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Indonesia’s Protracted War on Terrorism: The Importance of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir’s Arrest

Rahul Mishra was Research Assistant at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
Irfa Puspitasari is Research Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 09, 2010

    Indonesia, which has been taking significant measures to curb terrorism, scored another success with the arrest of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir aka ABB, suspected of having funded and ideologically motivated Al Qaeda Aceh, in early August 2010. The arrest is just one of the steps in a long, consistent and protracted fight to maintain Indonesia’s secular, democratic and republican credentials.

    Indonesia’s fight against terrorism got a new lease of life with the arrest of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir aka ABB in early August 2010. ABB is suspected to have funded and ideologically motivated Al Qaeda Aceh. It is also believed that ABB had appointed Mustopa Abu Tolid for coordinating training programmes for new recruits and Dulmatin for on-the-ground operations in mountain Jalin, Jantho Aceh Besar.

    Popularly known as a prominent Islamic scholar of Indonesia, and the founder of Pesantren Ngruki, Sukoharjo, Solo, West Java, ABB’s list of followers includes Dr. Azhari, the mastermind of the Bali Bombings of 2002. Front Pembela Islam (and Azumardi Azra from academic community) also criticized the arrest. While Chairman Muhammadiyah Din Syamsudin said that the police should have enough evidence to arrest ABB and also have respect for human rights, Chairman of PBNU (Pengurus Besar Nahdlatul Ulama) KH Hasyim Muzadi claimed that US pressure was the force behind ABB’s arrest, even though NU supports overall government policy against terrorism. These statements show that mainstream Muslim organizations are against terrorism but have been demanding that the police should not act arbitrarily in the name of fighting terrorism.

    The ‘Big Link’ Ba'asyir

    During his visit to Australia, Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono confirmed the killing of Dulmatin of Jemaah Islamiah; one of the prime accused in the Bali Bombings of 2002. The death of Dulmatin shook the Jemaah Islamiah leadership and came as one of the biggest jolts after September 2009 when Noordin Top, one of the most wanted terrorists was killed in Jakarta. Dulmatin was a disciple of Azahari bin Husin, the master bomb maker of Jemaah Islamiah, who was instrumental in a number of bomb blasts in the region. Azahri Bin Husin was killed in October 2007. Thereafter, it was thought that Dulmatin would take up the mantle. Carrying a cash reward of US $ 10 million on his head, Dulmatin became the link between different terror organizations of Southeast Asia.

    The killings of Noordin Top and Dulmatin proved the efficacy of the Indonesian Counter Terrorism squad- the 'Datasement Khusus 88' on one hand, and exposed the inter-linkages between various terror groups running in Indonesia on the other. For instance, investigations by the 'Datasement Khusus 88'1 proved that Noordin Top was the agent provocateur as well as fund raiser for organizations like Jemaah Islamiah and also his rather nascent organization-Al Qaeda of Malaya Archipelago. It was also understood during the investigations that his organization was much more result oriented and provided a faster way for rising in the ranks while Jemaah Islamiah had been working both on the radical as well as the religious front with the likes of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir. ABB was known to have formed the Islamic Peasantrans (religious boarding school) to train young Muslim youth in religion as well as the core of radical Islamic teachings. One such peasantran which came into prominence was the Pondok Ngruki in Solo in Central Java.

    Perfect Timing?

    With the incumbent President of Indonesia Susilo Bambang Yudoyono (SBY)’s administration committed to maintain the struggle against terror, Indonesia has been taking significant steps to curb the menace of terrorism. For one, the Anti-terrorism bill: UU Pemberantasan Tindak Pidana Terorisme 2002, which came up during former President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s term, was a bold step to take the challenge head-on. A special police task force for the anti-terrorism campaign called 'Datasement Khusus 88' has been working on information assessment and investigations related to suspects, and they have had remarkable success in their efforts. One such case is the arrest of Yudi Zulfahri, recruiter and facilitator for Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) in Aceh, and his friends- Gema Awal Ramadhan and Agam Fitriadi. In fact it was these investigations which led to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir’s arrest as they yielded information about his links with terrorist acts. The execution of Imam Samudra, Amrozi Nurhasyim and Ali Ghufron (the three 2002 Bali bombings accused) in November 2008 was another milestone in this campaign. The police and other law enforcement agencies are ably supported by Australia and US in terms in providing basic training as well as logistics.

    With the arrest of the JI military head and Emir, ABB was forced to adopt methods to raise new units and cadres to sustain the momentum of the the radicalization movement. The Tsunami of 2004 and the need for immediate rehabilitation and restoration work created a fertile ground for the Al Qaeda of Aceh to instigate violence and radicalism in this conservative province. The increasing radicalization of Muslims provided a conducive environment to Abu Bakar Ba'asyir for inducting new cadres. To a certain extent he was successful but any major trouble in Aceh would have meant a major disruption in the Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs) as well as international repercussions owing to the strategic location of the autonomous province of Indonesia.

    However, it is not the first time that ABB has been put behind bars. He was arrested earlier also, but was let off after 18 months though he was sentenced for two and a half years. He has been involved indirectly with the bomb accused and that’s the reason why the Indonesian police have been keeping an eye on his movements. He had also visited Australia a number of times and had tried to incite radical passions among the minority community practicing Islam there. Like this time, his two previous arrests also had led to protests and large attention from public. One may argue that his arrest has to do with the upcoming visit of the US President Barak Obama in November this year. However, one cannot prove conclusively that the arrests were made under US pressure.

    ‘Advantage’ Indonesia

    The phenomenon of terror is old for Indonesia, though the term is new; it gained popularity in the aftermath of 9/11 especially after George W. Bush’s claim that ‘Southeast Asia is the second front in the war against terrorism’. The term ‘Terrorisme’ has replaced ‘Ekstrimism’ which essentially meant the use of violence to coerce the government to meet the demands of extremists. Interestingly, even before 9/11, there were attempts to bomb Bali and Borobudur Temple but they failed due to the tight and well-networked security forces under Suharto regime. After 9/11, there have been several attacks including those on Bali, JW Marriott hotel and Bursa Efek Jakarta etc.

    One of the main objectives of extremist groups in Indonesia is to establish an Islamic Republic in place of the existing secular government. There have been repeated attempts in the past to establish an Islamic republic in Indonesia using violent means. Indonesia is making efforts on both the domestic and international fronts to meet the challenge of extremists and radicals, who are gradually aligning with the terrorists. It is seeking cooperation with external players including ASEAN, Australia and the US. The government is also working on what is called as Information Assessment by Identification. For example, there is a new proposed regulation on sea labour identification so that identities could be verified and fakes weeded out. The new regulation is to curb terrorism activity by the sea. Use of media resources and strengthening of security forces is also being done.

    Heightened sensitivities on terrorism and radicalisation of society have put the Indonesian government on alert. The arrest of Abu Bakar Ba'asyir is probably just one of the steps of the ‘biggest Southeast Asian archipelagian country’ in a long, consistent and protracted fight to maintain its secular, democratic and republican credentials.

    • 1. For details, please see Conboy, Ken. (2006) The Second Front: Inside Asia's Most dangerous Terrorist Network, Equinox Publishing