Too good to be true? Unpacking Jemaah Islamiyah’s self-declared disbanding

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
Too good to be true? Unpacking Jemaah Islamiyah’s self-declared disbanding Police officers inspect the ruins of a nightclub destroyed by a bomb blast in Kuta, Bali, Indonesia, Oct. 13, 2002.
AP file photo

At an event organized last month by the Indonesian counter-terrorism agency (BNPT), Abu Rusydan and 15 other leaders of Jemaah Islamiyah announced their group’s dissolution

JI, the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda, had carried out a string of devastating attacks in the 2000s, including Indonesia’s deadliest-ever terror attack – the 2002 Bali bombings. But now it was “ready to actively contribute to Indonesia’s progress and dignity,” Abu Rusydan declared as he read from a prepared statement during the event on June 30. 

This is not the first time that a militant group has disbanded itself. The Provisional Irish Republican Army unilaterally broke up in 2005, throwing itself solely into legal activities through its political arm, Sinn Féin. In 2018, the Basque separatist organization ETA also unilaterally disbanded.

But Jemaah Islamiyah’s announcement surprised many people, and left others feeling skeptical.

There are three interrelated questions that need to be asked about the move by JI: How did we get here? Is this for real? And what does this mean for regional security?

How did we get here?

Jemaah Islamiyah, which has its roots in the Darul Islam movement, was founded in Malaysia in 1993, when its two founders, Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir, were on the run from Suharto’s New Order government in Indonesia.

While in Malaysia, they served as a way-station for several hundred militants who traveled to Pakistan to join the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, putting them in direct contact with al-Qaeda.

In 1996, a charter (the PUPJI) created the group’s organizational structure and codified JI’s Salafi ideology. At the time, the group also reached an agreement with the Philippine armed separatist organization, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, to allow al-Qaeda to establish training camps in the southern Philippines.


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In Indonesia, JI perpetrated terrorist attacks on Christian churches and established two paramilitary organizations to wage sectarian conflict in the Maluku Islands and Central Sulawesi province.

Following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the al-Qaeda leadership called for diversionary attacks. One of these was the twin Bali bombings that killed 202 people a year later.

Police officers escort suspected militant Zulkarnaen (center), who is also known as Aris Sumarsono and believed to be the military leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah network, upon his arrival at Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia, Dec. 16, 2020. [Achmad Ibrahim/AP]

Between 2002 and 2007, JI perpetrated a major attack almost every year. But each attack left the organization weaker as counterterrorism forces became more adept and better resourced.

This led to an ideological split in the organization between proponents of the line of targeting the “far enemy,” versus those who wanted to foment sectarian conflict in order to rebuild their depleted ranks.

The government legally banned JI in 2008, but allowed it to operate as an entity as long as it refrained from violence. 

In 2010, more than 100 JI members were swept up, including Abu Bakar Bashir, breaking the organization’s back. JI’s last terrorist act took place that year.

Yet, from 2020-2023, Indonesian counter-terrorism efforts were as focused on JI as it was on the pro-Islamic State umbrella group, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD). Security forces originally saw JI as an off-ramp for the more radical JAD, but attitudes hardened.

In 2019, when counterterrorism police arrested JI’s emir, Para Wijayanto, they were shocked by the group’s size and national reach. Its madrassas and charitable arms had grown, while its corporations and publishing arms had created a steady revenue stream. As many JI members were arrested in 2021 and 2022 as JAD suspects.

Indonesian counter-terrorism forces have applied a softer approach. Though seemingly campy, they’ve held mass rallies where former militants pledge allegiance to the republic.

Former militants have established madrassas for the children of incarcerated militants, so they are not raised in JI or JAD-run schools, breaking terrorist social networks.

They’ve gotten leaders, including the JAD Emir Aman Abdurrahman, who is on death row, and Umar Patek, to publicly renounce violence.

Indonesian militant Umar Patek (right) uses his mobile phone to make a video call as his long-time friend Ali Fauzi, a former bomb maker who now runs a program aimed at de-radicalizing militants, joins during their meeting in Lamongan, East Java, Indonesia, Dec. 13, 2022. [Trisnadi/AP]

Meanwhile the conflict in Poso, which served as a rallying point for all militant groups in Indonesia, has been stamped out.

Internationally, there has been more cooperation amongst the regional security services. And while ungoverned space and institutional weakness remains in the southern Philippines, militant groups are no longer attracting JI and other foreign militants.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front continues to implement the peace process and build up institutions that will help the autonomous Muslim region transition to self-governance. There has been an unprecedented sustained attack on the Abu Sayyaf, which is now fighting for survival.

Is this for real?

While JI has not been in a position to engage in terrorism, until now, it has never renounced violence. Many in the organization were simply waiting for the right circumstance to resume operations.

It’s easy to be cynical about the group’s prepared statement, especially at an event stage-managed by the BNPT. Some of those who were on hand had been arrested and gone through government disengagement programs.

To young radicals, they’re sell-outs, and past their prime. The average age of the men who renounced violence was in the late 50s or older.

To what degree will younger members follow the leadership and pursue a legal-political alternative?

In many ways, this is more promising. JI’s campaign of militancy failed to bring about the establishment of an Islamic State governed by Sharia. Democratic politics have advanced their political agenda more effectively.

It’s not that Islamist parties do terribly well at the national level. Indeed, in Indonesia’s 2024 general election, they collectively represented about 20% of the electorate and won 101 of 580 seats. But they are important members of political coalitions, which tend to give them a disproportionate voice.

It’s at the local level where we see faith-based parties make their mark, especially in the passage of public policy and Sharia compliant codes, which the majority of provinces and districts now have.

Islamist parties are riddled with rivalries and have never formed a cohesive bloc.  

Perhaps for that reason, JI saw an opening for a tactical shift. In May 2021, JI established the Indonesian People’s Dakwah Party (PDRI). Yet, counter-terrorism forces arrested its founder, Farid Ahmad Okbah, that November for being a senior member of JI. Two others were arrested.

The PDRI did not contest the 2024 elections. But it seems likely that with JI’s dissolution, the government will give former members more political space.

What does this mean for regional security?

JI’s manpower and locus were largely-Indonesian based, but it remains a Southeast Asian organization.

Some affiliates gravitated elsewhere. Darul Islam Sabah, for example, went from facilitating JI and the movement of foreign militants in and out of the southern Philippines to working with the JAD and other groups.

There has always been more fluidity between Southeast Asian militant groups than those in the Middle East or South Asia. Abu Bakar Bashir defected from being pro-al Qaeda to being pro-Islamic State, with large numbers of acolytes, without consequence.

As such, many younger militants who are committed to using violence to achieve their political aims are likely to defect to other groups.

What those groups may be, though, is unclear. The JAD is decimated and leaderless, though to be fair, it was always far more horizontally structured. It has not executed a major terrorist attack since 2019.

At present there is no apparent charismatic leader for militant Salafists to coalesce around. And while one would expect external events, such as the war in Gaza, to serve as a catalyst, to date it has not.

Ailing radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir (center), arrives for medical treatment at Cipto Mangunkusumo Hospital in Jakarta, Indonesia, March 1, 2018. [Dita Alangkara/AP]

JI still runs a network of madrassas, including some very large ones like al-Mukmin and Pesantren Hidayatullah in Balikpapan. These continue to be ideological incubators and hate factories.

It’s hard to see state educational personnel intervene and change their curriculum. But Indonesian security forces have not let up, despite the decline in organizational strength or the tempo of operations.

Terrorism will be a persistent but manageable threat in Indonesia. JI’s dissolution makes it more so, providing a legal-political alternative that is more moral, but also proven to be more effective.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and an adjunct at Georgetown University. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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