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Report 189 / Asia

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

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