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Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon
Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Briefing 132 / Asia

Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon

Involvement in violent campaigns against vice and religious deviance has become one pathway to terrorism in Indonesia.

I. Overview

Anti-vice raids and actions against non-Muslim minorities are becoming a path to more violent jihadism in Indonesia. The 2011 suicide bombings of a police mosque in Cirebon, West Java and an evangelical church in Solo, Central Java were carried out by men who moved from using sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing “deviance” to using bombs and guns. They show how ideological and tactical lines within the radical community have blurred, meaning that counter-terrorism programs that operate on the assumption that “terrorists” are a clearly definable group distinguishable from hardline activists and religious vigilantes are bound to fail. They also mean that the government must develop a strategy, consistent with democratic values, for countering clerics who use no violence themselves but preach that it is permissible to shed the blood of infidels (kafir) or oppressors (thaghut), meaning government officials and particularly the police.

These men represent a generational shift from the jihadis trained abroad or who got their first combat experience a decade ago in the two major post-Soeharto communal conflicts in Ambon, Maluku and Poso, Central Sulawesi. They are less skilled, less experienced and less educated than the Afghan and Mindanao alumni, most of them coming from poor backgrounds and relying on petty trade for their livelihood. Most of them were members of the Cirebon branch of the Indonesian Mujahidin Council (Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, MMI) and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), two organisations led by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, Indonesia’s most prominent radical cleric, now imprisoned, before leaving to form their own group.

This does not mean that the threat from other groups has disappeared. JAT has active cells in Poso and elsewhere, and the arrest outside Jakarta in July 2011 of Abu Umar, the Mindanao-trained leader of a Darul Islam splinter group, exposed the existence of a large jihadi organisation with a presence in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. There are other potential problems from disaffected or isolated members of older groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that have moved away from violence; fugitives from earlier operations; former high-risk prisoners or men they recruited inside; younger siblings of slain or detained terrorism suspects; and individuals, including from JAT, who have taken part in Islamist military training (tadrib) and want to test their skills. But the Cirebon men represent a path to jihadism that may become the common pattern.

Its members not only absorbed the teachings of radical clerics like Ba’asyir and the even more radical Halawi Makmun, a preacher who argues that the Indonesian government is a legitimate target for attack. They also shared the widespread anger in the radical community over the arrests and deaths of suspected terrorists that arose in the aftermath of the breakup of the training camp in Aceh in February 2010. It is hard to overemphasise the impact these operations had or the desire for revenge they engendered. Because so many people were involved in the camp, from Sumatra, Java and points east, nearly every radical group in the country had a connection to someone who took part or was involved in trying to help fugitives or raise money for the families of those detained or killed. Anger at the police reached new heights, and Ba’asyir’s arrest in August 2010 pushed it further. In Solo, a group called the Hisbah Team (Tim Hisbah) evolved from vigilantism to jihadism as a direct result of anger over post-Aceh police operations.

The fusion of religious vigilantism in the name of upholding morality and orthodoxy with jihadism vastly complicates the government’s counter-radicalisation task. While most people are willing to condemn terrorism, hardline vigilantes often have support from officials in government and quasi-government institutions like the Majelis Ulama Indonesia, especially at a local level.

If the radicalisation of groups like the Cirebon men is to be halted, the government needs to develop a strategy that builds a national consensus on what constitutes extremism; directly confronts “hate speech”; and promotes zero tolerance of religiously-inspired crimes, however minor, including in the course of anti-vice campaigns.

Jakarta/Brussels, 26 January 2012

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