Indonesia: Islam, Terrorism, and Democracy

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on September 1, 2014

Pro-ISIS demonstration in Indonesia, March 16, 2014

Pro-ISIS demonstration in Indonesia, March 16, 2014

Early last month, Indonesia announced:

The government rejects and bans the teachings of [the Islamic State] from growing in Indonesia. It is not in line with State ideology, Pancasila, or the philosophy of kebhinekaan [diversity] under the unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia.”

This was a welcome change of tune. Heretofore,

Though terrorist attacks [in Indonesia] are punishable by death, it is not illegal to raise money for or join a foreign jihadist group. … Emboldened by Indonesia’s more tolerant attitude, ISIS supporters there have become more visible and openly solicit funds.”

In February, at the Islamic State University in Ciputat, on the edge of the capital, Jakarta, a fundraiser was openly held for then-ISIS, reportedly raising £3,500. On March 16, in the central business district of Jakarta (see picture above) a pro-I.S. demonstration was held. On June 15, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), a splinter group of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), broke up a music performance on one of the main streets in Jakarta while wearing I.S. insignia and waving I.S. flags. How did we get here?

Indonesia usually comes up as the counter-example to those who say Islam and democracy cannot co-exist. The two points always made are that Indonesia has more Muslims than the whole Arab world combined, and it is one of the largest democracies in the world. Both true, but this has been a troubled picture for quite some time. The attacks on Muslim reformer Irshad Manji when she last visited the country bore this out, as did the riots to shut down the concert of “Lady Gaga” (I know how they feel but you have to have a better reason than that she is “bringing the faith of Satan to our country“).

The reaction to this in some quarters is to regret the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998 but that too is an error. The recent documentary ‘The Act of Killing’ went through the numerous ways that the country has been deformed by the 1965 coup and the killings in the aftermath. Among other things, there is a great fear from much of the elite and significant sections of the population who support them that real democracy would mean retribution for the criminality of those years, so it is restrained, and certain sections of the population remain shut-out of the political system. Indonesia had a fairly decent system of liberal governance after independence, and even after the chaos of the late 1950s, democracy in a more “guided” form persisted. That was cut off by the coup. Granted, Suharto did actually get control of the Islamists: the insurgency of Darul Islam (DI), demanding a separate, theocratic Muslim State in West Java, which had wracked the country since independence, was repressed during the “New Order” period, and its offshoots would return to Indonesia only after Suharto was gone. But the problems of States able to defend themselves while exporting their jihadists should be well enough known by now—as Egypt and Saudi Arabia have demonstrated with respect to the West.

Jemaah Islamiya (JI) was formally founded in 1993 by Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, then in exile in Malaysia. They had been imprisoned in the late 1960s and driven from the country in the early 1980s; they would return to Indonesia in 1998. The military commander of JI was Riduan Isamudin a.k.a. Hambali. An Indonesian, Hambali had been radicalised by Sungkar while searching for work in Malaysia in the 1980s. At Sungkar’s instruction, Hambali had gone to Afghanistan to conduct jihad against the Soviet occupation in 1986, spending 18 months there. Hambali trained at the camp of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, who led the Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan, one of the major Mujahideen groups. Sayyaf would later train Khaled Sheikh Muhammad (KSM), the mastermind of the 9/11 massacre, who was a close friend of Hambali’s. (Sayyaf’s training KSM was one reason given why he never have his baya, or oath of allegiance, to Osama bin Laden: KSM wanted to be able to maintain relations with mujahideen factions like Sayyaf’s, and Sayyaf had sided with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance in Afghanistan.)

“Al Qaeda’s success in fostering terrorism in Southeast Asia stems largely from its close relationship with Jemaah Islamiah,” the 9/11 Commission Report says. Sungkar died in 1999 but he had already secured an accord with bin Laden. The partnership married “al Qaeda’s financial and technical strengths with JI’s access to materials and local operatives,” the 9/11 Commission explains, and Hambali played “the critical role of coordinator,” distributing al-Qaeda’s funds, for example, to ensure they got to the right operation. In one instance, Mohammed Atef, the Egyptian military chief of al-Qaeda, turned to Hambali when al-Qaeda needed a scientist to take over its biological weapons program. Hambali supplied them a U.S.-educated JI member, Yazid Sufaat.

Hambali attended the infamous January 5-8, 2000 Kuala Lumpur al-Qaeda Summit, which planned inter alia the U.S.S. Cole attack and the 9/11 massacre. (Malaysian intelligence video-recorded the meeting for the CIA but for some reason there was no audio.) Also at the meeting were Nawaf al-Hazmi and his childhood friend Khalid al-Mihdhar, two Saudis who were a core part of the 9/11 conspiracy, both being aboard American Airlines Flight 77 when it smashed into the side of the Pentagon. When bin Laden gave KSM the go-ahead for the operation in March or April 1999, Hamzi and Mihdhar were two of the four men he selected to be part of it, they were two of the first to arrive in America right after this summit (in California, as it happens, where they attended Anwar al-Awlaki’s mosque), and Mihdhar went back to the region between June 2000 and July 2001 to organise for the remainder of the death pilots to get to America. JI’s infrastructure, local knowledge, and surveillance capabilities for plotting targets—the “Planes Operation,” as al-Qaeda called 9/11, was meant to have a Southeast Asian counterpart—was key to this Kuala Lumpur meeting, and JI was behind the attempt, rolled up in December 2001, to blow up the American, British, Australian, and Israeli Embassies in Singapore. Hambali also provided accommodation and assistance, which included information on flight schools and access to ammonium nitrate, for Zacarias Moussaoui, whom Atef and KSM sent to Malaysia in September 2000. Hambali says his baya was to Bashir not bin Laden, but he had a very close relationship with Atef and KSM and used bin Laden’s training camps. Hambali did get snippy when al-Qaeda tried to assign JI holy warriors to al-Qaeda tasks without notifying him, but all bureaucrats guard their turf. After KSM was rounded up in 2003, Hambali was regarded by most as al-Qaeda’s Number Three (until Hambali himself was arrested in 2005). JI’s most spectacular attack so far is the October 2002 bombing of Bali that murdered over 200 (mostly Australian) holidaymakers. There have been other car bombings and IED attacks since then, largely on hotels and Western Embassies. JI has been regarded by some as a local or regional phenomenon, at least until establishing formal Qaeda connections in the late 1990s, but its role in global jihadism goes back to at least the early 1990s, and Hambali and KSM were at the centre of it. They were the key men in the Bojinka plot, which was narrowly foiled in 1995 when Ramzi Yousef, KSM’s nephew and one of those who mixed the chemicals for the 1993 World Trade Centre bombing, was arrested in Pakistan. Yousef might have only been “loosely affiliated” to the then-nascent al-Qaeda, but the connection was there.

Since JI was in exile until 1998, however, most of its trouble-making was done abroad, especially in the Philippines, where there is a Muslim insurgency in the south. Al-Qaeda was instrumental in assisting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which broke away from the more mainstream separatist group, Moro National Liberation Front, when it proposed to accept an autonomy solution from Manila. Though the Moro Islamic Liberation Front continues to deny a Qaeda connection, its field commanders were trained in mujahideen camps during the 1980s, and bin Laden was certainly important in the creation of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in 1991, a more extreme group still that, not unlike the I.S., finances itself with kidnapping and extortion. Al-Qaeda operated in the Philippines through “charities” like the Islamic International Relief Organization (IIRO), which was run by bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Mohammed Jammal Khalifa, to build its network. JI has co-operated with the ASG, among other things through a front-group, the Rajah Sulaiman Movement (RSM), which consists of Christian converts to Islam in the southern Philippines, but which wouldn’t function without the joint labours of JI and ASG.

Crudely put, the ongoing debate over al-Qaeda’s structure divides on the question of centralisation: Are these “affiliates” like al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula really accountable to al-Qaeda “Central” (AQC) in anything but name? The 9/11 Commission’s summary of bin Laden’s actions in East Asia are instructive in this matter:

Bin Laden now [very early 1990s] had a vision of himself as head of an international jihad confederation. … It was composed of his own al Qaeda Shura together with leaders or representatives of terrorist organizations that were still independent. … Al Qaeda also established cooperative but less formal relationships with other extremist groups … The groundwork for a true global terrorist network was being laid. Bin Laden also provided equipment and training assistance to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines and also to a newly forming Philippine group that called itself the Abu Sayyaf Brigade … Al Qaeda helped Jemaah Islamiah (JI), a nascent organisation headed by Indonesian Islamists with cells scattered across Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines.”

Al-Qaeda was never a terrorist organisation on the model of the IRA; it was “The Base,” a founding node in a network from which branches would spread, accountable to the centre but with considerable autonomy. The autonomy meant branches could be lost but the structure would remain, and the centre could direct funding and recruits to accomplish its tasks.

This hierarchical decentralisation can be seen in Syria, where AQC has designated an affiliate (Jabhat an-Nusra), formally expelled the Islamic State, and sent in numerous senior members—including the head of its “Victory Committee” Sanafi an-Nasr, another Committee member Abd al-Rahman al-Juhni, its former head of counterintelligence Abu Wafa al-Saudi, an envoy to the Levant Abu Humam as-Suri (who heads Nusra’s paramilitary forces), the former head of al-Qaeda in Iran Muhsin al-Fadhli, and a founding al-Qaeda member Abu Firas as-Suri—to set up a bureaucracy on Syrian soil that answers to Ayman az-Zawahiri in Pakistan. There was also the late Abu Khalid as-Suri, Zawahiri’s personal representative who tried to mediate between Nusra and then-ISIS before, who was actually a member of Ahrar a-Sham rather than Nusra. Another former Qaeda fighter, Abu al-Hassan, who is now a senior Ahrar leader. Ahrar clearly has a pro-Qaeda faction within its leadership and its ideology is not so very different from al-Qaeda’s, but it is a Syrian-led group unlike Nusra. These uncertainties only underline the point: the personal, organisational, and ideological links are all part of al-Qaeda’s intent; defining a Qaeda member strictly is very difficult, and largely irrelevant since the project can go on without formal allegiance.

The growth of Islamist politics in Indonesia has, for all its distance from the Arab world and Europe, followed a very similar pattern to these areas. The revival of religion as a force for identity and political organisation came about because of the perceived failure of the nationalist alternative and because of Saudi money.

Salafism is an ultraconservative reform movement—one that became particularly prominent as the “What went wrong?” question got more urgent after 1801 when, reeling from the shock of the French conquering Egypt, the Muslim world was taken totally off-guard by the fact that the only force that could push the French out was the British. There can only be two answers to what went wrong: either there has not been enough modernisation or there has been too much. Salafism said that the problem was too much modernisation, too much deviation from Islam, and if only Muslims returned to the sacred ways of al-salaf al-salih (the pious ancestors) their problems would be solved. Extreme as it was, Salafists were largely quietest in political terms and non-violent. They were also not necessarily reactionary: some advocated a synthesis of this literalist faith with modernity.

An especially virulent form of Salfism, known as Wahhabism, had emerged in the mid-eighteenth century in what is now Saudi Arabia when a preacher, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, renounced the claim of the Ottoman Empire to rule the area. Wahhabism drew from the same sources as Salafism such as Ibn Taymiyya, Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, an ultra-literal reading of the Qur’an and Hadith, and the example of the first three generations of Muslims (al-salaf); it just took a sterner line on their imposition on deviant Muslims, which led to the sacking of “idols,” very nearly including the Prophet Muhammad’s tomb, and was freer with the concept of takfir, the declaration that other Muslims are apostates, which carries the death penalty. The Saudi realm is based on an agreement between the Saudi family and the Wahhabi ulema (clergy), and while the former can usually get its way, it cannot simply do as it pleases. To stem the tide of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 60s, the Saudis sponsored charities and missionary work (dawa) to spread Wahhabism and after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 this sponsorship went into hyperdrive and remade Sunni Islam.

In Indonesia, a Salafi dawa movement began expanding in the 1980s. Careful not to offend a dictatorship that encouraged personal piety as a bulwark against Communism, while discouraging religious political expression, this movement sought to very clearly stay out of politics. A network of mosques, hospitals, madrassas (religious schools), preachers, and suppliers of free Qur’ans was set up right across the country, and Saudi funds poured in through the Dewan Dakwah Islamiyah Indonesia (Indonesian Council for Islamic Propagation, DDII), propagating Wahhabism. Suharto’s rule gave way and so did the quietism. There were militant efforts to impose Islamic law on areas of the country, and more broadly a hitherto-unknown conservatism took hold of the country.

Like the Arab world, the Saudi-underwritten spread of a Wahhabist interpretation of the faith is clearly a major factor. But democracy is also a factor. Suharto claimed to be in that quasi-Atatürkist model, as have so many Arab dictators looking for Western allies. We are modernists, the dictators say, we hold the fanatical hordes at bay, and over time we will civilise them; we will make them see the proper limits of the faith in public life. But it didn’t work. With the dictators claiming the space marked “secularism” and “liberalism,” and running miserable regimes of repression, corruption, and economic decay, the population fell back on its Islamic identity. If this was modernism, there must be something to be said for traditionalism. The dictators entrenched and worsened the very forces they claimed to be holding back. So when the lid came off, there was more room for Islamist expression in politics. This strikes some as a problem. Some of us disagree: 1,400 years of tradition cannot just be cut off, and it will be the faithful who guide the Muslim world to democracy—not least because they are the overwhelming majority. In the short-term this will not be pretty but it’s not as if the dictatorships were pretty either.

The impact of the Middle East in Indonesia is increasing, and as elsewhere the rise of the Islamic State has caused strife among the Salafi-jihadists. As mentioned, JI already had a splinter group, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), but in mid-August JAT split when Bashir declared baya to the Islamic State. Bashir had thought he could mobilise the younger members of the jihadi “community,” who do indeed seem to favour the I.S.—even taking into account the I.S. gaming social media platforms like Twitter to make themselves seem more popular. Instead, his sons and about half of JAT’s senior leadership objected, and left to form their own group, Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS), which supports al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, Jabhat an-Nusra. Since one of Bashir’s sons, Abdul “Iim” Rohim Bashir, had worked for al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, this might not be so surprising.

There are currently believed to be 200 Indonesian jihadists in Syria and Iraq, essentially all of them fighting with the Islamic State. This will confront Indonesia with the menace of returnees, the number one problem now facing European intelligence services, which have already slipped-up once. As in Europe, Indonesia and her neighbours are suffering debilitations in their counter-terrorism strategies from the Snowden Operation. Al-Qaeda and its bastard children have benefited very greatly from the Snowden leaks in general: having had just one encryption tool since 2007, another one was released during the secret phase of the Snowden Operation, and then three more since it went public. But the Indonesia theatre specifically has been made significantly more dangerous. A senior member of Australian intelligence explained:

The key to effective intelligence gathering on national security risks like Indonesia is that the target does not know your capabilities. Snowden has effectively informed Indonesia … that Australia knows how to decrypt their comms. They will immediately change them as a result, which will directly impact on Australia’s ability to minimise future threats.”

Since Indonesia faces political pressure from sections of its society who are not hostile to the Salafi-jihadists, especially when their violence is directed elsewhere, as well as the problems of corruption and limited capabilities, Australia’s spying actually protected Indonesia too—as did the U.S. spying in Germany, intended to root out the Russian spies in the German system who eventually exposed the U.S. spies. That has now gone dark. As with Germany, there is a political need to react, even if the political leadership knows better, so Snowden and those co-ordinating this campaign cause the desired damage.

There are no easy answers to the rising radicalism in Indonesia. The very factors that mean the faith is gentler in Indonesia—its imposition by conversion rather than conquest and its distance from the furies of the Middle East—also allow the most reactionary causes to be romanticised. In the 1980s, there were Indonesian students who took to Ruhollah Khomeini. It didn’t matter that Khomeini was a quintessentially Shi’ite figure in a Sunni country; Khomeini downplayed the Shi’ism and played up his Islam and anti-Westernism, and it found an audience. The sectarian war in the Fertile Crescent might rule out that kind of ecumenicism now but it still leaves ample space for Khomeini’s Sunni counterparts. The damage done to Western security by Edward Snowden leaves more space still. Finding ways to turn off the Saudi spigot would surely help blunt the resources of the extremists to spread their ideology, which is done partly by provision of services where the central government is weak, and some kind of reckoning with the past could potentially allow true reconciliation among the various communities and give them a stake in a the political system that incentivises peaceful problem solving.

3 thoughts on “Indonesia: Islam, Terrorism, and Democracy

  1. Pingback: The Islamic State, Libya, and Interventionism | The Syrian Intifada

  2. Pingback: A Myth Revisited: “Saddam Hussein Had No Connection To Al-Qaeda” | The Syrian Intifada

Leave a Reply