Following Indonesia’s vigorous counter-terrorism operations of the last decade, terrorists are once again concentrating on fighting the state and its symbols with a local, rather than global, agenda.

The archipelago of Indonesia conjures up images of palm fronds and white sand beaches, but for much of the 21st century, it has also been associated with bomb blasts and terrorists. Since 2000, the country has been victim to a series of bombings at embassies, hotels and nightclubs. The deadliest of these attacks was in October 2002 when blasts in and around nightclubs in Bali’s touristy Kuta district, killed 202 people.

Muscular response

The Indonesian state’s response to the terrorist threat has been muscular. Densus 88, the elite police counter-terrorism unit, has been at the forefront of neutralising the Jema’ah Islamiah (JI), the group behind most of the mass civilian bombings of the last decade. Using sophisticated surveillance equipment and by investing in the training of anti-terror forces in the best international intelligence-gathering practices, terrorist networks in Indonesia have been effectively disrupted and their organisational capacity crippled. Since 2002, more than 800 suspected terrorists have been arrested and scores killed. As a result, no major terrorist attack has taken place since the 2009 bombings of the JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta that claimed seven victims.

Today, sniffer dogs and security guards may still be a ubiquitous sight at malls and hotels across the country, but threat perceptions are clearly down. Security guards often check handbags only cursorily and there is little sense of fear among the general populace who freely throng markets and other public spaces.

Yet, experts believe that complacency is misplaced. The author of The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, Solahuddin, says that terrorism has not so much been vanquished, as transformed into a more feral, dispersed and amorphous phenomenon.

The ideological underpinnings of Indonesian terrorism stretch back to the 1940s when a broad-based organisation of Islamists, the Darul Islam (DI), was founded with the explicit aim of establishing an Islamic state in Indonesia. Through the 1950s, the DI fought a violent insurgency against the newly founded Indonesian state because of its repudiation of a Muslim theocracy in favour of a republic, founded on the doctrine of Pancasila wherein all recognised religions are granted equal status.

The DI’s fortunes waxed and waned over the next few decades, but it was the progenitor of all subsequent jihadist outfits, including the JI. Sidney Jones, the Crisis Group’s expert on counter-terrorism in Indonesia explains how the JI was formed by the “first generation” of contemporary Indonesian jihadis, men who went to the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for training in militant camps between 1985 and 1994. The rationale at the time was not to fight the Soviets but to get the tools to overthrow General Suharto who ruled Indonesia at the time.

The “second generation” of jihadis, continues Jones, were men locally trained in the Southeast Asian region, more specifically, at a JI camp in Mindanao in the southern Philippines. These militants were taught skills for fighting in two areas of Indonesia, Ambon and Poso, where sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians was rife. It was only now that a global al-Qaeda-like philosophy entered the Indonesian terrorist discourse. “JI leaders began to take the global framework of al-Qaeda and fit it into the local context (of Ambon and Poso),” explains Jones.

Once global, salafi-jihad meshed with the formerly parochial focus of Indonesian jihadi groups, their targets shifted from the “near enemy” to the “far enemy.” The result was the kind of large-scale violence that led to the 2002 Bali bombings where civilians, including western tourists, were deliberately targeted.

However, following the Indonesian state’s vigorous counter-terrorism operations of the last decade, the situation has seen somewhat of a return to ideological beginnings, in that today’s terrorists are once again concentrating on fighting the Indonesian state and its symbols, with a local rather than global agenda.

Using size to advantage

Well-organised, hierarchical and disciplined terror outfits like the JI have been replaced by a number of individual jihadis or small groups of three to five radicals who work autonomously, without participation in any larger group. They often auto-radicalise with the aid of information available on the Internet.

For all its success with dismantling large terror outfits, the Indonesian state has been unable to stamp these out, partly because their very lack of organisation renders traditional surveillance and intelligence gathering techniques obsolete.

The targets of these radicals are invariably the police, as symbols of the (un-Islamic) state. According to Solahuddin, between 2010 and mid-2013, 29 of the 30 people killed in terror attacks in Indonesia were policemen. On the other hand, the police killed 67 suspected terrorists and arrested 302 more, in the same time period.

“Terrorism here has boiled down to a war between the counter terrorism forces and disparate salafis,” says Jones. She admits that the capacity of this new “third generation” of terrorists to inflict damage is limited.

“Learning how to make a bomb on the Internet compared to three years of training at a militant camp in Afghanistan is the difference between kindergarten and Harvard University.”

Yet, there are more plots than ever before. Jones refers to the foiled attempt in May this year, by a few jihadis who collaborated on Facebook, to attack the Myanmar mission in Jakarta amid anger at the persecution of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar.

Even more worrying is the insidious trend in Indonesia of growing intolerance against religious minorities. Herein lies the country’s biggest failure, and the greatest succour for would-be terrorists, according to Solahuddin. “The state takes on terror outfits like the JI with great force, yet it ignores, even encourages, the activities of ‘soft’ religious extremists like the FPI.”

The FPI (Front Pembela Islam) is a religious organisation notorious for intimidation and violence against Shia, Ahmadiya Muslims, Christians and others whom it considers to be apostates or enemies of “real” Islam. Despite having been involved in numerous cases of criminal violence, the FPI is tolerated and even supported by certain sections of the Indonesian polity, who differentiate its agenda of enforcing “proper” Muslim piety from that of the jihadist agenda of overthrowing the Indonesian state.

“There is increasing fluidity between anti-vice organisations that the state tolerates and jihadis,” agrees Jones. She gives the example of the Hisbah group in the city of Solo, which started off as a vigilante outfit, similar to the FPI, but that eventually morphed into a jihadi group responsible for a suicide bombing at a police mosque in Cirebon city. “Groups can easily move from using sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing ‘deviance’ to using bombs and guns.”

Solahuddin concludes that arrests and convictions of known terrorists is not enough. Unless there is a greater stress on the ‘soft” end of counter-terrorism by nipping hate-related preaching at mosques and Islamic schools, and discouraging intolerant attitudes and behaviours, the roots of terror will remain unaddressed. Until then the spectre of the Bali bombings will continue to resist being put to bed.

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