Indonesia and Transnational Terrorism
Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Group
11 October 2001
Indonesian Islamist Organisations
What Kind of Threat do Indonesian Islamist
What is the Presence of Al Qaeda and Other
Transnational Extremist Organisations?
In the wake of the 11 September attacks on the
United States, attention has turned to Indonesia, and the
possibility of Islamic terrorist groups operating from or within
that country. Indonesia has experienced a resurgence of Islamic
activity since the fall of President Soeharto in 1998, but the vast
majority of Indonesian Muslims practice a moderate form of the
religion. Indonesia is the world's largest Islamic country, with
170 to 180 million Muslims out of a total population of around 215
million.(1) Although most Indonesians are concerned with
the response of the United States to the terrorist attacks, the
vast majority do not as yet support militancy. However, some
Islamist organisations have become increasingly vocal in the weeks
since the attacks. In addition, a number of reports have pointed to
connections between these groups and transnational terrorist
networks such as Al Qaeda, the organisation headed by Osama bin
Laden. Rohan Gunaratna from the St Andrew's University Centre for
the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence has stated recently
that the Al Qaeda network has a number of cells active in
Indonesian Islamist Organisations
There is no organised hierarchy of radical Islam
in Indonesia, rather a number of largely unrelated groups. The main
extremist Islamist organisations in Indonesia are Darul Islam, the
Islamic Defender's Front and Laskar Jihad.(3) According
to Al Chaidar, an Islamic activist and leader of one of eight
factions of the Darul Islam network, the organisation is largely
constituted by the approximately 15 000 Indonesians who
returned from Afghanistan after fighting alongside the
mujahadeen against the Soviet Union.(4)
Laskar Jihad is the most prominent and organised
of Indonesia's radical Islamist organisations. In 2000, Laskar
Jihad sent around 5000 armed militia members to the Maluku region
in eastern Indonesia, where they are considered to be the main
reason for continuing conflict there.(5) The government
in Jakarta has been criticised for not preventing the activities of
the organisation, some analysts suggesting the government is
restricted in it's possible response, not wishing to appear
'anti-Islamic'.(6) The prospect of US retaliation for
the terrorist attacks has boosted Laskar Jihad membership, with
300-400 joining since 11 September.(7) Laskar Jihad's
popularity rests on more than its ability to support Muslims in
conflicts, such as that in Maluku, the organisation also providing
a strong sense of Islamic identity. Families of the young men
fighting in Maluku also receive remuneration, funded by such
activities as garment exports.(8) The country's ongoing
economic crisis makes such organisations more appealing.
What Kind of Threat do Indonesian Islamist Organisations
Indonesia's top Islamic authority, the Council
of Indonesian Ulemas followed President Megawati's meeting with
President Bush (on 19 September) by calling for Muslims to unite
and join a jihad (holy war) against the United States in
the event of attacks against Afghanistan.(9) Similar
threats have also been made by Laskar Jihad, Laskar Jundullah and
the Islamic Defender's Front.(10) Some of these claims
have since been moderated. Ulema Council spokesperson, Dien
Syamsuddin, when asked if warnings of a jihad meant armed
struggle, said that the term may mean any number of forms of
struggle (including peaceful), and condemned plans to 'sweep'
(locate and evict) US citizens in Indonesia. However, the impact of
calls for a jihad must have been relatively predictable,
the public likely to perceive the term in the literal sense of
However, daily demonstrations are taking place
in front of the US Embassy, one protest involving 4000 people on 28
September, and another on 8 October involving over a thousand
members of a number of different organisations including the
Islamic Defenders Front.(12) These demonstrations have
been largely peaceful although Indonesian police fired warning
shots to disperse protestors on 8 September,(13) and
shouted threats outside the Embassy caused the US Ambassador,
Robert Gelbard, to pressure the police for a plan to evacuate
diplomatic staff. On 23 September, members of several Islamist
groups calling themselves the Anti-American Terrorist Soldiers
worked through the town of Surakarta in Central Jakarta searching
for Americans to evict, although there are no cases of violence
reported as yet.(14) Two powerful explosions were
detonated in the busy Plaza Atrium Senen shopping mall in Central
Jakarta on 23 September, although they have not as yet been linked
to the 'war on terrorism'.
However, radical Islamist organisations and
anti-American protests do not currently enjoy the support of the
majority of the population. The vast majority of Indonesians
practise a moderate form of Islam, excluding practices such as the
veiling of women. This moderate position has been expressed by some
Islamic leaders. Syafi'i Maarif, the chairman of Indonesia's second
largest Islamic organisation, Muhammadiyah, said
Indonesian Muslims should focus on the problems of the Afghan
people, rather than attacking US citizens.(15)
Nonetheless, now that United States (and United
Kingdom) missile strikes against Afghanistan have occurred,
demonstrations across Java and elsewhere may become more
widespread, greater in size and violent. Involvement in radical
organisations may become more widespread if grievances against the
US strikes combine with the perceived benefits of joining such
organisations, and possible coercion on the part of the
organisations. If the threats of the Islamist organisations
discussed above are carried out following these attacks, the
consequences could include a possible evacuation of foreign
diplomatic and commercial staff, and a flight of tourists and
investment. Some of these consequences have eventuated already. On
9 October, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade
(DFAT) issued a warning against travel to Indonesia. Non-essential
staff of the US Embassy in Jakarta were withdrawn on 27 September,
and the families of the staff of some American companies, such as
Nike, have been evacuated.(16)
One of the major dangers posed by Indonesian
radical Islamist groups may be to the Indonesian Government itself.
While she was in the United States, President Soekarnoputri pledged
Indonesian support to the US lead coalition against terrorism,
receiving in turn from President Bush pledges of aid and loan
guarantees.(17) In supporting the US lead war on
terrorism, the government of Megawati Soekarnoputri may face
difficulties fending off challenges from the Islamic parties in her
coalition, who in turn will be pressured by Islamist sentiment.
President Soekarnoputri has already been criticised in political
circles. House Speaker Akbar Tandjung stated that she should be
more critical of the US led attacks.(18) Concerns within
the Indonesian Government have also become evident, with Vice
President Hamzah Haz cautioning the United States against attacking
a sovereign country with the aim of targeting terrorists. It is
also possible that radical Islam may be aggravated and manipulated
by those wishing to destabilise Megawati.
What is the Presence of Al Qaeda and Other Transnational
For the past two years, the United States has
warned that increasing Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia was
creating a large pool of potential recruits for transnational
terrorist networks. The United States Embassy in Jakarta had been
on high alert since August after receiving intelligence from Europe
of bomb threats and surveillance of the US Ambassador to Indonesia
by Sudanese nationals linked to the Al Qaeda
network.(19) According to Umar Juoro, an economist with
the Habibie Centre, while the known radical Islamist organisations
within Indonesia are manageable, the real problem lies with the
activities of groups that are as yet not clearly identified.
Connections between the Islamist groups
discussed above and transnational terrorist organisations or
networks are often claimed but generally not corroborated. It was
reported on 27 September that seven Afghan nationals flew into
Ambon (Maluku) to a welcome from local police and the Laskar
Jihad.(20) The Indonesian Director of Immigration,
Muhammad Indra, has agreed it is likely that members of Afghan
militias are entering Indonesia illegally.(21) On 27
September a Muslim activist and writer claimed that an envoy of
Osama bin Laden had visited Indonesia at least four times, and that
the radical Darul Islam movement and Al Qaeda enjoy a 'special
Indonesian students have long studied in the
Islamic religious schools of Pakistan and elsewhere, and reports
suggest growing numbers are being exposed to the same radical
teachings as the Taliban. Throughout the 1990's the US Central
Intelligence Agency (CIA) monitored 700-1500 Indonesian students
travelling to the Middle East and suggests that 30-40 per cent
never arrived at their stated destination. It is thought many of
these joined the Taliban in the Afghanistan civil
However, many of the Indonesian Islamist
organisations deny involvement with Al Qaeda. While the leader of
the Laskar Jihad, Ja'far Umar Thalib, fought alongside the
Mujahadeen in Afghanistan in the 1980's and met Osama bin Laden, he
has stated that he has little respect for the Saudi
terrorist.(24) According to Thalib, the Al Qaeda
organisation approached the Laskar Jihad, but he had declined to
become involved with the organisation. He also denied that there
were any Afghan Mujahadeen in Maluku.(25) Ja'far does
however support the attack on the United States, saying, 'it should
be an important lesson for America.' Another Islamist organisation
with supposed links to bin Laden, Majelis Mujahidin, also denies
such links.(26) The Chairman of the Indonesian Ulemas
Council, Nazri Adlani has described as 'slanderous', international
reports that Indonesian Islamist organisations have become involved
in global terrorist networks.(27)
There are also official claims of links between
Indonesian groups and Southeast Asian terrorist and/or separatist
organisations, although independent evidence for these is also
largely inadequate. In August, Indonesian police arrested a
Malaysian national following a bombing in the Atrium Plaza, and two
others for bombings in churches throughout
Indonesia.(28) Last year the Philippines Ambassador was
injured in a bombing, and the Malaysian Embassy was attacked with a
grenade. Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asian security, has
stated that there are groups of armed militia members that move
around the region.(29) Ja'far Umar Thalib has stated the
Laskar Jihad does have links to the Malaysian Kumpulan Mujahadeen
Malaysia (KMM) Islamist organisation. Intelligence reports suggest
these Southeast Asian groups may be linked to international
terrorist networks. The suspected hijackers of the 11 September
attacks were, according to US intelligence, sighted in the
Philippines and Kuala Lumpur.
The impact on Indonesia of the terrorist attacks
on the US and the US reaction and increasingly active local
Islamist organisations is likely to be continued sporadic outbursts
of protest and occasional violence. The relatively porous nature of
Indonesian national borders and the weakness of the Indonesian
Government in detecting terrorists, means that Indonesia may well
serve as either a transit point or a sanctuary for international
terrorists. However, the Indonesian Government has a narrow path to
tread in protecting Indonesia from terrorist activity and ensuring
the country is not used by terrorist networks as a sanctuary, and
preventing the spillover of radicalism from Islamist organisations
to moderate Indonesian Muslims.
- T. Dodd, 'Megawati faces Muslim backlash', Australian
Financial Review, 20 September 2001.
- 'International Terrorism: Where to From Here?', Vital
Issues Seminar, Department of the Parliamentary Library,
Parliament House, Canberra, 26 September 2001.
- I am not considering the Free Aceh (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM)
organisation as a terrorist group in this discussion, as this group
is in armed struggle with the Indonesian security forces.
- 'Osama envoy made several trips to Indonesia: Activist',
The Straits Times, 27 September 2001.
- See 'Indonesia: Overcoming Murder and Chaos in Maluku',
International Crisis Group Report, no. 10, 19
December 2000. The Maluku conflict has been particularly bloody,
with estimates of casualties since 1999 from 6000 to 9000, and the
creation of hundreds of thousands of refugees.
- J. Solomon & R. Hindryati, 'Indonesian Radicals Rally in
Support of bin Laden-Western Agencies Suspect Organizational Ties',
The Asian Wall Street Journal, 21 September 2001.
- T. Dodd, 'Megawati risks Muslim rage', Australian Financial
Review, 29 September 2001.
- 'Indonesian clerics warn of jihad', CNN.com, 25
- T. Dodd, 'Megawati faces Muslim backlash', op. cit.
- Personal communication with Dr Greg Fealy, Australian National
University, and T. Dodd, 'Megawati risks Muslim rage', ibid.
- D. Harsanto & H. Abu, 'Militant groups rally outside US
embassy against attacks on Afghanistan', The Jakarta Post,
9 October 2001.
- 'Indonesian protests turn violent', BBC Online, 9
- 'Terrorists Operate Freely in Surakarta', The Jakarta
Post, 24 September 2001.
- 'Top Muslim leaders stress aid, not violence', The Jakarta
Post, 2 October 2001.
- 'Mega slams radicals for anti-US threats', The Straits
Times, 3 October 2001.
- T. Mapes, 'Indonesia's US Ties Stir Militant Opposition-Groups
Threaten to Attack American Interests', The Asian Wall Street
Journal, 25 September 2001.
- 'RI expresses concern, urges US to limit strikes', The
Jakarta Post, 9 October 2001.
- J. McBeth, 'The Danger Within', Far Eastern Economic
Review, 27 September, 2001, p. 20.
- T. Dodd, 'Megawati faces Muslim Backlash', op. cit.
- L. Murdoch, 'Bin Laden 'funded Christian-haters', Sydney
Morning Herald, 28 September 2001.
- Many Indonesians are also thought to have joined the Mujahadeen
struggle against the Soviet Union, see 'Waiting for Osama's
Blessing', Tempo, no. 03/11, 25 September 2001.
- Thalib has stated that bin Laden struck him as a jetsetter when
he met him in Pakistan in 1987 during the Mujahadeen struggle
against the Soviet Union, and has taken a vastly different
interpretation of Islam to the Laskar Jihad, see R. C. Paddock,
'Indonesian Extremist Backs Terror Southeast Asia', Los Angeles
Times, 23 September 2001.
- Harold Crouch of the International Crisis Group is quoted as
questioning reports of mujahadeen in the Malukus due to
the lack of casualties with Middle Eastern appearance, see S.
Mydans, 'Militant Islam Unsettles Indonesia And Its Region',
New York Times, 21 September 2001.
- 'Waiting for Osama's Blessing', Tempo, no. 03/11, 25
September-1 October 2001.
- 'No global terrorist link in RI', Jakarta Post, 22
- Dr Greg Fealy of the Australian National University urges
caution when assessing these claims of guilt, as the Indonesian
Police have been known to frame suspects in the past and little
motive has yet been produced for the attacks, personal
- S. Mydans, 'Militant Islam Unsettles Indonesia And Its Region',
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