Thursday, July 16, 2009
Jemaah Islamiah could be making a comeback
JI Jihadis Still Plot Terrorism
THE recent arrest in Malaysia of Mas Selamat Kastari, a fugitive member of the Jemaah Islamiah group, is an important achievement in the effort to stamp out Southeast Asian terrorism. Kastari had been on the run from authorities since he escaped a Singaporean detention centre in February 2008.
JI is not the organisation that it once was. Many of its leaders are in jail or under supervision. Despite several attempts, hardliners within the group such as Noordin Top have failed to replicate the mass casualty attacks of the years between 2002 and 2005. Today most analysts believe the threat from JI is receding and that another campaign of expensive, large-scale bombings is unlikely. But two recent developments may change that assessment. The leadership of JI is in turmoil, split between several factions and unclear of its future plans. And the recent release from prison of former JI members, including some who reject police efforts to rehabilitate them, might now re-energise the movement towards violent attacks.
Although that possibility remains low, and further work is needed to understand the thinking and motivations of JI members as they transition out of the prison system, some of these individuals are gravitating towards hardline groups that continue to advocate al-Qa'ida-style attacks against Western targets, including Australia. In Indonesia and Malaysia, more than 100 JI members have been released from jail because they have finished their prison sentences or have undertaken some form of rehabilitation. Some of them had significant roles in the organisation, such as Abu Tholut, a former regional commander and a military trainer in the Hudaibiyah camp in Mindanao, Southern Philippines.
Others such as Sunarto bin Kartodiharjo (alias Adung), the former amir or leader of JI, have rejected police efforts to reform him. The hardliners in JI are fully supported by a group of younger, dedicated individuals who share a deep commitment to the cause, advocating al-Qa'ida-style attacks that directly target Westerners and Western interests if the time is ripe for them. Members of this faction are a fringe minority even within a
radical movement such as JI. But carrying out an isolated attack can be done by a handful of individuals. Three suicide bombers from this faction were able to cause carnage in the second Bali bombings in 2005.
Identifying and countering these fringe groups poses significant challenges for intelligence and law enforcement agencies. JI and its affiliate groups continue to engage pragmatically with what would otherwise be referred to as homegrown terrorists from different socio-economic backgrounds and professions, and with vastly different technical and operational capabilities. Rather than conforming to a specific terrorist profile, complex radicalisation processes shape these individuals into terrorist operatives.
The complexity and increasingly decentralised structure of the JI movement is also evident in the wide-ranging efforts to find moral justifications for violent acts. Rather than simply
seeking permission for the act through a fatwa, or religious opinion issued by a senior cleric in Indonesia, the activist, pro-al-Qa'ida faction of JI have turned to the internet to find
religious justifications for their actions. Some admit to shopping online for religious edicts that would support violent jihad. For recruitment purposes, these fringe groups still
employ traditional methods such as schools, kinship networks, friendships and small Islamic discussion groups. These latter groups, consisting of six to 10 people, meet regularly for social and religious activities, which inhibits authorities from preventing possible violent outcomes. And the fringe groups continue to embrace new technologies such as DVDs, coded SMS messages, secure email, and password-protected websites and web
Aside from identifying and neutralising violent groups, building on the successes of the present counter-terrorism effort will require that the Indonesian government also finds a way to address the problems of unemployment, poverty and corruption that continue to contribute to the spread of, and support for, the ideology of violence. As a recent counter-radicalisation conference in Singapore noted, working with moderate Muslims from mainstream organisations such as Muhammadiyah or Nadhlatul Ulama to counter radical ideology is considered an important element in the fight against extremism. But ultimately it may not have much impact for two straightforward reasons. First, the majority of the members of the fringe groups do not listen to them, and second, mainstream organisations do not fully understand the nature and dynamics of these emerging fringe groups.
Perhaps the best way to counter radical ideology is by empowering militant leaders whom the fringe group continues to trust, such as Afghan or Philippines veterans, and who are now lying low. This is a challenging strategy because identifying the individuals ready to take such a step will be difficult and because the political backlash from enlisting former radicals into the government's counter-terrorism effort could be strong. Nonetheless, it may represent the most effective means of reaching out to those individuals who may very well be planning the next terrorist attack.
by Noor Huda Ismail and Carl Ungerer