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Homepage > Regions / Countries > Asia > South East Asia > Indonesia > Recycling Militants in Indonesia: Darul Islam and the Australian Embassy Bombing

Recycling Militants in Indonesia: Darul Islam and the Australian Embassy Bombing

Asia Report N°92 22 Feb 2005


No understanding of jihadism in Indonesia is possible without understanding the Darul Islam movement (DI) and its efforts to establish the Islamic State of Indonesia (Negara Islam Indonesia (NII)). Over the last 55 years, that movement has produced splinters and offshoots that range from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) to non-violent religious groups. Every time the older generation seems on the verge of passing into irrelevance, a new generation of young militants, inspired by DI's history and the mystique of an Islamic state, emerges to give the movement a new lease on life. If the pattern outlined in this report holds, Indonesia will not be able to eradicate JI or its jihadist partners, even if it arrests every member of the central command but, with more attention to a few key measures, it ought to be able to contain them.

The DI movement, that began as separate rebellions in West Java, South Sulawesi, and Aceh in the 1950s, is now one very loose but enduring web of personal contacts that extends to most of the major islands in Indonesia. The September 2004 bombing in front of the Australian embassy in Jakarta shows how some of those contacts can be brought into play.

Within days of the explosion, Indonesian police determined that two known Malaysian JI members, Azhari Husin and Noordin Mohammed Top, were involved. But it became apparent that they were working in partnership with an offshoot of DI called the Banten Ring, operating in old DI strongholds in western Java. Three of the young men recruited as suicide bombers from the Banten Ring, including one who died in the September bombing, had fathers in DI.

Examining DI's history may give us clues to understanding JI:

  • The way Darul Islam survived and adapted after its defeat by the Indonesian army in the 1960s and the arrest of virtually its entire leadership in 1977-1982 suggests JI may also be able to survive the arrests and imprisonment of many of its top leaders.
  • Imprisonment often enhances the credentials of DI members and rarely serves to weaken their commitment to the cause; they often emerge even from long imprisonment as energized as when they went in and recruitable for new operations.
  • Rifts and power struggles at the top often have little impact on cooperation at lower levels.
  • The odds against a particular operation succeeding are little deterrent to those committed to planning attacks. With "Victory or martyrdom" as the operative slogan, waging jihad against insuperable odds has its own attraction.
  • Failure of older leaders to respond to particular political events may lead to the emergence of new, militant movements led by younger members angered by the inaction of their elders.
  • New bonds are forged and lasting friendships made during military training programs.

All this is worrisome but there is also good news. The recycling of old DI members into JI or into partnerships with JI suggests that the recruiting base for jihadists may not be expanding significantly, and that it is difficult for them to move very far beyond old DI or existing JI constituencies. Even in the DI stronghold where the foot soldiers for the Australian embassy bombing were recruited, it was difficult to find youths willing to sign up for the combination of very strict religious practice and extreme interpretation of jihad. There is no reason to think that the war in Iraq, for example, will produce a sudden spurt of new JI members, even though the unpopularity of that war and the anti-American sentiment it has fuelled will continue to complicate domestic counter-terror initiatives.

The most important variables that will determine whether jihadism is contained include whether:

  • communal tensions inside Indonesia are properly managed;
  • law enforcement capacity is improved;
  • the Indonesian government gives more serious thought to the impact of prison on the jihadists in custody and what happens to them on release; and,
  • better control is exerted over the sale and transfer of arms, ammunition and explosives.

All these are within the control of the Indonesian government. A fourth variable is whether a new major centre of international jihadist training, such as Afghanistan once was, emerges. That depends, of course, not only, or even primarily upon the Indonesian government's actions but upon policies of the wider international community.

Singapore/Brussels, 22 February 2005

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