Dismantling Jemaah Islamiyah's Southeast Asian Terror Franchise

May 14, 2003

Dismantling Jemaah Islamiyah's Southeast Asian Terror Franchise

"I testify that there is no other absolute ruler, protector or judge except Allah," so Abu Bakar Bashir, the emir of Jemaah Islamiah, declared at the opening of his trial in central Jakarta on April 23rd.

"I testify that there is no other absolute ruler, protector or judge except Allah," so Abu Bakar Bashir, the emir of Jemaah Islamiah, declared at the opening of his trial in central Jakarta on April 23rd.  Bashir is formally charged with treason, waging jihad to topple Indonesia's secular government, assassinate President Megawati Sukarnoputri and establish an Islamic state.  Bashir, of course, dismisses the charges as a CIA plot. Later the same week, the Jakarta courts played host to another militant cleric, Habib Rizieq Shihab of the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) recently returned from Iraq, where he fought the good, but not very effective, jihadist fight. He stands accused of inciting violence and defaming the Indonesian state.  Meanwhile, to the east of Java, on the island of Bali, the trial of Amrozi , one of the emir's  numerous foot soldiers, who,  allegedly  acquired the explosives for  the Bali nightclub bombings in October 2002,  has just opened to a massive demonstration of police force.

On the same day that Bashir's trial began, the police also announced the arrest of a further 17 members of Jemaah Islamiah-including Nazar Abbas, the alleged leader of JI's third operational region or mantiqi that includes West Malaysia, the Southern Philippines and Kalimantan, together with Abu Rusdan, Bashir's recently anointed successor.   

Since October 2002, the Indonesian police have arrested 33 members of a group, whose existence, prior to the Bali bombing, the government had officially doubted.  The arrests and trials would seem to suggest both a new Indonesian and Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) military and governmental commitment to  "unravel" both the Jemaah Islamiah network and other Islamist groups who intend to replace the various Southeast Asian states with a unified Islamic realm. Is this the case?

International pressure in the aftermath of the Bali bombing belatedly focused Indonesian attention upon a regional terror network whose four operational regions currently stretch from the Thai-Malay border through the Southern Philippines and archipelagic Indonesia to sleeper cells in Australia to the south.  Thus, it would appear that when the usually uncoordinated practice of regional internal security structures are overcome, and fragmented ASEAN minds are concentrated, they can expose and disrupt Al-Qaeda's Southeast Asian franchise that had hitherto developed a largely untroubled and dangerous regional franchise.   

In the Philippines, the police and military had long been aware of a supranational presence financing and facilitating groups in Southern Mindanao, and training recruits for the global jihad at Camp Abubakar, before it fell to government forces in 2000. After all, Ramzi Yousef, the first World Trade Center bomber, first plied his dubious trade here before his arrest in 1995.  His purported uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Al-Qaeda's number 3, had been actively engineering sabbaticals for Southeast Asian mujahideen in Afghanistan and Pakistan after 1998, as well as organizing the funding for regional attacks like the Bali bombing. Singapore, too, reacted swiftly to the fortuitous discovery in Kabul in December 2001 of a plot to blow up a variety of Western embassies and High Commissions in Singapore, together with military and civilian installations, in order, it now appears to foment war with Malaysia.  Meanwhile, in Malaysia, which had hosted both Zacarias Moussaoui and a number of late participants in the events of 9/11, government security forces have interned 62 members of the Kumpulan Miltan Malaysia (KMM), the Malaysian branch of Al-Qaeda and recently uncovered 3 tons of ammonium nitrate originally designated for the Singapore operation. With Indonesia, now coming to the party, even cooperating with Singaporean authorities to pick up Mas Selamat, AKA Kastari, the alleged head of the Singapore franchise of JI, and participating in an exemplary joint operation with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to  bust the Bali bombers, mounting regional  Islamist terror attacks has been made more difficult, but not impossible, as recent bomb attacks in  Indonesia and the Philippines demonstrate.

In other words, worries about the determination to render the Southeast Asian branch of the cybercaliphate redundant remain. Worryingly, Nurjaman Riduan Isamuddin, AKA Hambali, a member of Al-Qaeda's military council, a close colleague of Bashir  (they shared a decade long Malaysian exile in Selangor during Suharto's New Order) and the operational brains behind the failed Singapore plot and subsequent soft targeting of Bali, remains at large. Moreover, according to the FBI, clandestine funds for terror purposes still seem to be making their way from the Middle East into Southeast Asia. Equally disturbing, from an ideological perspective, Indonesian authorities, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, continue to deny any clear link between regional Islamism and Al-Qaeda. Interestingly, the 35 page indictment of the night club bomber, Amrozi, fails even to mention his membership of Jemaah Islamiah, while the indictment of Bashir makes no allusion to his links with Al-Qaeda.   

Indonesia (and the ASEAN region more generally) remains in denial about the global interconnectedness of radical Islam. Meanwhile, the continuing failure of governments in Southeast Asia to win hearts and minds has allowed Islamic radicals to attract ill-informed popular support. As one commentator in Java noted, Javanese youths like to wear T-shirts sporting Amrozi's features.  

Thus, although there has been some success in disrupting the Islamist assault on regional targets and links with sympathetic groups in South Asia, the Middle East and beyond, what we know of this globalized phenomenon is that it is patient, uncompromising and plans for the long term. Paradoxically, one suspects that the regional threat will be at its most acute when ASEAN and its scholar bureaucracy begin claiming their triumph over it. As, the AFP's counter-terrorism chief, Ben McDevitt observed: "There's still a long way to go yet" before Al-Qaeda's Southeast Asian connection is dismantled.


David Martin Jones is a senior lecturer in the School of Government at the University of Tasmania.  The piece, written for In the National Interest, complements his article, "Out of Bali: Cybercaliphate Rising," published in the Spring 2003 issue of The National Interest (http://www.nationalinterest.org)