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Indonesia: The Dark Side of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)
Indonesia: The Dark Side of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 107 / Asia

Indonesia: The Dark Side of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)

Divisions and ideological debates generated by Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), an organisation founded by Indonesia’s best-known radical cleric, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, show the weakness of Indonesia’s jihadi movement.

Overview

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

Briefing 139 / Asia

Indonesia: Tensions Over Aceh’s Flag

A dispute over a flag in Aceh is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Indonesia’s central government, heightening ethnic tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of the province and raising fears of violence as the 2014 national elections approach.
 

I. Overview

The decision of the Aceh provincial government to adopt the banner of the former rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) as its official provincial flag is testing the limits of autonomy, irritating Jakarta, heightening ethnic and political tensions, reviving a campaign for the division of Aceh and raising fears of violence as a national election approaches in 2014.

On 25 March 2013, the provincial legislature adopted a regulation (qanun) making the GAM’s old banner the provincial flag. It was immediately signed by Governor Zaini Abdullah. The governor and deputy governor are members of Partai Aceh, the political party set up by former rebel leaders in 2008 that also controls the legislature.

The central government, seeing the flag as a separatist symbol and thus in violation of national law, immediately raised objections and asked for changes. Partai Aceh leaders, seeing the flag as a potent tool for mass mobilisation in 2014, have refused, arguing that it cannot be a separatist symbol if GAM explicitly recognised Indonesian sovereignty as part of the Helsinki peace agreement in 2005 that ended a nearly 30-year insurgency. Partai Aceh believes that if it remains firm, Jakarta will eventually concede, as it did in 2012 over an election dispute.

Indonesian President Yudhoyono’s government is torn. On the one hand, it does not want a fight with the GAM leaders; the 2005 peace agreement is the most important achievement of a president who, in his final term, is very much concerned about his legacy. It also is unwilling to provoke GAM too far, fearful that it will return to conflict, a fear many in Aceh discount as unwarranted but one that Partai Aceh has exploited with relish. On the other hand, it does not want to be branded as anti-nationalist as the 2014 election looms, especially as some in the security forces remain convinced that GAM has not given up the goal of independence and is using democratic means to pursue it. The president and his advisers also know that if they allow the GAM flag to fly, it will have repercussions in Papua, where dozens of pro-independence activists remain jailed for flying the “Morning Star” flag of the independence movement.

GAM leaders see little to lose by standing their ground. The flag is a hugely emotive symbol, and defying Jakarta is generally a winning stance locally. Some individual members of parliament see it as a way of regaining waning popularity for failing to deliver anything substantive to their constituencies. Also, Partai Aceh took a controversial decision to partner with Gerindra, the party of former army General Prabowo Subianto, for the 2014 election. Leaders like Muzakir Manaf, deputy governor and former commander of GAM’s armed wing, may want to use the flag issue to show they have not compromised their principles by allying with a man whose human rights record is often questioned.

Within Aceh, adoption of the GAM flag has sparked protests from non-Acehnese ethnic groups in the central highlands and south west. The GAM heartland has always been along the east coast; to highlanders like the Gayo, the flag thus represents the domination of the coastal Acehnese at their expense. The issue has revived a dormant campaign for the division of Aceh into three by the creation of two new provinces, Aceh Leuser Antara (ALA) for the central highlands and Aceh Barat Selatan (ABAS) for the south west. If GAM does not back down on the flag, support for that campaign by the intelligence services is likely to rise, and with it, the probability of increased ethnic tensions.

The options for breaking the stalemate seem to be as follows: the government concedes; GAM concedes, making slight changes to the flag by adding or removing an element; GAM agrees to limits on how or where the flag can be displayed; or the dispute is taken to the Supreme Court, thereby delaying any resolution.

In the meantime, the power of the GAM machinery in Aceh continues to grow.

Jakarta /Brussels, 7 May 2013