Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Indonesia: Jihadi Surprise in Aceh

As revelations about a jihadi coalition calling itself “Al Qaeda Indonesia in Aceh” continue to emerge, the Indonesian government should take steps to tighten control over prisons, provide more training for police in confronting armed suspects and consider banning paramilitary training by non-state actors.

Executive Summary

The discovery in late February 2010 of a jihadi training camp in Aceh came as a surprise in three ways. It revealed a major mutation in Indonesian jihadi ranks: a new coalition had emerged that rejected both Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the best-known such organisation in the region, and the more violent splinter group led until his death in September 2009 by Noordin Top. It had chosen Aceh as a base, despite the antipathy of Acehnese to radical Islam. And it was led by Dulmatin, one of South East Asia’s most wanted terrorists, whom officials in both Indonesia and the Philippines believed was in Mindanao.

By mid-April police had arrested 48 coalition members, killed eight, including Dulmatin, and were looking for about fifteen others. The group’s existence and the government response show that despite enormous gains made in counter-terrorism efforts since the first Bali bombs in 2002, intelligence remains weak; monitoring of prisons and ex-prisoners remains a problem; police handling of “active shooters” needs improvement; and corruption continues to be a major lubricant for terrorist activities in Indonesia.

Dulmatin’s return to Indonesia, probably in late 2007, set in motion what became known as the lintas tanzim or cross-organisational project. Several influential jihadi leaders independently had reached the conclusion that JI had become too passive, abandoning jihad for religious outreach, and Noordin’s group had no plans beyond preparing for the next attack. One influential cleric who joined the group, Oman Rochman alias Aman Abdurrahman, argued that Indonesians should follow the teachings of Jordanian radical scholar Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and wage jihad to establish Islamic law but in a way that did not cause Muslim casualties. For both Aman and other leaders, including Dulmatin, it was critical to establish a secure base from which operations could be launched and the nucleus of an Islamic state established. The enemy should be defined not simply as anyone from the U.S. or allied countries, but as anyone who obstructed the application of Islamic law – and that meant that many Indonesian officials were high on the list.

One of Aman’s followers, through prison visits, had ties to some of Dulmatin’s closest associates – JI members who had joined Noordin, and men from another jihadi organisation called KOMPAK who had trained in Mindanao. He also had ties to Aceh, having once been stationed with the police there, and it was he who suggested that Aceh could be the secure base. Another Acehnese member of Aman’s study group recruited about twenty Acehnese, hoping they would bring in others; most were local followers of a well-known salafi cleric in Aceh Besar district. The man the jihadis wanted badly to recruit, however, was an Acehnese cleric with a proven track record of mobilising mass demonstrations in support of Islamic law and sending his students out on vigilante raids against vice. His school was a base for the Aceh branch of the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, FPI), a national group that in Jakarta is known for its thuggish attacks on bars, brothels, restaurants open during Ramadan, deviant sects and “unauthorised” churches. The lintas tanzim project succeeded in recruiting some FPI members but not their leader.

In the end, Dulmatin and the others went along with the idea of setting up a secure base in Aceh, believing that since the rebel Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka, GAM) had fought the Indonesian army there for more than 30 years, it had suitable terrain; alone among Indonesian provinces, it was authorised to apply Islamic law and many community leaders were pro-sharia; and a number of hardline groups that had set up shop in Aceh after the 2004 tsunami were potential allies. In fact, community support was negligible and the coalition was doomed from the start. The experiment ended with a series of police raids in Aceh and Jakarta in February, March and April.

The failure of this initiative raises the question of where Indonesian jihadism goes next. Three streams are alive, if not particularly well. One is the JI variant, which teaches jihad, advocates military training, but says the faithful currently lack the resources to take on the enemy and therefore should focus on building up their ranks through dakwah (religious outreach). The second is the network led by the late Noordin Top focused on the use of suicide bombings to terrorise the U.S. and its allies. The third was represented by the coalition, but also by its individual components: KOMPAK, Darul Islam, disgruntled JI members and others. Like Noordin, it was ready for jihad now, but only as the means to the end of applying Islamic law in full. If Noordin favoured bombings, the coalition members preferred targeted assassinations, as less likely to result in Muslim deaths. Further mutations and realignments will almost certainly occur; it is not impossible that the coalition’s failure will lead some to reconsider their distaste for Noordin’s tactics.

Dulmatin’s involvement in the Aceh group also underscores the possibility of cross-border jihadi cooperation. Dulmatin wanted the Aceh training camp to be a centre for mujahidin from across the region, but it remains unclear exactly what kind of cooperation he envisaged with his Abu Sayyaf and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) colleagues in Mindanao.

Jakarta/Brussels, 20 April 2010

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.