Friday, May 6, 2011
Implications of Bin Laden's Death for Indonesia
Osama bin Laden is being hailed as a hero and martyr by radical groups around the country, with the Islam Defenders Front (FPI) holding a program of “gratitude for service” later today at its headquarters. Demonstrations against the US by other groups are planned. The question is whether there will be more serious consequences, and three come to mind.
One: a temporary shift back to foreign targets. For the last two years, Indonesian extremists have moved away from attacks on the West, symbolized by iconic brand names of American hotels and fast food chains, to hits and attempted hits on local targets, especially the police.
This was a direct result of anger at Detachment 88 for arresting and killing so many mujahidin after a training camp in Aceh was broken up in February 2010, but it also reflected recognition that international targets had no general recruitment value: Few Indonesians saw the logic of killing foreign civilians to avenge Muslim deaths in Iraq or Gaza.
Bin Laden was such a powerful symbol and so revered in the extremist community, however, that calculations of costs and benefits may be overridden by a felt need to respond somehow to his death. The ubiquitous television images of cheering Americans may strengthen that resolve.
As we wrote in a Crisis Group report last month: “No one should conclude that targeting of foreigners is gone for good. One lesson from this report is that there is a constant process of adaptation, and developments in the Middle East and Pakistan, as well as within Indonesia, could produce new strategic directions.” Bin Laden’s death could be one of those developments.
Two: possibility of revenge attacks. While the possibility of revenge attacks is real, it is not a simple matter to pull them off. Planning an attack takes time, so the danger is less likely to be in the coming days than in the coming months or longer, giving police more time to get wind of a plot. Indonesian extremists also do not have a successful track record in this regard.
Police operations in Poso, Central Sulawesi, in January 2007 killed 14 local fighters and led to demands within the movement for retaliation, but no group had the capacity to respond. The execution of the Bali bombers in November 2008 led to massive demonstrations at their funerals, but no counter-attacks, despite widespread fears.
The fastest retaliation thus far was the Sept. 22, 2010, attack on the Hamparan Perak Police station, North Sumatra, in which three policemen were killed.
It came only three days after police killed three suspects they were hunting for the Medan bank robbery. But the fugitives already had arms, motive, target and opportunity. Putting all that together for a response to Bin Laden’s death may not be so easy.
While that may be somewhat reassuring, it is also true that there are five or six constellations of possible perpetrators, and only one of them needs to be successful.
Three: Strengthened attachment to al-Qaeda. Another possible consequence of Bin Laden’s death is a strengthened attachment of Indonesian extremists to al-Qaeda, both to the idea and to specific parts of the network.
A succession of Southeast Asia extremists have tried to set up local affiliates of al-Qaeda, based more on shared ideology than direct institutional linkage. At the time of the second Bali bombing, Noordin M Top called his group al-Qaeda for the Malay Archipelago.
By 2009 and the Jakarta hotel bombings, he was calling it al-Qaeda for Southeast Asia, even though a Malaysian named Mohamad Fadzullah Abdul Razak (since arrested) was using the same time a year earlier for a completely different group that wanted to send fighters from Malaysia to southern Thailand.
In early 2010, the alliances of extremists that set up the camp in Aceh began calling itself al-Qaeda for the Verandah of Mecca, a common term for Aceh.
By the admission of one participant, the name was in recognition of Bin Laden’s leadership of the global jihad rather than anything more concrete. Finally, only a few days ago, a statement appeared on radical websites here, again in the name of al-Qaeda for Southeast Asia, praising the April 15 suicide bombing at a police station mosque in Cirebon, West Java.
Obviously the idea of al-Qaeda still resonates, to the point that most self-respecting jihadi groups want to identify with it.
But there are also more substantial links. On Jan. 25 this year, Umar Patek was arrested in Abbottabad, the same town where Bin Laden was living. It was probably not a coincidence (indeed, may have been part of the same operation).
Indonesian authorities need to be asking Patek, who remains in detention in Pakistan, exactly what the nature of his communication was with the al-Qaeda organization and who else from Southeast Asia is actively working with al-Qaeda in propaganda, training, or even operations.
In his desire to work with Bin Laden, Patek, a former Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) member who was one of the original Bali bombers, follows in the footsteps of Hambali, the JI leader detained in Guantanamo whose relationship with al-Qaeda until his arrest in 2003 is outlined in a recent WikiLeaks document.
But he is not the only one. Muhammad Jibril, founder of the ar-Rahmah publishing company and arrahmah.com, was in regular communication with al-Qaeda’s media outlet in Waziristan.
And other parts of the radical network in Indonesia are in communication with the radical Yemen-based preacher, al-Awlaki, who is active in al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The death of Bin Laden could lead to a renewed push to bolster these ties or to an intensified propaganda campaign based on al-Qaeda materials, especially from AQAP, translated into Indonesian.
There is thus no reason to believe that the security situation in Indonesian has in any way been significantly improved by the killing of al-Qaeda’s founder.
The good news, if there is any, is that none of the groups that have emerged over the last two years have shown the kind of technical capacity that Noordin M Top used to such devastating effect. No one, however, should be celebrating the end of terrorism in Indonesia.
Sidney Jones is senior adviser to the Asia program of the International Crisis Group.