Violent Extremism in 2012
Some things aren’t hard to predict: in 2012 there will be sporadic acts of religion-inspired violence, including terrorism. There will be ritual speeches of condemnation from politicians and Muslim leaders and there will be little concrete progress to stem the steady rise of intolerance.
Identifying and stopping terrorist groups is hugely difficult but it’s easier than stopping those who preach hatred but commit no crime. The problem is that the two are increasingly linked, and while Detachment 88 can deal with the first, the second requires political courage and creativity, both of which are in short supply.
Terrorists in Indonesia today can be divided into two broad categories: those favoring suicide bombings or ‘martyrdom operations’ (istisyahadat) and those favoring secret, targeted assassinations (ightiyalat), aimed particularly at the police.
They come from several sources: members of old groups like Jemaah Islamiyah that have since fragmented, leaving some members isolated and not in regular touch with a leadership that has moved away from violence; disaffected members of the same groups that are looking for more militant homes; fugitives from earlier operations; former high-risk prisoners or men they recruited inside, inadequately monitored after their release; younger siblings of slain or detained terrorism suspects; members of the military wing of Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s organization founded in 2008; others who have taken part in military training (tadrib) who want to test their skills; and new groups inspired by radical preachers who seek arms and training from any of the above or who teach themselves bomb-making from the internet.
The path they take toward radicalization differs – many more are coming from state high schools than from pesantrens, and while many come from fairly poor backgrounds, working as parking attendants, ice-cream sellers, clothes traders or sellers of phone vouchers, there are also among them well-educated university students. What they have in common is exposure to radical preachers who convince them that officials who do not enforce Islamic law are thought oppressors; that Muslims who subscribe to any law other than shariah are apostates; that Christians and Jews are the natural enemies of Islam; and all of the above are legitimate targets.
Our image of terrorism here used to be Imam Samudra or Noordin Top, inspired by Al Qaeda and railing against the West. A more common profile these days is that of the Cirebon bomber: a young man with no overseas training, no in-depth religious knowledge and no lengthy period of indoctrination, whose militant career began with unauthorized raids against stores selling alcohol. There is increasing evidence here of a direct pathway from puritanical vigilantism – whether aimed against vice, apostasy or ideological ‘deviance’ – to jihadism.
There is also an increasing tactical alliance between the two: the jihadists need to find new pools of recruits, especially after local support declined drastically with the ending of the conflicts in Ambon and Poso and widespread horror at Noordin’s bomb attacks. The vigilantes want military training. It is another safe prediction for 2012 that this partnership will grow, with or without specific incidents drawing them together, such as natural disasters in which they can join forces to provide relief and preach about how the disaster in question is punishment for idolatry. After the 2010 Merapi eruption, JAT, which emphasizes jihad in the form of battle as a pillar of the faith, joined a range of vigilante organizations in Yogyakarta to prevent ‘Christianization’ by ‘rescuing’ displaced Muslims from church grounds where they had been given shelter.
Another safe prediction is that in 2012, extremists will seek to exploit communal tensions. Outbreaks of violence, exacerbated by the poor performance of the local police, took place in Ambon in September, October and December 2011, each episode igniting new fears and a desire to settle old scores left over from the conflict resolved in 2002. Good work by community leaders and elected officials have so far prevented the violence from escalating out of control, and the national government was concerned enough in September to take extraordinary measures to prevent hotheads from Java from rushing to join their Ambonese brethren. Even so, both Ambon and Poso remain potential flashpoints in 2012, the first because of the failure of any reconciliation at a grassroots level, the second because of the number of inducted jihadists still active. And they are not the only places where tensions that may stem from completely non-religious causes, like land disputes, have the potential to fall out along religious lines, with radical websites fanning the flames.
A few fugitives are also likely to show their hand in 2012. Across Indonesia, from Aceh to Sumbawa, men fleeing earlier terrorist operations have the potential to make trouble, including by recruiting new followers from wherever they are hiding. One of the consequences of the breakup of the Aceh training camp in 2010 is that connections were made or renewed among a wide range of extremist groups as those involved fled to Java, Sulawesi, Kalimantan and elsewhere, instilling a heightened desire for revenge against the police as post-Aceh mop-up operations took place. These groups exchanged information about cells, transit routes, sources of arms and training sites in a way that seems to have galvanized new activity.
Good law enforcement in 2010 and 2011 also led to a new influx of extremists into Indonesian jails where corruption, boredom and poor monitoring virtually guarantee the transmission of extremist doctrine.
With all of these potential problems, the lack of any whole-of-government approach to countering extremism is striking. This is partly because no one can agree on the nature of the threat. With less than a dozen people killed by terrorists each year for the last five years, many don’t see why it should get so much attention. Nahdlatul Ulama leaders see the bigger danger in Saudi-influenced Wahabism, even when it is strictly non-violent, because it treats many traditional NU practices as idolatrous. Some in Muhammadiyah see PKS as the problem, an organization that has moved into Mohammadiyah schools and mosques. For many in the human rights community, hard-won freedom of expression will be at risk if the government starts targeting hate speech or trying to control the content of Friday khutbah (prayers). In much of the Muslim community, the fear is that Islam will be stigmatized.
A complicating factor is that at a local level, there is often buy-in to the extremist agenda from governmental or quasi-governmental bodies like the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI). A member of the Solo MUI testified in defense of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir that all military training was required by Islamic law. A member of the Cirebon MUI, who is also a teacher at a state Islamic institute, led the religious discussion group that first inspired the Cirebon bombers. Who is going to have the will to call someone like that to account, and on what grounds? If the government cannot move against the mayor of Bogor who defies a Supreme Court ruling on the construction of a church, it is hardly likely to take on the much touchier task of identifying sources of extremist teaching.
The result is a kind of policy paralysis that is leading to huge amounts of money being wasted on useless or irrelevant projects, such as large billboards urging vigilance against terrorism, or meetings of former prisoners at which those in attendance get Rp1,500,000 for just showing up. Economic assistance to convicted terrorists, ex-prisoners and their families can be useful, if there are clear goals and strict monitoring, but cash handouts are as welcome to unreconstructed jihadists as they are to individuals who genuinely want to build a new life.
Assistance to prison reform is money well spent. Any efforts to tighten controls on sales of materials that can be used for bomb-making would be welcome, as would increased punishments on corrupt soldiers or police who sell guns and ammunition. Initiatives underway to have the voices of terrorism’s victims more widely heard may also be productive.
But all of this will be of limited use if the country cannot come to grips with extremist dakwah, if judges cannot impose sentences of more than a few months on vigilantes who club fellow human beings to death; and if political leaders do not move beyond rhetoric to set clear standards – at the very least for any schools, institutes or individuals that receive government assistance - on hate speech and incitement. Without sustained government focus on these issues from the top, we can safely predict more violence not just for 2012 but also for the years beyond.
Sidney Jones is a Senior Adviser at the International Crisis Group.