Weak, therefore violent: the mujahidin of Western Indonesia

Violence Indonesia

This report argues that the weakness of Indonesian extremists today may be propelling them toward violence as the lack of training, experience or religious credentials leaves attacks as the only way to gain legitimacy.


In December 2012, about a dozen men met in Bandung, West Java and proclaimed themselves Mujahidin of Western Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Barat, MIB). Five months, ten robberies and one murder later, they were a spent force – not that they had been much of a force to begin with. The short life of MIB illustrates the continuing decline of Indonesia’s extremists. It also shows, however, how leaders of weak groups with no hope of domestic, let alone international clout, have a need to plan acts of violence to keep their followers together and establish their own legitimacy. This motivation explains the proliferation of would-be jihadi groups and terrorist plots in Indonesia at a time when capacity may be at an all-time low. The apparently inexhaustible supply of new recruits also underscores the importance – and highlights the absence – of an effective counter-radicalisation program.

The failure of most plots to materialise and the criminal aspects of those that do – bank robberies, assaults on police – underscore how much “terrorism” in Indonesia looks more and more like ordinary crime, even if motivated by jihadist ideology. Any large-scale attack along the lines of those on Kenya’s Westgate Mall, Algeria’s In Amenas oilfields or India’s Taj Mahal Hotel is almost unthinkable in Indonesia today. Not only are there no unstable or unfriendly neighboring states from which such an operation could be launched, but no one is even thinking on that scale. The focus remains very much on domestic targets and on operations that do not require resources much beyond one’s own cell. To some degree this may be a question of ideological orientation, but it is also a lack of training and a (fortunate) failure of imagination.

MIB leaders did think vaguely about creating an Islamic state, but their immediate operational ambitions were not very high. They wanted to raise funds through robberies, buy guns and get military training. They saw Poso in central Sulawesi as the nucleus of the Indonesian jihadi movement, and their own role as trying to protect it by creating diversionary movements on Java. As the police dragnet closed in, revenge attacks on police became a higher priority.

As with many other jihadi groups operating in Indonesia today, MIB had no real in-house religious expertise. It also had neither the capacity nor the time for lengthy indoctrination of members, so it effectively outsourced ideological instruction to extremist preachers outside its own ranks. This meant constant interaction with other groups – which was good for recruitment, but probably bad for security.

In a way, all this is good news for Indonesia and the region more broadly because it suggests that the violent extremists operating today are not the threat they once were. But it is not just the ease of recruitment that is a source of concern. It is the resilience of networks that keep coming back in new forms and may endure long enough to provide the seeds of a more dangerous movement if or when domestic or international circumstances change - for example, when a few Indonesian jihadis start coming back from Syria. Marriage and kinship ties are still important in cementing those networks, but so are prisons, business partnerships, disaster relief efforts, and schools.

Sleeper cells are a problem: one man in a Makassar-based cell, who had fought in Poso at the height of the communal conflict there in 2000-2001, had been inactive for seven years when he was effectively summoned back to active jihad duty by the man who had been his commander.

Police tactics need to be examined as well. The tactics that were appropriate in the face of al-Qaeda-style bombings ten years ago probably need to change to take the new “terrorist-as-petty-criminal” phenomenon into account. Anger at the police over arrests and killings of family members has created a new generation of younger brothers and sons – and probably sisters and daughters, though harder to tell – who want revenge. When that motivation is combined with ongoing extremist preaching and radical recruitment, it becomes another problem waiting in the wings.

That said, the low-tech, low-competence, low-casualty nature of terrorism in Indonesia today means that more than ever that it should remain a matter for law enforcement, not military action. A rash of drive-by shootings of police in July and August led to calls for the military to take a larger role, but there are no strong grounds for altering current arrangements. It is the police that have the institutional knowledge, the experience and the intelligence to be able to deal with the problem effectively. The focus now should be on reducing the number of deaths in police operations.

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