Since 2010, Jemaah Islamiyah, the organisation responsible for the first Bali bombing, has been building a clandestine military wing while broadening its traditional base through above-ground preaching and recruitment on university campuses. It is not an immediate threat. Since 2007, it has rejected the use of violence on Indonesian soil and its leadership is strongly opposed to ISIS. The Indonesian police have also been vigilant. But the revelations of the 18 JI members arrested since 2014 suggest that the organisation should still be considered a danger. It has a solid core, a 25-year-time frame for achieving an Islamic state, and a clear, if still unrealistic sense of what it needs to do to get there. The danger is not so much that the current leadership will return to violence. It is rather that if recruitment continues, a more militant wing may split off as has happened repeatedly in JI’s long history.
The term “neo-JI” is sometimes used to describe the organisation after it recovered from near-destruction in 2007, when an armed clash with police in Poso, Central Sulawesi led to the arrest of more than 40 members, including top leaders. It has since regrouped, restructured and changed its tactics, but it is the same organisation. The new central command includes several familiar faces, and when it decided to rebuild its military unit, it called up long-inactive members for service. One of its most influential figure continues to be Abu Rusdan, JI’s public face for the last decade, even though he appears to hold no official position.
The biggest difference with the old JI is that dakwah (preaching and religious outreach) is given priority over jihad, a reflection of Abu Rusdan’s views. It is not that JI has abandoned jihad, its members say, only that if jihad operations undermine the core goal of building a base through dakwah, then they should be stopped or reassessed.The purpose of the new military wing is not to deploy it in acts of terrorism but to build a capacity for producing and using weapons in preparation for an eventual confrontation with the enemy – or bid for power. That aim may have been temporarily halted by arrests but it is not likely to go away. An unknown number of JI members, perhaps a few dozen, were sent to non-ISIS militias in Syria between 2014 and 2016 to acquire military and combat skills. There is no data on who or where they are, because as JI members generally are not involved in jihadi crimes on their return (there are a few exceptions), the wealth of data available from prosecution of pro-ISIS suspects is unavailable.
At the same time, the “new” JI is more interested than its earlier incarnation in political influence and political infiltration. Not coincidentally, it is also more interested in very local issues that matter to the community.The biggest such issue for extremist groups in late 2016 and early 2017 was whether or not to take part in demonstrations demanding the arrest and prosecution of the Jakarta governor whom hardliners accused of blasphemy. Pro-ISIS groups forbade their followers to take part on the gounds that they should not be seeking to use the institutions of a justice system that relied on man-made rather than God-given law. JI issued a directive entitled “Can Peaceful Demonstrations and the Jihad Movement Work Side by Side? (Demonstrasi Damai dan Gerakan Jihad Mungkinkah Bersanding?) The answer was yes: participation in the demonstrations was equivalent to “jihad by the pen” or waging jihad through speech. JI members were initially forbidden to take part in elections because democracy as a system was a violation of the faith, but in the end, even that ban was relaxed.
The younger JI ulama, who five years ago were arguing that the organisation needed to focus more on the end goal of building an Islamic state and build a partnership with other Muslim organisations to do so, are now in positions of greater influence. The problem is that their strategy may have been overtaken by events. It is hard to see how JI, even with the most strategic recruitment plan, could compete for influence in the general public with mass organisations such as the Islamic Defenders Front (Forum Pembela Islam, FPI) or Forum Umat Islam (FUI) that showed their clout through the numbers they were able to turn out for the 2016 Jakarta demonstrations. If the new young professionals that JI is trying to recruit on campus want political influence, they would be better off with a wholly above-ground organisation. If they want an active jihad, they are likely to chafe at the restrictions against violence that the current leadership is imposing. That makes JI’s military wing particularly problematic, because young men given training, however rudimentary, for jihad are likely to be impatient to test their skills. The longer the “new” JI tries to steer a middle course, the more impossible its task may become.