By Ronna Nirmala
Police in Indonesia have arrested at least 30 suspected Jemaah Islamiyah militants this year, even though the al-Qaeda affiliate behind the country’s worst terror attacks has long been outlawed, with one analyst describing the underground network as “dormant.”
The arrests were authorized under revisions to Indonesia’s anti-terror act in 2018 that gave law enforcement broad powers to investigate and arrest people suspected of planning terrorist attacks, supporting or joining illegal military trainings, or spreading ideology deemed as a threat to national security.
The surge in arrests indicates that authorities see the network as a threat even if it has not engaged in violence in more than 10 years, analysts say. Despite being outlawed, they say that Jemaah Islamiyah has funds, skills and affiliated madrassas – schools where potential new members are groomed.
Twenty JI members were arrested between January and September, National Police chief Gen. Idham Azis told a parliamentary hearing on Sept. 30.
Over the past month, Indonesian counterterrorist police have arrested another 10 suspects.
“Police carried out pre-emptive strikes in order to prevent acts of terrorism,” National Police spokesman Brig. Gen. Awi Setiyono told BenarNews.
Those who were taken into custody were suspected of involvement in illegal martial arts training and of funding the departure of dozens of JI members to Syria between 2013 and 2018, he said.
But the recent arrests have more to do with the potential for future violence, according to Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, a senior researcher at the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR), a think-tank in Jakarta.
“There are fears that if the group is left unchecked, there will be a big event, which may include foreigners as a target,” Taufiqurrohman told BenarNews.
JI members have better skills than people in groups like the Islamic State-affiliated Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jamaah Ansharul Khalifah (JAK), he said. JI members are good at evading police, and some are experienced bomb-makers with training in Syria, the analyst added.
For counterterror police unit Densus 88, “dealing with JI is like waging a guerilla war. They are very difficult to track down, in contrast to JAD people who tend to be amateurs and are easily arrested,” Taufiqurrohman said.
A new emir?
Police blame JI for a string of major attacks in the early 2000s, including two bombings in Bali, in 2002 and 2005, that together killed 225; the 2003 bombing at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, which killed 12; the 2004 attack on the Australian Embassy that killed nine; and twin bombings at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in 2009 that killed nine people, including two suicide bombers.
Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamic militancy in Indonesia, said that even though JI is currently “dormant,” its recruitment and educational activities involving affiliated boarding schools continue.
“I think it will be difficult for JI to rebuild its network in the near future, especially after the new law was passed in 2018,” Jones told BenarNews. “But maybe I think in 5-10 years, they will revive.”
According to Awi, the police spokesman, JI suspects arrested in recent weeks were linked to Imarrudin, a JI leader for Banten province arrested in May.
Imarrudin, for his part, reported to overall JI chief Para Wijayanto, who in July was sentenced to seven years in prison for his role in reorganizing the group after it was outlawed in 2007.
Jones said it was still unclear who succeeded Para after his imprisonment this year.
She said that Thoriquddin, also known as Abu Rusydan, a senior JI figure who was jailed for three and a half years in 2004, fit the bill to be Para’s replacement, citing his religious knowledge and experience.
Taufiqurrohman said JI might have appointed a new emir, based on documents confiscated by authorities from JI members arrested in Yogyakarta in October.
“There has been news about a new emir and I think his name is known to Densus,” Taufiqurrohman said, referring to Densus 88, an elite police force involved in counter-terrorist operation.
Awi declined to comment on whether JI had appointed a new leader.
According to Taufiqurrohman, the homecoming last week of hardline Indonesian cleric Muhammad Rizieq Shihab after three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia was unlikely to animate JI members, but he warned that they could exploit security disturbances and changing political dynamics for their own ends.
“If there is serious political chaos in Indonesia, JI people can also join anarchist groups to carry out an act of terrorism,” he said.
Involved in politics
Under Para’s leadership, JI members joined mass rallies against then-Jakarta Gov. Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama over remarks on the Quran that were deemed blasphemous by hardline Muslims, said a report released in 2017 by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict – a Jakarta-based think-tanked headed by Jones.
Those rallies played a role in Ahok’s arrest, re-election defeat and conviction, a sequence of events that seemed to cement the growing political clout of hardline religious groups in the world’s largest Muslim-majority country.
Para also encouraged members to vote in elections, the IPAC report said.
“Young JI scholars, who five years ago argued that organizations needed to focus more on the ultimate goal of building an Islamic state and building partnerships with other Muslim organizations, are now in positions of greater influence,” IPAC said in its report.
A study by PAKAR also indicates that JI people are involved in a newly established Islamic political party, Majelis Syuro Muslimin Indonesia or Masyumi, Taufiqurrohman said.
JI is relatively well financed, unlike JAD whose overseas funding has dried up following a police crackdown on suspicious money transfers from foreign countries, Taufiqurrohman said.
JI funding is collected from 5-10 percent of members’ monthly income and donations from some 20 Islamic boarding schools located mostly in Central Java.
He said JI members ran businesses including oil palm plantations, cargo companies and cleaning service contractors.
“JI is very rich and its [leaders] are paid a lot of money,” said Taufiqurrohman, adding that the group was estimated to have more than 100 members.
Taufik Andrie, a researcher at the Jakarta-based Institute for International Peace-Building, said authorities were unlikely to close JI-affiliated schools unless there was hard evidence of criminal activities.
“JI is very careful about the boarding schools. Some of its members [who run the schools] are ostensibly repentant and cooperating with authorities, so it’s hard to find evidence of radicalism,” he told BenarNews.
“JI is an adaptive organization and when its leaders are arrested, members form a collegial panel to appoint senior members to run the organization,” he added.