Indonesia: The Dark Side of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)
Asia Briefing N°107
6 Jul 2010
Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), led by Indonesia’s best-known radical cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, has been an enigma since its founding in 2008. An ostensibly above-ground organisation, it has embraced individuals with known ties to fugitive extremists. It has welcomed many members of the militant Jema’ah Islamiyah (JI) but clashed with the JI leadership over strategy and tactics. It preaches jihad against Islam’s enemies but insists it stays within the law – though it rejects man-made laws as illegitimate. It is a mass membership organisation but wholly dependent on Ba’asyir, without whom it would quickly disintegrate. It has become an important element in the network of Indonesian jihadi groups but has been the target of harsh criticism from some erstwhile allies. Understanding JAT’s nature, its many faces and the ideological rifts it has generated helps illuminate the weakness and divisions within the Indonesian jihadi movement today. It also highlights the ongoing but probably diminishing influence of Ba’asyir.
The dark side of JAT’s activities came into the spotlight on 6 May 2010, when Indonesian police raided its Jakarta headquarters and charged three officials with raising funds for a militant training camp uncovered in Aceh in late February. On 12 May, police carried out a reconstruction of a meeting in South Jakarta involving two men now in custody known to have served as camp instructors and another, who wore a large name tag reading “Abu Bakar Ba’asyir”. JAT’s alleged involvement in fundraising and combat training immediately led to speculation that another arrest of 72-year-old Ba’asyir was imminent.
Even if he is arrested – for the third time since the first Bali bombs – the impact will be limited, both in terms of Indonesian extremism and the domestic political fallout. Ba’asyir has been a perpetual thorn in the side of successive governments since the early 1970s. He is very much the elder statesman of Indonesia’s radical movement, but he is neither the driving force behind it now nor its leading ideologue, and he has numerous critics among fellow jihadis who cite his lack of strategic sense and poor management skills.
That said, Ba’asyir’s celebrity status and an active religious outreach (dakwah) campaign have turned JAT into an organisation with a nationwide structure within two years of its founding. It recruits through mass rallies and smaller religious instruction sessions in which Ba’asyir and other JAT figures fulminate against democracy, advocate full application of Islamic law, and preach a militant interpretation of jihad. That public face gives “plausible deniability” to what appears to be covert support on the part of a small inner circle for the use of force. JAT cannot have it both ways: its attraction in the beginning was almost certainly the non-violent dakwah option it seemed to offer – militancy without the risks. Any established link to violence will lose it followers.
The truth is that the jihadi project has failed in Indonesia. The rifts and shifting alignments so evident now in the jihadi community are a reaction to that failure. There is no indication that violent extremism is gaining ground. Instead, as with JAT’s formation, we are seeing the same old faces finding new packages for old goods. The far bigger challenge for Indonesia is to manage the aspirations of the thousands who join JAT rallies for its public message: that democracy is antithetical to Islam, that only an Islamic state can uphold the faith, and that Islamic law must be the source of all justice.
Jakarta/Brussels, 6 July 2010