By Ronna Nirmala
One of the Jemaah Islamiyah suspects in Indonesian custody is a senior religious scholar who was a candidate to serve as the militant group’s next leader, police and counter-terrorism experts said Friday.
The anti-terror unit Densus 88 arrested Siswanto, a suspected senior Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) member also known as Arif Siswanto, during a raid in Central Java’s Klaten regency on Nov. 13, according to information from police.
“The arrest was made without fanfare,” Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, a researcher at the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR), a think-tank based in Central Java province.
Taufiqurrahman said Siswanto acted as an interim replacement for Para Wijayanto, the overall leader of JI who was sentenced to seven years in prison in July for rebuilding the al-Qaeda-linked group after Indonesian outlawed it in 2007.
“He is one of the senior figures in the organization,” Taufiqurrahman said.
Indonesian authorities blamed Jemaah Islamiyah for carrying out the nation’s worst terrorist attack – the 2002 Bali bombings that killed more than 200 people – and other bombings across the archipelago-nation during the first decade of the century.
In mid-November, the National Police announced the arrests of at least 30 JI suspects in raids this year, including 10 suspects who were caught since mid-October.
Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), confirmed the news of Siswanto’s arrest. But, she said, he was not JI’s new leader.
“He is the chairman of the committee to choose the next emir. He is a senior [member] but, as far as I know, he was not involved in the Bali bombings. He was never involved in any violence,” Jones told BenarNews.
When contacted for comment on Friday, Brig. Gen. Awi Setiyono, the spokesman for National Police, did not deny confirm or deny the arrest, but said his office would issue a statement.
The police department’s official news website, tribatanews.polri.go.id, reported late last month about Siswanto’s arrest and referred to him as “a candidate for JI emir.”
The website quoted a neighbor of Siswanto as saying he was a religious teacher who had not been seen in their Klaten community for months.
Jones said Siswanto was known as a senior JI figure well-versed in Islamic knowledge, but his experience in military matters was unknown.
“Usually, only those who have both religious and askari [military] experience can become an emir,” she said.
A committee of senior figures in the organization, including Siswanto, would pick JI’s new leader, Jones said.
Late last month, police announced the arrest of another senior Jemaah Islamiyah figure, Upik Lawanga, a fugitive for 14 years. He was accused of involvement in a series of attacks in Poso, a town in Central Sulawesi province where militants have carried out sporadic attacks.
Police said Upik was a valuable asset for JI because he was believed to be a successor to bomb-maker Azahari Husin.
Azahari, a Malaysian national, was killed in a 2005 police raid in Batu, an East Java town.
Upik’s arrest was a blow to JI, according to Taufiqurrohman.
“In terms of military capacity, it is quite significant, because Upik has the expertise to make bombs. He was also involved in building a weapons workshop in Lampung with Para,” Taufiqurrohman said.
“There are other members who are experts because they studied in Syria, but they are not yet equal to Upik.”
JI members, in his opinion, were unlikely to launch attacks to avenge the arrest of fellow members.
“They are focusing on damage control. The important thing [for them] is that the [entire] organization does not end up being attacked by the authorities,” he said.
On JI’s money trail
Meanwhile on Friday, Argo Yuwono, another spokesman for Indonesian police, said investigators were digging deeper into JI’s sources of money, including the use of charity boxes.
“We are looking into their sources of funding, because there are many,” Argo said during a teleconference.
Previously, police said that funding sources for JI included individual businesses, member fees, and money diverted from charitable drives.
The funds, police said, were used to send militants to Syria, pay the salaries of JI leaders and purchase equipment.
Last month, Taufiqurrohman of PAKAR told BenarNews that JI was a well-funded organization, which collected fees from members as well as donations from some 20 Islamic boarding schools, donors and charities. It also operated palm-oil plantations, and logistics and cleaning service companies, he said.
PAKAR estimates that JI spent around 215 million rupiah (U.S. $15,200) a year to run a martial arts camp, and 2.4 billion rupiah ($170,150) to send 62 of its members for military training in Syria from 2013 until 2018.
Jones, from IPAC, said police through this year’s string of arrests were targeting JI members who were not involved in violence.
“Dozens have been arrested since Para Wijayanto on suspicion they were part of the organization’s management, even though they were not directly involved in acts of terrorism,” she said. “Donors were arrested. People involved in sending members to Syria were arrested. People who managed JI assets were also arrested.”
Taufiqurrohman, from PAKAR, praised the police for going after JI’s money stream.
“If the sources of funding are not paralyzed, it will be hard to completely wipe out JI,” he said.