Decades-old Darul Islam militant group in Indonesia remains a threat

Commentary by Alif Satria
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Decades-old Darul Islam militant group in Indonesia remains a threat Members of Indonesian counter-terrorism police unit Densus 88 conduct a raid in Tangerang, in Banten province near Jakarta, following a spate of attacks, May 16, 2018.

In March, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism unit Densus 88 arrested more than 20 suspected members of Darul Islam, a decades-old organization which aims to establish an Islamic state of Indonesia and has historically been a stepping stone for members to join more violent groups.

DI, also known as Indonesia NII (Negara Islam Indonesia), is unlikely to conduct terror attacks anytime soon, but still poses a threat.

Those arrests – 16 in West Sumatra and another five in Banten – quickly raised suspicions about Darul Islam’s possible revival. Densus 88 alleged reported that DI West Sumatra had planned low-level terror attacks using machetes and a larger campaign to overthrow the government by 2024.

However, the threat posed by DI is overhyped because its cells are too small and uncoordinated to pose any significant attack to the government, observers have noted.

Historically, DI’s main threat has come from its ability to sustain its members’ caliphate dream through social programs. Some of those members eventually split to establish and support groups including Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) or Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) who are eager to take up arms in support of this dream.

While DI is indeed less coordinated today, its ability to build and sustain support for the caliphate dream remains.

History of DI’s rebellion

DI is a terrorist organization established by Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwiryo in 1942 with the goal of establishing an independent Islamic state of Indonesia. Because of a need to drive out colonial forces, DI for a time played a supporting role to Indonesia’s nationalist forces in their struggle for independence against the Dutch in West Java.

Because of different visions regarding the role of Islam in Indonesia’s post-independence governance and the temporary secession of West Java to the Dutch in the Renville Treaty of 1949, DI quickly became hostile to Indonesian forces as well. Since then, DI has made several attempts to establish a caliphate.

Between 1949 and 1962, DI mounted rebellions in West Java, South Sulawesi, South Kalimantan and Aceh which displaced more than 1 million people in Java alone. Between 1968 and 1976, DI reorganized itself and began a terror campaign in Sumatra under the name of Komando Jihad to sow chaos and court Libya’s support for an armed conflict.

In 1982, DI attempted to emulate Iran’s 1979 revolution and rally Muslims for a popular revolt under the name of the Indonesian Ulama Council. State forces’ intervention, however, caused these attempts to ultimately fail.

DI’s mark on Indonesia’s history goes beyond efforts to overthrow the government. Throughout its lifespan, DI has radicalized members who would eventually splinter from the organization’s main structure to spearhead successful rebel groups and terrorist organizations of their own.

In 1976, for example, DI’s chosen representative to liaise with the Libyan embassy, Hasan Tiro, split with the organization to establish the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). In 1993, DI’s head of foreign affairs who managed the organization’s relations with al-Qaeda, Abdullah Sungkar, split to establish JI.

Current state of DI

While DI’s notoriety has been overshadowed by JI and JAD recently, police have reported that its activities continue. Today, DI has cells across seven regions – Jakarta, Banten, West Java, Bali, Sulawesi, Maluku and West Sumatra – each of which operates a “structured and systematic” four-step recruitment system to vet and indoctrinate sympathizers.

In West Sumatra alone, this system reportedly recruited more than 1,125 DI members – 400 active members and the rest who are members of its sleeper cells. In 2019, one of Kartosuwiryo’s sons stated that DI has more than 2 million members and sympathizers across the nation.

It is also important to note that while individual DI cells may remain active, crucially, it lacks a meaningful central command to coordinate inter-cell activities. This has been the case since 1998 when members failed to resolve disputes over the organization’s leadership.

While seniors agreed to appoint Tahmid Basuki, one of Kartosuwiryo’s sons, younger members perceived him as weak and refused to recognize his status. This ultimately ushered in the “time of many imams” with various cells, while considering themselves DI, operating and strategizing independently from one another.

While DI cells today operate independently, they are bound by the same dream Kartosuwiryo had – to establish an Islamic state of Indonesia. In this regard, they share the same ideological space as Indonesia’s other salafi-jihadist groups.

Different from JAD, however, DI cells see Muslim communities not as enemies but victims of an apostate anti-Islamic government that they need to defend. And different from JI, DI is more lenient toward Sufi beliefs that combine Islamic teachings with local mysticism. That said, some DI cells do stray from these ideologies – such as DI Bandung that began adopting JAD ideology in 2014.

The future

It is unlikely for DI to mount any serious threat of attack to the Indonesian government in the short term. While recent accounts estimate the national membership to be around 2 million, it is unclear how many are skilled members and how many are sympathizers.

Additionally, based on evidence from DI West Sumatra, it would appear DI does not yet have the logistics to mount serious attacks – notably, during the March arrests, police found only machetes. Most importantly, DI’s current fractured state likely will hinder any form of collective mobilization necessary to a meaningful attack.

That said, DI is still a threat – largely because of its ability to instill the dream of the Indonesian caliphate to individuals through social programs. The DI cell in Bandung, for example, reportedly had developed health clinics, orphanages and welfare programs that built a sense of community and gave credential to DI’s ideology for many of its members.

As one member of DI Bandung stated, “Why join a group [like JI and JAD] that’s still dreaming when you can join a group that’s proven itself capable of establishing an Islamic state and giving benefits to its citizens?”

More worryingly, members rarely stay loyal to DI. As noted above, throughout its lifespan, DI has constantly become a stepping stone for members to join more violent groups.

More recently, DI cells have become stepping stones for members to join pro-IS groups – DI Bandung members eventually joined JAD, DI Makassar eventually became JAD Makassar, and a DI splinter in North Sumatra eventually created the pro-IS Muslim Nasution group in Belawan.

Thus, while DI itself may not pose any threat of violence, its ability to attract members that can and do become the base of more violent groups indicate that it should not be taken lightly.

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.


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