Bombing Season


Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono does not have an easy job. John Howard has said that Yudhoyono is ‘the best president Indonesia has ever had.’ While this may be true, it’s a statement that’s not particularly hard to justify given Indonesia’s uninspiring line-up of past leaders.

It’s true that Indonesia has wiped its IMF debt, there is peace in the Sumatran province of Aceh, and there hasn’t been a terrorist attack in more than a year. But it is that last piece of praise that is a little wobbly in its foundations.

To be sure, the Indonesian police have made several successful raids over the last few years and three of the Bali bombers are behind bars. But the President is seen by many as not wanting to come down too hard on religious zealots. So, while arrests are made, little is done at the local level about the rise of unconstitutional sharia laws and fundamentalist pesantran (religious schools) despite the fact that the majority of Indonesians are moderate Muslims with little interest in jihad or political Islam.

Under the Indonesian Constitution, no laws may be made that impose religious precepts on individuals. A recent poll by the Indonesian Survey Institute showed that 43 per cent of Muslim voters supported secular political Parties and only 5 per cent said they would vote for religiously based candidates. But, while 80.7 per cent condemned the use of violence to defend Islam, 9 per cent agreed with it, a number the head of the Institute described as ‘significant.’

Andi Mallaranggeng, a Presidential Spokesman, is positive about the Government’s success in the fight against terrorism. ‘I think our record is clear and good,’ he recently told an  October 18 Jakarta Foreign Correspondents Club panel, ‘SBY Assesment After Two Years’, on the President’s first two years in power:

We destroy their cells, put them in jail and sentence them to death. We don’t care if they have followers, we will put them in jail. If they are there to preach hatred openly, we will sentence them under the law and we welcome international help.

For all the Government’s success in cracking down on Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and its ilk, religious unrest simmers still, and Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia Project Director for the International Crisis Group, dismisses any suggestions that the threat has gone away.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Speaking at a seminar on terrorism in Jakarta two weeks ago, Jones played down any suggestions that just because this year’s ‘bombing season’ as the period from late July to Christmas, with a break for the fasting month Ramadan, is colloquially referred to has been quiet, there is nothing to worry about.

In April this year, Indonesian police shot and killed two members of key JI bombmaker Noordin Top’s inner circle and arrested two others. Top suspected of being one of the masterminds behind the Bali bombings escaped. While she agrees that Top’s group is ‘not in good shape,’ Jones says JI is:

seeing a regeneration [it’s] a very resilient organisation [there is]a lot of recruitment going on without a terrorist frame in mind. They still have a military training influence there has been fragmentation they have no head, so cells have gone off alone …’

The death of Malaysian bomb-maker Azharai Husin, believed to be the technician behind the Bali bombs, in an East Java police operation last November cost the Top group dearly, but Jones says they still have experienced people with them. And the second Bali bombs last year showed how they had adjusted to the new security measures in place on the island knowing that they could no longer easily drive up to nightclubs, and that hotels were now out of the question, they carefully conducted training runs with backpacks and motorcycle taxis.

The bomb was built in Java, not Bali, and before it was brought over to the island sitting on the lap of a man on a bus the terrorists tested the security at the port. Would their bags be checked if they left them on the bus? Patently not.

Jones says the group leant heavily on JI for the attack, but also had support from Darul Islam, a militant group that has been operating in Indonesia for 55 years and gave birth to JI. Jones called the second Bali attack a ‘sobering reflection of determination’ and Top’s group had a plan to pull off one spectacular attack each year.

Tracts, pamphlets and books on jihad from the Middle East are being brought into Indonesia, where they are translated into the local language. They cover topics ranging from how to pick suitable cell members the suicide bombers themselves are usually the last people recruited and the least skilled to making bombs.

Above all, they urge patience and planning. ‘You have to think through the most difficult is the getting away, you must do it in a way that doesn’t hurt the organisation,’ says one book. The focus, says Jones, is on Muslims being colonised and oppressed by ‘Christian Zionists it’s equally applicable here and in the Middle East.’ One text draws parallels with Indonesian independence fighters.

The question is, of course, how should the Indonesian Government work to put a stop to these groups? Is that even possible? Jones is again cautious: ‘There’s no silver bullet,’ she says:

While there is a determination (in JI) to get military training, it’s not clear it’s going on. I don’t think any country in the world has worked out how to stop recruitment. There’s nothing criminal going on in the [religious]schools [that produce new JI leaders]. Perhaps they should encourage [Indonesian Islamic organisations] Muhammadiyah or Nahdlatul Ulama to run programs the notion of jihad being equated with fasting and praying needs to be dismissed.

The jihadist struggle in Indonesia is also different to that in other countries. ‘Within JI, the focus has been on starting [an Islamic caliphate]in Indonesia first,’ Jones says. ‘Here there is no ethnic element. In southern Thailand and the Philippines it is an ethnic fight more than a global jihadist movement.’

Yudhoyono’s Government seems to have had little success in discouraging radicalism, which, while unpopular with most of the population, still has its adherents. Major General Ansyaad Mbai, the counter-terrorism chief at the Indonesian Security Ministry, speaking at the same event as Sidney Jones, had this to say:

Only a few Indonesian Muslims are radical. Those recruited are possibly isolated. Look at the charismatic leaders who have participated in the interfaith dialogues they are seen as traitors. What sort of de-radicalisation program would be effective? The only people who would influence them are people they respect the people who recruited them, who tell stories of conflicts.

A divide seems to be appearing in Indonesian culture. As Islam struggles to show the world it is a peaceful religion, within the world’s largest Muslim nation, Muslims are struggling with their identity within the faith. Sharia-based local laws have sprouted around the country, with a particular impact on women, who are finding themselves increasingly restricted in their activities in some parts of the country, by laws that are unconstitutional.

Yet the Government seems to have no will to strike these laws down. The question is: if it’s failing to stop local officials from implementing their views on religion, how can it possibly hope to slow the spread of jihadism?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.