How Bali Bombings Group Infiltrated Indonesian Institutions to Resurrect Itself

Commentary by Alif Satria
2021-11-24
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How Bali Bombings Group Infiltrated Indonesian Institutions to Resurrect Itself Police stand in front of a monument dedicated to those killed in the 2002 Bali bombings in the tourist district of Kuta, near Denpasar, on Indonesia’s Bali Island, Jan. 22, 2016.
[AFP]

Indonesia’s arrest of more than 300 suspected terrorists this year has uncovered just how successfully Jemaah Islamiyah, the group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings, has rebuilt itself over the last 13 years.

Jemaah Islamiyah, or JI, which was banned in 2008, leaned heavily on infiltrating Islamic socio-religious organizations to scout for recruits, gather funds, and even become politically influential via quasi-state religious organizations.

This tactic has complicated counterterrorism operations as crackdowns against members of religious groups are increasingly viewed as targeting Muslims. Stymieing JI’s future would require the government to complement mass arrests with inclusive, grassroots counter-radicalization programs and increased transparency of counterterrorism operations.

Here is a look at recent developments related to JI and how they impact security operations in Indonesia.

What is Jemaah Islamiyah?

Jemaah Islamiyah is an organization aligned with the al-Qaeda militant group that achieved notoriety with the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people.

Six years after the bombings, Indonesia banned JI and labeled it an illegal terrorist organization for wanting to turn the country into one ruled by Islamic laws. Soon after, joint police and military operations arrested and killed many JI members.

Today, however, JI poses a significant threat.

Over the past decade, the organization has rebuilt its ranks, and in 2019, JI was Indonesia’s largest terrorist organization with around 6,000 members, according to police officials.

JI’s transnational links are currently weak, although it still has transnational ambitions.

Huge rise in terror suspect arrests

Indonesia’s counterterrorism operations were significantly more aggressive in 2021, as the large number of “preemptive arrests” of terrorist suspects show.

Between January and mid-November, Indonesian security forces said they arrested 339 people and killed 18 terrorist suspects. This marks a 56 percent increase from 2020 and is the second-highest number of annual terrorist arrests in Indonesia in the last five years.

More important, most of the arrests this year have targeted suspected members of JI. Of the arrested terrorist suspects whose organizational affiliations were uncovered, nearly 45 percent were JI members.

By comparison, only about 38 percent belonged to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Indonesian militant network affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. This shows a significant shift in security forces’ operations compared with 2020, when only 27 percent of all arrests were of JI suspects.

A majority of these arrests targeted JI suspects who played vital day-to-day operational and strategic roles in the organization. Some sent arms to pro-IS Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) militants and others worked for so-called charitable organizations and the like.

JI and the ‘battle of concepts’

It was these arrests that uncovered JI’s tactic of infiltrating popular social and religious organizations. Security officials also learned that JI members had been participating in religious charity organizations such as One Care, Syam Organizer, and LAZ ABA since 2018.

In December 2020, these charities were found to have placed around 20,000 charity boxes in 12 provinces. More recently, police reports said that some of these charity organizations managed to collect a total of 70 million rupiah (U.S. $4,900) a month. Some of those funds were sent to JI for its operations, police said.

Security officials also learned this year that JI’s reach has gone beyond charities to include politico-religious organizations. Two of three JI suspects police arrested last week had top positions in such groups.

JI’s presence in these organizations is motivated by three operational needs.

Non-violence is one motivation for this group that carried out the region’s worst terror attack with the Bali bombings. JI formalized non-violence in 2008 as it prioritized “dakwah,” which means preaching, and justified the use of “jihad through words.”

The second JI imperative, the use of socio-political organizations, is motivated by financial concerns. For instance, charity organizations are an extremely lucrative source of funds. Social organizations are also a low-risk means to transport and recruit members.

The overarching motivation is JI’s wish to win the “battle of concepts” before winning the battle for the Caliphate. This victory of concepts, termed “tamkin risalah,” requires JI to systematically undermine and delegitimize the government and its ideology via an “information war.”

By placing its members in key positions of popular organizations and political parties, JI can more easily and more authoritatively spread its divisive and delegitimizing narrative.

Winning the ideological battle

JI’s participation in these popular socio-religious organizations has complicated Indonesia’s counterterrorism operations.

Due to these organizations’ popularity, many arrests made by the anti-terror police unit Densus 88 are characterized as being driven by Islamophobia – specifically targeting Muslims, and “ulama” or religious scholars. 

It is, therefore, important for security forces to increase the transparency and accountability of their anti-terror operations. This means issuing statements about what happened during an arrest, ensuring the death of a suspect during an arrest is formally investigated.

Additionally, it is important for Indonesia to not focus on arrests alone, but also develop effective grassroots counter-radicalization programs. As JI’s current focus is not on using physical violence but on winning a narrative war that delegitimizes the government’s ideology, such counter-radicalization programs are a must.

To end the threat from JI Indonesia needs to address this ideological battle.

Alif Satria is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) Indonesia. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia.

Emin Serketi
Emin Serketi says:
Nov 27, 2021 10:02 AM

A very important article about how terrorist groups of the 21th century are working nlw. It‘s not only about bombs, but infiltrating the structures of a society & politics in order to destroy the democratic values of a state from the inside. The world is pluralistic and decomcary is a progress that has to be defended & protected actively. That‘s why wducation and antiradicalization programs are so important. Thank you so much for this eye opening article.

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