For years the police had crowed about having Jemaah Islamiyah, a Southeast Asian terrorist network affiliated with Al Qaeda, in retreat, rooting out its members in raid after raid and foiling one attack after another.
That narrative was shattered last week, when a raid that uncovered an arms-making operation in Central Java revealed a new reality, according to officials: JI was in the ascendancy.
“The new JI cell is very neat and organized,” a source with Densus 88, the National Police’s counterterrorism unit, told the Jakarta Globe.
“They have proper management, soldiers and an Amir [leader],” the source added, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We estimate them to have at least 3,000 soldiers and we think the Amir is a returning old player.”
The source said that the terror suspects arrested last week in Klaten, Central Java, were linked to Eko Budi Wardoyo, a hard-line Islamic cleric who was involved in a bombing at a market in Poso, Central Sulawesi, in 2005 in which 22 people were killed and more than 40 injured.
Eko was subsequently arrested and tried, and in 2010 was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Many of his associates from the bombing, though, have been on the run for nearly a decade, during which they formed a new cell, according to the police source.
But the new picture being painted, of JI having regrouped and reorganized into a more effective unit, is disputed by others, who also question the timing of the revelation, less than two months before the country goes to the polls in an all-important presidential election.
“Recently this issue has gotten a lot of attention, and I think the enormity of the matter has been exaggerated,” says Mahfudz Siddiq, a senior member of the Prosperous Justice Party, or PKS, which draws its support from a conservative Islamic base.
“Many of JI’s leaders have been arrested. I think they’re in decline,” Mahfudz says.
He cites the number of high-profile JI operatives who have either been captured or killed by security forces since the group peaked with the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings: bombmaker Azahari Husin, killed in 2005; bombmaker and financier Noordin M. Top, gunned down in 2009; and Hambali, the group’s former military leader and once referred to as the “Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia,” who was captured in Thailand in 2003 and is now being held by the US government at its notorious Guantanamo Bay facility.
Abu Bakar Bashir, the firebrand cleric who was JI’s spiritual leader, was in 2011 sentenced to 15 years in prison on a raft of terrorism charges.
Mahfudz, who serves on the House of Representatives’ Commission II, overseeing domestic affairs, says that while he does not believe JI is making a comeback, acknowledges that the group remains a menacing presence in the country.
“In my view, they are not growing stronger. It’s just that their recruitment and radicalization processes are still working,” he says.
He stresses the need to rehabilitate terror operatives currently in prison, to stop them from proselytizing others, and for effective public engagement measures to change the prevailing mind-set among some Indonesians that armed extremism is a righteous path and that there is honor in being martyred for the terrorist cause.
Mahfudz says these preventive measures are necessary for Indonesia to take, in addition to the “corrective” approach, or raids, long adopted by Densus 88.
“I want to stress that legal and corrective approaches alone will never end this cycle,” he says. “Corrective measures have been carried out, but unless we tackle the ongoing problem of recruitment and radicalization, we can never end the cycle.
“Arrests and punitive measures alone do not solve the problem,” Mahfudz adds.
For some observers, the timing of the recent reveal is the real story.
Analysts note that by putting the extremist Islamic fringe under the national glare, the police may be trying to paint the coalition of presidential hopeful Prabowo Subianto in a bad light, given that four of the six parties in his coalition, including the PKS, are Islamic-based parties.
Bambang Widodo Umar, a security analyst and former senior police official, says he was especially alarmed by the possibility that the police would do this.
“The police should not act with political purposes in mind,” he tells the Globe. “When such [terror-related] arrests are made, they should be made purely for the criminal aspect.”
Haris Azhar, the coordinator of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence, or Kontras — which has long called for Prabowo to be brought to justice for a slew of alleged human rights abuses during his time in the military — is also concerned that there might be a political motive for the police’s alarmist declaration that JI is on the rise.
“I won’t go so far as to be too suspicious about it, but I think there’s the possibility” that the situation has been politically engineered, he says.
“But we shouldn’t be too rash to draw such a conclusion,” he adds.By Josua Gantan & Farouk Arnaz