Abu Bakir Bashir is hardly known outside South-East Asia. But his arrest on Monday in West Java, Indonesia is a significant development with potentially far-reaching implications not just for Indonesia, but for the region. Bashir’s instrumental role in the latest South-East Asian iteration of al Qaeda——known as al Qaeda of the Veranda of Mecca or simply as al Qaeda in Aceh——sheds further light on the continued resonance of al Qaeda’s message and the enduring strength of its brand. But it also highlights the dramatic success that Indonesia has achieved in recent years in combating terrorism and countering radicalization in that country.
Bashir, age 71, is the co-founder and spiritual leader of Jemaah Islamiyah. Jemaah Islamiyah is a longstanding regional ally of al Qaeda’s and the group responsible for the 2002 terrorist bombings in Bali that killed over two hundred persons. Bashir was implicated in that attack and was detained in an Indonesian jail until his dramatic acquittal in a 2006 trial.
This time around, Indonesian authorities are confident that they can make the charges stick: as evidenced by the fact that Bashir was indicted less than 48 hours after his arrest——though under Indonesia’s anti-terrorism law, he could have been held for up to a week without charge. He now potentially faces the death penalty.
Bashir is charged with funding the new terrorist group that eagerly adopted the al Qaeda moniker. He also stands accused of playing an instrumental role in the group’s establishment of a terrorist training facility in that Indonesian region——the place where Islam is believed to have first come to South-East Asia centuries ago.
The group allegedly chose Basir as their leader. Until police raided the camp last February, killing three terrorists and arresting twenty-one others, al Qaeda in Aceh had been planning a new campaign of terrorism, including car bomb attacks on at least two embassies, international hotels and the police headquarters in Jakarta. Just a year ago, the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in that city had been targeted in a coordinated attack. Indeed, Bashir’s arrest earlier this week had followed by two days the disruption of the most recent terrorist plot to assassinate Indonesia’s popular president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Al Qaeda in Aceh thus represents the most recent manifestation of the protracted efforts by radical Muslims in Indonesia to establish an Islamic state in that country. According to the Jakarta-based expert, Sidney Jones, of the International Crisis Group, the new group was a hybrid some seven other militant factions who had banded together to resurrect their dream of imposing shar’ia——strict Islamic law——over the entire country. Bashir and the above-ground charitable entity he established in 2001, called Jemaah Anshoru Tauhid (JAT), stand accused of being al Qaeda in Aceh’s principal financial backers.
Although the group proudly embraced the al Qaeda name, according to Jones, this was more for branding purposes and out of respect, emulation and affinity with al Qaeda than because of any actual, existent links or relations. Indeed, there is no evidence that the mother organization——whose core senior leadership is believed to be based in the lawless frontier along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border——exerted any of kind of command and control over the group.
The factions that united in Aceh to create the new al Qaeda variant actually shared a profound disillusionment with Jemaah Islamiyah over what they regarded as its newfound passivity and inaction in the years since the 2002 Bali bombings and the string of incidents that followed both there and in Jakarta. Composed mostly of paroled prisoners, al Qaeda in Aceh’s leaders were sufficiently politically savvy to understand that the killing of fellow Indonesian Muslims in previous terrorist attacks had turned public opinion away from the militants. Accordingly, they trained extensively with small arms in hopes of conducting targeted assassinations of government officials and thus avoiding the mass casualties often incurred by indiscriminate suicide bombings. At the same time, they did not completely abandon this tactic: reportedly plotting select bomb attacks on well-protected targets like Jakarta’s embassies and international hotels.
Al Qaeda in Aceh also resolved to focus more on the “near enemy”——Indonesia and surrounding countries——than the “far enemy” strategy of the U.S., Britain, and Australia, among others, that still guides the parent al Qaeda’s international terrorism efforts. In this respect, al Qaeda in Aceh sought to have a more direct appeal to ordinary Indonesians whom they hoped to enlist in their struggle.
The arrest of Bashir and raid on the training camp is but the latest success in Indonesia’s ongoing counterterrorism efforts. Last year, the country’s elite Unit 88 counterterrorism force killed Noordin Top, a longstanding Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist leader and the mastermind of the 2009 Jakarta hotel bombings. Then, last March they killed the notorious terrorist named Dulmatin, one of the architects of the Bali bombings. During the past six months alone, Indonesian authorities have arrested a total of 65 terrorists——leaving at most a de-graded and diminished network of perhaps no more than fifteen or so hardcore operatives who are still at large.
Indonesia’s own de-radicalization and terrorist rehabilitation programs——though highly imperfect given the number of paroled prisoners recruited into al Qaeda in Aceh’s ranks——nonetheless have been credited with stemming the flow of large numbers of recruits into the terrorists’ ranks. The terrorists failure to replenish their forces in a significant manner or to attract anywhere near the popular following they could claim in the aftermath of the September 11th 2001 attacks is thus a significant advance for a country that seemed poised to be swept into the maelstrom of widespread terrorist violence only a few years ago. Indonesia’s concerted efforts——and those of neighboring states like Singapore——to prevent radicalization, interdict recruitment, counter the theological messages of radical clerics, and wean both convicted terrorists and others susceptible to the terrorists’ entreaties provide further evidence of the important of understanding the factors that make one receptive to messages of radicalization and attractive to terrorist manipulation.
Most importantly, al Qaeda has been deprived of a new, potentially highly dangerous and consequential affiliate. Over the past two years, the al Qaeda network has increased by more than 50 percent worldwide to encompass eleven groups scattered across South Asia, the Middle East, and North and East Africa. The setback dealt to the latest regional al Qaeda iteration by Indonesian authorities is both a highly positive development and one perhaps worthy of study for the lessons relevant to other countries confronted with the lethal combination of homegrown terrorists and enabling radical clerics.