily receive even greater than usual worldwide media attention.

On a national level, the bombings come nine days after the re-election of Indonesia's president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who received an overwhelmingly strong mandate for a second term. SBY, as he is commonly known, received 60% of the vote, against 27% for ex-president Megawati Sukarnoputri and 13% for SBY's vice-president (and head of the once hegemonic Golkar party) Jusuf Kalla.   

SBY's first term has been widely regarded as a period of diminishing sectarian struggle, the withering of terrorist violence, and successful counter-terrorist policies. These hotel bombs put unexpected pressure on the president at the beginning of his second term, and most likely will create problems for him in the area of national-security policy. Again, the timing here is most likely not a coincidence: SBY himself has acknowledged the probable link between the attacks and the elections; he even stated the that the group responsible planned to make Indonesia like Iran, and that it would try to prevent him from being sworn in for his second term.  

Moreover, the bombings have occurred during a period of renewed debate surrounding the role of Indonesia's military in anti-terrorist activities. In December 2008, the government announced that it was considering whether the Indonesian military should take over command of counter-terrorism operations from the police. It was only in 1999, with the end of authoritarian rule under Suharto, that the the police and the military became institutionally separate; and since then their well-documented rivalry over access to natural resources and political influence has continued. The Jakarta bombings may reinforce more nationalistic elements of the political and military elite that argue for greater military involvement in (if not outright control over) the counter-terrorist effort.  

In any event, it is likely that the bombings will reignite the debate about Indonesia's security and anti-terrorist measures. This could also have detrimental affects on continued reform of the security sector - a process that, although slow, is of great importance to Indonesia's still unfolding democratic transition. More widely, the recent and current dynamics of jihadism in Indonesia - involving fragmentation and decentralisation, and associated patterns of recruitment of those suspected of planning the bombings - present a challenge. This is to avoid simplifying the analysis of violent Islamist cells and of radicalisation processes; for the analysis needs to be nuanced and up-to-date if it is to match evolving realities.

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