Sunday, July 19, 2009

Seen by Some as a Legend, Noordin Is a Potent Threat

Friday's bombing of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels has arguably been the most effective terrorist attack in Indonesia since the first Bali bombing of 2002. This operation shattered the euphoria after Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's re-election as President this month. It had a higher ratio of foreigner-to-Indonesian deaths than any bombing since Bali 1. It showed off new tactics, as the attack seems to have been organised from within a Marriott guestroom. It targeted business people at work rather than at play, which could wreak great harm on the Indonesian economy. Finally, it scored an immediate pay-off in the cancellation of Manchester United's visit.

The bombings so rattled Yudhoyono that he implausibly linked the attack to post-electoral disappointment. This infuriated his rivals, who were already nursing the wounds of defeat and are now looking for ways to sanction Yudhoyono through the legislature.

Unintentionally, the President has highlighted an important aspect of jihadism in Indonesia: it has not directly targeted the state. Foreigners and Indonesian Christians have been the main, if not exclusive, jihadi targets. Like other informed observers, the former Jemaah Islamiah operative Nasir Abas sees in the latest attack the hand of his fellow Malaysian Noordin Top, who has been in hiding on Java for most of the past decade. During that time, Noordin organised the Marriott, Australian embassy, and 2005 Bali bombings.

One of his associates once noted that Noordin preferred to go to ground defiantly inside the "lion's den" (the Indonesian equivalent is in fact "tiger's stable"). This refers to Java, particularly Central Java, where JI originally developed from the Ngruki school near Solo and where surveillance might be thought to be tougher. Others, by contrast, have fled to Sulawesi or the Philippines.

Noordin is best seen as successor to the key JI leader Hambali as a risk-taking, action-oriented leader, ignoring hierarchy and recruiting followers wherever he can. Only after Noordin's eventual capture will we know whether he has passed on his organisational, recruiting and bomb-making skills to others. But Noordin is likely to die rather than be captured, and would thereby deprive the world of invaluable intelligence.

Noordin adopts aliases and changes his appearance by shaving or growing a differently shaped beard. He spends a lot of time indoors reading the Koran. He also trains and motivates new recruits. Maybe by now he provides his own religious justification for suicide bombing, though he is not a trained Islamic scholar. To the tiny number of Indonesians attracted to violent jihad, Noordin no doubt has incomparable charisma.

The Indonesian police have run an ambitious "deradicalisation" program, winning over several former members of JI. But the ideology of Noordin and his followers is probably immune. A key belief among radical Indonesian jihadis, presented in a 2005 text entitled "Sowing Jihad, Reaping Terror", is that certain Koranic verses invalidate other verses that were revealed earlier during the prophet's life.

Let us view this perspective starkly. Muhammad started from a low base of support in Mecca. This forced him to compromise in dealing with adversaries and others deaf to Islam's call. As he grew stronger, he was able to adopt a tougher stance. A verse
characteristic of the early period might be "There is no compulsion in religion". But this is invalidated by a later one, such as "Oh prophet, wage war on infidels and hypocrites".

Building on this method and quoting Western writers confirming America's purported war against Islam, the authors of "Sowing Jihad" went on to justify the Bali, Marriott and Australian embassy bombings. Their text has standard academic paraphernalia, including 396 footnotes and a bibliography of more than 200 books and articles. Not easy to rebut.

Once a recruit, with limited or no knowledge of Arabic or the vast world of Koranic scholarship, succumbs to the influence of a legendary figure like Noordin who might well make the case for suicide bombing in this way, deradicalisation will often simply not work.

While Noordin stays free, terrorism will remain a potent threat in Indonesia.
by Ken Ward The Sydney Morning Herald
Ken Ward is a former senior Indonesia analyst with the Office of
National Assessments.

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