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Indonesia: Noordin Top’s Support Base
Indonesia: Noordin Top’s Support Base
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 95 / Asia

Indonesia: Noordin Top’s Support Base

More than a month after the 17 July 2009 hotel bombings in Jakarta, Noordin Mohammed Top remains at large, but his network is proving to be larger and more sophisticated than previously thought.

I. Overview

More than a month after the 17 July 2009 hotel bombings in Jakarta, Noordin Moham­med Top remains at large, but his network is proving to be larger and more sophisticated than previously thought. Not only was it responsible for coordinated bombings at two luxury hotels in the heart of Jakarta’s business district, but it also was apparently contemplating a car bomb attack on President Yudhoyono’s residence. As more information comes to light, it looks increasingly likely that Noordin sought and received Middle Eastern funding. While the extent of foreign involvement this time around remains unclear, recruitment in Indonesia has proved disturbingly easy. The salafi jihadi ideology that legitimises attacks on the U.S. and its allies, and Muslims who associate with them, remains confined to a tiny fringe, but that fringe includes disaffected factions of many different radical groups and impressionable youths with no history of violence.

Many elements of Noor­din’s support base are familiar. Although he broke away from the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) organisation around 2004, Noordin retains an inner circle of JI militants who have been with him for the last four or five years. He can rely on many more, including teachers at JI schools and their students, to provide hiding places or logistical aid as needed. He has made repeated attempts to tap into the leadership of jihadi groups, not just JI but smaller organisations as well. In some cases, militant jihadis who want more action than their leaders may seek him out, rather than vice versa. He often manages to bring in a few family members and neighbours of those who hide him. The more systematic recruitment of foot soldiers seems to be done more by the inner circle than by Noordin himself. They recruit new youths as needed through study sessions in local mosques, or pick up young men radicalised through earlier exposure to jihadi preachers but then left behind when those preachers move on or are arrested. In every one of his operations, the suicide bombers were identified first by Noordin’s lieutenants and only afterwards met the man himself.

There are new ele­ments and new faces in the July attacks. One family has emerged as pivotal, both to the execution of the 17 July plot and other planned attacks, as well as to the contacts with the Middle East. Two brothers, Syaifudin Jaelani and Mohamed Syahrir are on the police wanted list as members of Noordin’s team. One of their sisters married the man who brought the bomb into the Ritz-Carlton and who died in a police siege in Temanggung, Central Java, on 8 August. The other sister was briefly married to a man who booked the Marriott room used by the bombers and whose arrest broke the case open for the police. The network of this one family extends from Yemen, where Syaifudin studied for four years, to Indonesia’s national airline, Garuda, where Mohamed Syahrir worked as a technician. Noordin may still be the commander, but he has some exceedingly well-connected lieutenants who made their debut in the hotel bombings.

Un­covering Noordin’s network is not a question of tracking down a closed group with a defined membership. It seems to be a loosely organised, almost ad hoc collection of people, largely but not exclusively on Java, that can easily adapt to arrests or deaths of members. It relies on friends, friends of friends, families and co-workers, with each person involved a potential recruiter of others.

This briefing ex­amines the linkages among the people Noordin drew on for the 17 July attacks in an effort to understand his support base. It is focused on the local network, mostly on Java, not on the overseas links, as those were still being uncovered as this went to press. It is not about the ongoing police investigation and does not draw on any privileged information from the men arrested since 17 July. It is necessarily an interim study, using the known pieces of the puzzle to help explain why Noordin and his network have not only survived in Indonesia, but in some senses thrived. It is based on press reports and interviews conducted in connection with the current investigation, and extensive reading of documents collected for previous Crisis Group reports.

Jakarta/Brussels, 27 August 2009

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