Almost ten years after the Bali bombing that brought terrorism in Indonesia to international attention, the country’s violent extremists are weak and divided but still active.
In the face of strong police pressure, they are finding ways to regroup on the run, in prison and through internet forums, military training camps and arranged marriages. In many cases, the same individuals keep reappearing, using old networks to build new alliances. The fact that they have been singularly inept in their operations in recent years does not mean that the danger of attacks is over. There are signs that at least some are learning lessons from past failures and becoming more sophisticated in recruitment and fundraising. Better understanding of how extremists regroup could lead to more effective counter-radicalisation programs.
The biggest blow to terrorist capacity in recent years was the break-up in early 2010 of a training camp in Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, where an alliance of almost all major jihadi groups in the country had planned to establish a base. Many senior leaders were captured or killed and a wealth of information discovered that led to the arrest, trial and imprisonment of some 200 individuals. Instead of cowing the jihadis into submission, however, police operations inspired a new wave of activity motivated by the desire for revenge, with new partnerships and training centres established and new plans set in motion. Activity has been particularly noticeable in Medan, North Sumatra; Poso, Central Sulawesi; Solo, Central Java; Bima, West Nusa Tenggara; and parts of East Kalimantan. Underground activity has been directly or indirectly assisted by radical preachers whose meetings provide inspiration and meeting grounds for jihadis and sympathisers. Some pro-Sharia (Islamic law) advocacy groups that do not use violence themselves but whose teachings are in line with jihadi views play a similar role.
Almost all the plots since 2010, and there have been more than a dozen, are connected directly or indirectly to the fugitives from Aceh. The ease with which wanted men can move around, communicate with friends in prison, share information and skills, disseminate ideology, purchase arms, conduct training and recruit new followers shows how much basic preventive work still needs to be done.
Many of the jihadi groups operating today have links to Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), a group set up by radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in 2008 that has replaced Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) as the country’s largest and most active jihadi organisation. JI, responsible for the 2002 Bali attack, is now the object of scorn from more militant groups, accused of abandoning jihad. It continues to exert an influence through its schools, however, and many disaffected former members remain active through other organisations. Several smaller groups have emerged as well, often composed of inexperienced young amateurs who lack the skills, discipline and strategic vision of the generation that trained on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border between 1985 and 1994 and produced the Bali bombers.
Materials posted on radical websites suggest that the more educated extremists have learned important lessons from the Aceh experience, especially in terms of awareness of the extent to which their ranks have been infiltrated by the “enemy” – the Indonesian state. They conclude that they must be much more careful about vetting members, protecting communications and guarding secrets. If jihadis were to heed these lessons, the task of the police could become much harder.
There has been less introspection within the government about why recruitment continues to take place or why there are so many more terrorist plots – even if most have been poorly conceived. Indonesia’s counter-terrorism successes have all been due to good law enforcement. The police have become skilled at identifying and arresting those responsible for violent crimes and interdicting plots as long as there is evidence, such as illegal possession of guns or explosives, on which to act. But virtually no effective programs are in place to address the environment in which jihadi ideology continues to flourish.
To the Government of Indonesia:
1. Design a study to examine the networks extremists use to find sanctuary when they believe they are being pursued by police or that the place they are living has become insecure. Such a study could help define the support base for violent extremists in a way that could inform counter-extremism programs. Prisoners arrested in connection with the Aceh camp would be one possible respondent pool.
2. Design a program aimed at reducing the influence of extremist clerics that would include:
a) developing a consensus on what constitutes incitement and hate speech, then getting broad agreement from Muslim community leaders that such rhetoric is unacceptable;
b) ensuring that no government building and no institution receiving government funding can host anyone promoting such teachings;
c) identifying four or five target areas or specific institutions where extremist influence is high;
d) undertaking research in those areas to develop a profile of the followers of these clerics, with attention to socio-economic, educational and employment backgrounds of members and questions about what attracts them to the teaching; and
e) developing pilot programs, in consultation with community leaders and scholars, that might effectively challenge the teachings of extremist clerics; these should be regularly monitored, evaluated and adjusted as necessary.
3. Strengthen capacity within the National Anti-Terrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme, BNPT) to analyse ideological debates on radical networks for clues as to changes of targets and tactics.
4. Develop procedures for better information sharing among the BNPT; the Corrections Directorate within the law and human rights ministry; police; and prosecutors about extremist networks and individuals within them, with a view to their obtaining better understanding of not only the backgrounds of individual inmates but also the context in which they operate.
5. Speed up efforts to put in place a system under the Corrections Directorate for identifying and monitoring high-risk detainees, both while in detention as well as after their release, to include:
a) adoption of a professional risk assessment protocol, with evaluations of inmates conducted by trained officials and based on careful research; and
b) a pilot project to work out possible weaknesses and make adjustments accordingly.
6. Upgrade analytical capacity of corrections staff so that data systems now in operation can be used to improve supervision, as well as budgeting and planning.
7. Design and implement a policy of zero tolerance toward any religiously-inspired violence, including maximum sentences for vandalism, assault and threats of violence, with clear instructions to all government employees, including police, to shun interaction with groups or members of groups that have a known history of such activity.
8. Implement more serious post-operation assessments within the police to study what might have been done differently, especially when use of lethal force has resulted in serious injury or death, and increase training in the study of non-lethal options when confronting active shooters.
9. Close loopholes in airport security that allow passengers to present false identification without fear of detection.
10. Make more systematic use of the expertise of young Indonesian scholars when developing policy on countering extremism.