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Explaining ceaseless jihadism and jihadi violence in Indonesia

Bilveer Singh, Dept of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Research Fellow, Dept of International Relations, Australian National University and formerly, Visiting Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India
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  • August 24, 2010


    While religious-oriented violence has a long history in Indonesia (Padri War, Revolt by Prince Diponegero, Kartosuwiryo’s violent attempt to create an Islamic State and the violence by Komando Jihad), the recent outbreak and resurgence of jihadi violence is revealing as it mirrors developments elsewhere, especially the Middle East and is also part of the global jihadi ‘struggle’ against the West, what Osama Bin Laden calls the ‘Christian-Jewish Crusaders’. While there are many jihadi-type groups in Indonesia, Jemaah Islamiyyah (JI), Southeast Asia’s first regional terrorist organization, is spearheading this struggle in Indonesia, which also includes collaboration with like-minded organizations within and without Indonesia, especially in the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.1

    JI’s Violence

    What makes JI so dangerous is its propensity to successfully undertake violence, almost to strike at will, including the use of suicide bombers, something which never happened in the past in Indonesia until the 2002 Bali bombings. This shows the influence of Middle East radical Islam, including the quest of syahadat (paradise) through martyrdom (shahid). Some of the key instances of violence perpetrated by JI includes:

    • 1 August 2000: attempted assassination of Philippines’ Ambassador to Indonesia. A bomb was detonated at his residence killing two people and injuring 21 others, including the Ambassador.
    • 13 September 2000: a car bomb exploded at the Jakarta Stock Exchange killing 15 people.
    • 24 December 2000: coordinated bombings of churches all over Indonesia.
    • 23 September 2002: a grenade exploded in a car near the residence of an American embassy official in Jakarta killing one of the attackers.
    • 12 October 2002: the first Bali bombings killed 202 people and injured 300 others.
    • 2003: a suicide bombing took place in Jakarta at the J.W. Marriott Hotel killing 12 and injuring 150 others.
    • 9 September 2004: bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta killed 11 and injured 160.
    • 1 October 2005: the second Bali bombings killed 20 and injured 130 civilians with three suicide bombers killed.
    • 17 July 2009: bombing of Ritz Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels in Jakarta killing 9 civilians and injuring 16 with two suicide bombers killed.

    Indonesia’s Counter-Terrorism

    While much has been written about JI’s violence, this commentary attempts to answer the question as to why the flow of jihadis is unending despite tough measures being undertaken by Jakarta, on its own or in collaboration with its regional and international partners. To Indonesia’s credit, it has succeeded in arresting nearly 500 JI members, including top leaders such as Hambali (arrested in Thailand with American help), Mas Selamat (arrested first in Indonesia and later in Malaysia), Abu Dujana, Zarkasih, Omar al-Faruq (allegedly an al-Qaeda operative working with JI) and Abubakar Bashyir (who was later released and rearrested again in August 2010) as well as killed some of its key leaders such as Azahari, Noordin Top and Dulmatin. It has also executed three of the key leaders involved in the 2002 Bali bombings, namely, Imam Samudra, Amrozi and Mukhlas.

    Still, despite stiff laws and massive investments in counter-terrorism, jihadis continue to be recruited and the flow appears unstoppable. This is evident in the non-stop arrests and killings of jihadis in the last few months of this year, even though the arrest of 10 jihadists in Palembang, Sumatra in July 2008 was a forewarning of the continued presence of these ‘holy warriors’ in Indonesia. For instance, in February, the Indonesian security forces discovered a splinter JI network operating in Aceh, Sumatra, calling itself Al Qaeda Aceh, under the leadership of Dulmatin, involving nearly a 100 militants, of whom more than 60 were captured and 13 killed. In March, Dulmatin and two others were shot dead and another eight captured in Jakarta. In April, security forces captured six men with close ties to JI, including Abu Musa, who was believed to be close to Noordin Top. In May, twelve men were arrested in Jakarta, believed to be part of the militants who escaped from Aceh, and allegedly linked to JI spiritual leader, Abubakar Bashyir. Later in the month, another three JI terrorists were arrested in Solo, Central Java. In June, Abdullah Sunata, one of the most important leaders of the rejuvenated jihadi movement, who linked his militant KOMPAK group with JI, was arrested. At the same time, dangerous first-generation JI terrorists such as Umar Patek, Abu Tholut, Upik Lawangga and Zulkarnean remain at large with many more new leaders emerging but who are outside the security agencies’ radar screen.

    What the arrests make clear is that despite the upswing in counter-terrorism policies by the Indonesian Government since the first Bali bombings in October 2002, the commitment to jihadi causes remains unswerving. While arrests and killing of its leaders may have dismantled the original JI group, like a hydra-headed monster, new jihadi groups, directly and indirectly linked to JI, have sprouted, posing a greater danger to Indonesia and its Pancasila pluralist ideology, as the aim of establishing an Islamic State based on Sharia continues to be aspired. While there are peace-oriented jihadists who want to create an Islamic State through dakwah or preaching, at the same time groups committed to achieving the goal through violence continue to exist. If anything, there is a split not just between the pro-bombing and pro-preaching group, but also between the pro-bombing groups. In the latter, there was the group (Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad) led by Noordin Top which believed in suicide bombing regardless of the cost (including to Muslims), and the one led by Dulmatin, which believed in targeted assassination in order to reduce Muslim casualties. Still, their commitment to violence cannot be underestimated. Also, purely JI groups are now more difficult to find as all types of mutations are taking place, with group identity becoming less important and the mission to establish an Islamic State becoming more urgent, especially in the light of the successes of the security forces. This was clearly evident in the recent capture of militants in Aceh, Jakarta and Solo, where members from various groups seem to be coalescing, (practicing some kind of radical/terrorist inter-operability) among others, those from Abdullah Sunata-led KOMPAK and Abubakar Bashyir-led Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid. Sunata, captured in Central Java, was planning to bomb the Danish embassy in revenge for a Danish newspaper publishing cartoons on Prophet Mohammad in 2005.

    Explaining Jihadi Extremism and Terrorism in Indonesia

    While there are no simple explanations for the continued attraction of jihadism in Indonesia, one can conclude that there is a combination of factors that accounts for jihadi violence and for the attraction of jihadism in Indonesia. Most non-West etiologies about jihadi violence in general, especially in Indonesia, has blamed this on political factors such as the unending Arab-Israeli conflict and the West’s continued hegemony in the world, to social-cultural factors such as a revolt against Western cultures, norms and mores, economic factors such as poverty as well as social issues such as injustice and alienation. Whatever the actual explanation might be, no one factor is crucial except the critical role of radical Islamic ideology which calls upon an individual to do his duty as a ‘good Muslim’ and where death and destruction are legitimized as a religious duty to help the Ummah (Islamic Community) and attain ultimate salvation (syahadat) for the individual through martyrdom (syahid or mujahid). Qutb re-interpreted Islamic thought and traditions (ijtehad), arguing that the existing decadent order (al-nizam al-jahili) must be replaced by an Islamic one (al-nizam al-Islami) through jihad and only then can Muslims be able to live in peace and prosperity. Using a binary approach, Islamists view the world being divided between ‘Land of Islam’ (Dar al-Islam) and ‘Land of War’ (Dar al-Harb) or ‘Land of Unbelievers’ (Dar al-Kufr), and here the first must eventually triumph. A combination of external and internal factors accounts for the continued ability of radical leaders to recruit followers for the cause of jihad (holy war). Imam Samudra, for instance, justified the 2002 Bali bombings on thirteen grounds:

    • Fight the arrogance of US military power and that of its allies;
    • Revenge against the US and allies for the murder of 200,000 innocent civilians in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks;
    • Revenge against Australian involvement in East Timor as part of an international crusade against Muslim nations;
    • Revenge against international ‘Crusaders’ for their collaboration with Hindu non-believers’ violence against Muslims in Kashmir;
    • Revenge against international support for Christian militants in undertaking ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Ambon, Poso, Halmahera, etc ;
    • As a response to Crusaders’ violence against Muslims in Bosnia;
    • As part of a war against Christians and Jews who have harmed Muslims the world over;
    • As part of an assistance to Muslims, regardless of geography, especially those who have been repressed and to boost their spirits that Muslims are not helpless;
    • As a religious duty in fighting against the terrorism of the US and its allies, especially on behalf of weak and incapable Muslims who cannot carry out the duty of jihad;
    • As a punishment for the US, Israel and its allies for occupying Muslim sacred sites and lands, especially in Mecca and Medina;
    • As a signal to the US and its allies that all the harm perpetrated by them on Muslims anywhere would be responded to likewise;
    • To inflict harm on Americans and their allies so that they will realize how painful it can be when innocent Muslims, especially women and children, are killed; and
    • Show to Allah that Muslims are able to act and react when violence is perpetrated against Muslims, especially on behalf of the weak and incapacitated.

    While revenge is an important motivation, captured terrorists and extremists have also articulated the need to establish an Islamic State through violence since peaceful means have been exhausted and have failed. Additionally, there is also the argument of perjuangan amar ma’ruf nehi mungkar, which states that good Indonesian Muslims should invite and persuade other Indonesian Muslims towards the rightful path and not stray away from the holy scriptures and this can be undertaken by deeds as well as policies implemented by an Islamic State. As argued by Imam Samudra, most jihadists have invoked their involvement in violence as part of a religious duty against the enemies of Muslims in Indonesia and where this struggle is legitimized on grounds of jihad fisabillah or struggle in the name of Allah, especially against local authorities who are viewed as being anti-Islam and agents of the ‘Christian-Jewish Crusaders’. Violence against kafirs (non-believers, especially enemies) and jahiliyyahs (Muslims who have strayed) is justified and those undertaking it are viewed as holy warriors and martyrs (syahid) if they die in undertaking such a religious duty. Radicals such as Tamiyyah, Qutb and Osama have consistently argued that the malaise of Muslim societies in the Middle East and elsewhere is principally due to straying away from ‘the path’ (as-sirat al-mustaqim) and problems would only be remedied if Muslims return to the original path as stated in Koran and Sunnah, except that the path is interpreted along the lines of radical ideology, including the use of violence. This is because in the Islamist weltanschauung (worldview) politics and religion are fused and inseparable (din wa-dawla), and all problems would be solved if the ‘Islamic Way’ is adopted – in short, Islam is the only solution!

    While the quest for jihadism was somewhat contained from 1945 to 1998, due mainly to the tough, often repressive policies of the state, since May 1998, Indonesia’s democratization has provided additional political space for radicals to propagate their ideas openly in an attempt to capture the hearts and minds of the 90 per cent Muslim population. This has not been helped by the failure of governance, especially where widespread poverty, great income gaps, corruption, social injustice and blatant materialism tend to persuade many to reject the Western-based political, economic and social-cultural norms in favour of Islamic ones propagated by Islamic radicals. The repression by the security apparatus against Muslims in the past and continued perception that the government tends to favour non-Muslims have also accounted for the rise of radicalism, with many prepared to support jihadism as a gateway for the creation of an Islamic State that would, in their perception, be just for the Muslim majority.

    In addition to the failure of governance, there is also the important role of transnational Islamic radical forces, which have succeeded in purveying their ideology into Indonesia as well as the massive funding that has been provided to institutions (mosques, madrassahs, foundations, religious organizations, etc) that promote radicalism, especially of the Wahhabi and Ikhwan Muslimin mode. Here, the internet is widely utilized with jihadi-oriented websites successfully radicalizing individuals in both Muslim-majority and -minority countries. Here, the role of Saudi ‘Petro’ dollars is a crucial determinant, channelled through charitable organizations, driven, in part, by Riyadh’s competition with Teheran for influence in the Islamic world. Also, foreign, mainly Gulf states’ funding for a flourishing jihadi-oriented publishing industry has played a vital role in propagating radical ideas to the masses with works of al-Banna, Qutb, Maududi, Osama and Zawahiri easily and cheaply available to anyone interested in reading them. In the end, radical ideology, including the legitimization of violence, is ceaselessly propagated in educational institutions (state-controlled and privately-run madrassahs), mosques, social-cultural institutions, religious and charitable foundations, mass media, mass circulating publications and speeches of radical leaders, signalling that Indonesia is losing the ‘war of ideas’ to the radicals.


    As the largest Muslim nation and one with a long history of jihadism, one should not expect Islamic radicalism and violence to disappear in Indonesia in the near future. If anything, Indonesia has emerged as a cornerstone for struggle, where a victory of the radicals would have a serious domino-effect on the rest of Southeast, South and Central Asia. Also, with the limited success of government’s disengagement, de-radicalization and rehabilitation of extremists and terrorists, the challenge posed by jihadism is a long-term one, something Indonesia’s neighbours, near and far, should brace for. What to do with the resurgence of radical Islamist ideology, especially in the face of government’s failure to contain it, will emerge as a major non-traditional and asymmetrical security challenge in the coming years, something policy makers and the community at large must find ways to cope with as it cannot be simply wished away.

    • 1. For an in-depth study, see Bilveer Singh, The Talibanization of Southeast Asia – losing the war of terror to Islamist extremists (Westport, Conn: Praeger Security International, 2007), pp.1-229.