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Indonesia: Radicalisation of the “Palembang Group”
Indonesia: Radicalisation of the “Palembang Group”
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 92 / Asia

Indonesia: Radicalisation of the “Palembang Group”

Indonesia has earned well-deserved praise for its handling of home-grown extremism, but the problem has not gone away.

I. Overview

Indonesia has earned well-deserved praise for its handling of home-grown extremism, but the problem has not gone away. In April 2009, ten men involved in a jihadi group in Palembang, South Sumatra, were sent to prison on terrorism charges for killing a Christian teacher and planning more ambitious attacks. Their history provides an unusually detailed case study of radicalisation – the process by which law-abiding individuals become willing to use violence to achieve their goals. The sobering revelation from Palembang is how easy that transformation can be if the right ingredients are present: a core group of individuals, a charismatic leader, motivation and opportunity. Another ingredient, access to weapons, is important but not essential: the Palembang group carried out its first attack with a hammer and only later moved to making bombs.

The group was uncovered by accident. Singaporean authorities and Interpol had mounted an international manhunt for a fugitive Singaporean member of the regional jihadi organisation Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Mohammad Hassan bin Saynudin alias Fajar Taslim. Indonesian counter-terrorism police were separately pursuing the network of the elusive Malaysian terrorist Noordin Mohammed Top. Both searches led to Palem­bang in 2006 and the targets turned out to be linked. The Singaporean had helped turn a local non-violent religious study circle into a militant jihadi group that then made contact with the Noordin network. By 2007, the men were under surveillance; by mid-2008 they were under arrest.

The most important element in the group’s radi­ca­li­sa­tion was charismatic leadership, which two men pro­vi­ded. One was the Singaporean, Fajar Taslim, a large, good-humoured, bushy-bearded man of unlimited self-confidence. He had trained in Afghanistan, reportedly met Osama bin Laden or succeeded in convincing others that he had, and by his own admission, acted as a provocateur, constantly goading his colleagues to prove themselves. At the time he arrived in Palembang, he was being sought by Interpol in connection with a 2001 plot to blow up Singapore’s airport. 

The second, Sulthon Qolbi alias Ustad Asadollah, had fought in Maluku, an area of intense sectarian fighting in the years immediately following the downfall of President Soeharto, from 1999 to 2005. Engaging, per­suasive and very hardline, he was on Indonesia’s most-wanted list for his involvement in an attack in May 2005 in West Ceram, Maluku, in which five para­military police were killed.

Both men separately came upon a small study circle whose biggest concern was the conversion of Mus­lims by Christian evangelicals. Three of the men involved were mem­bers of the South Sumatra branch of an Islamic anti-apostasy organisation, Forum Against Conversion Movement (Forum Anti Gerakan Pemur­tadan, FAKTA), and FAKTA materials helped set the group’s agenda, but neither these three nor any of the others in the group had ever actively endorsed vio­lence. Fajar and Sulthon provided the ideology and political drive to turn them into an Islamic group (jama’ah) with a commander (amir) and a com­mit­ment to jihad in the form of military operations (amaliyah) against Islam’s enemies. The first big leap was getting the members to consider violence against the Christian proselytisers they thus far had only preached against. Once they were willing to kill, a broader range of tar­gets became thinkable, including Western civilians.

Access to weapons kept the group going when other­wise motivation might have waned. Without firearms or explosives, carrying out a radical agenda has natural limits. Getting a gun, even just one, gave the Palem­bang group a huge incentive to use it. By contrast, funding was not a particularly important factor in radicalisation, nor was access to the internet. With the exception of the gun and a large donation of potas­sium chlorate for bomb-making, the group scraped together what it needed locally, and it was not much. The biggest expenses were round-trip bus tickets and a house rental at about $20 a month. All com­mu­ni­cation took place by mobile phone or through face-to-face meetings; there appears to have been almost no use of computers.

The Palembang group was not particularly competent nor ideologically driven; most of the men used as operatives needed repeated infusions of jihadi pep talks. Four of its five attempts at operations failed, and none of the many bombs it made was ever used. But its lack of success should not obscure some important war­ning signs that the investigation revealed.

First, fear of “Christianisation” in Indonesia can be a powerful local driver for radicalisation, perhaps not as strong as communal conflict that takes Muslim lives, as in Ambon and Poso, but potent nonetheless. When the Palembang group’s links to FAKTA were first repor­ted, FAKTA’s national leaders indignantly rejec­ted any link to terrorism, and they were right: theirs is a non-violent, if hardline, civil society advocacy organi­sa­tion. But for some conservative Muslims, apostasy is a worse sin than murder, and the outrage engen­dered by Christian conversion efforts can be exploited by those with a jihadi agenda.

Second, a loose association of current or former JI mem­bers, including Noordin Top, the Malaysian respon­sible for the major bombings in Indonesia between 2003 and 2005, apparently continues to look for and train proxies to undertake attacks on the U.S. and its allies. In this case, an Afghan veteran and JI member, Saifuddin Zuhri alias Sabit alias Sugeng, became the liaison to the Palembang group, saying that he was in direct communication with Noordin. It was im­ma­te­rial that the group’s members, with one major excep­tion, were not JI and had no past affiliation with jihadi groups. Sabit provided a gun, ammunition, explosive materials, a bomb-making instructor and suggestions on possible targets. His gamble on the Palembang group did not pay off, but bets in the future on other possible proxies could – and Sabit is still at large, as are several other fugitives with the potential to lead and recruit.

Third, attention to JI-affiliated schools remains critical. The problem is not what they teach; it is that they serve as places of refuge and communication hubs, and the bai’at, or oath of loyalty sworn by JI mem­bers makes it unthinkable to turn anyone away. In this case, a JI boarding school (pesantren) became critical to the Palembang group’s radicalisation, simply by being a place where extremists periodically showed up.

Finally, assistance to the police should continue. The Palembang group was uncovered by accident, and there were various points along the way where better investigative skills could have detected its existence much earlier – long before the Christian teacher was murdered or any bombs prepared. Even with the enor­mous strides made by the counter-terrorism unit of the police, it is still possible for serious extremist activity to take place in Indonesia without anyone knowing.

Jakarta/Brussels, 20 May 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