Terrorism's Toxic Strains
Terrorism's Toxic Strains
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Indonesia's Police: The Problem of Deadly Force
Op-Ed / Asia 3 minutes

Terrorism's Toxic Strains

After last week's Bali bombing, one question repeatedly arises: What turns young Indonesians into suicide bombers? If we look at the five men who have chosen to become "martyrs" thus far, we know the answer is not poverty and desperation, and it's not necessarily affiliation with Jemaah Islamiah - in fact, most of the suicide bombers so far haven't been JI.  

They have come from West Java, Sumatra and Sulawesi, from very different socioeconomic backgrounds. Only two were under the direct tutelage of the two fugitive Malaysians, Azahari Husin and Noordin Mohamad Top, who are at the top of everyone's list of suspects in the latest blast, and only one was a graduate of a problematic school.

They almost certainly became suicide bombers for different reasons, meaning we have to break the problem down before we can begin to solve it. All would have come under the influence of an ideology called salafi jihadism that adds a political overlay to a puritanical vision of Islam by calling for war against the US and its allies. The aim is to avenge Muslim deaths in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, including by targeting Western civilians. But all five men would have interpreted the ideology through local lenses.

The five bombers are as follows:

  • Iqbal, alias Arnasan, who died in the first Bali attack in October 2002, belonged to a splinter group of Darul Islam in Banten, West Java.
  • Ashar Daeng Salam, alias Aco, who blew himself up in a McDonald's restaurant in Makassar in December 2002, belonged to a Sulawesi-based group called Laskar Jundullah.
  • Bachtiar, alias Manto, blew himself up prematurely in his father's house in Poso, Central Sulawesi, in August 2003. He belonged to a local Poso group, probably working with a Java-based group called KOMPAK. (KOMPAK is an Islamic charity that has mixed genuine humanitarian efforts with financing of jihadist activities. It also trained its own fighters in Ambon and Poso.)
  • Asmar Latin Sani, from Bengkulu, Sumatra, probably JI and a graduate of Abu Bakar Bashir's Ngruki school, was the suicide bomber in the August 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta.
  • Heri Golun detonated the car bomb in front of the Australian embassy in September last year. He was from the same Banten group as Iqbal.

Iqbal wrote in his suicide note that he hoped his death would give his friends encouragement to restore the glory of the Islamic state proclaimed by the founder of Darul Islam in West Java, Kartosoewirjo. Aco, who was from Poso, and Bachtiar almost certainly saw themselves as avenging Muslim deaths in their own neighbourhoods. (In our research in 2003 we learnt that more than 20 young men from the Poso area had been tapped as suicide bombers, but we never found out what happened to them.)

Asmar Latin Sani was the one person who, with a long indoctrination in school, followed by close association with Noordin, may have been motivated solely by the idea of making the ultimate sacrifice to strike out at the enemies of Islam. Heri Golun's suicide note has never been made public, but he was from a Darul Islam family in a Darul Islam stronghold and probably shared some of Iqbal's desire to follow in the footsteps of Kartosoewirjo. Once selected as the bomber for the embassy bombing, however, he was given intensive religious instruction for about two months, and for the last few weeks was supervised by Noordin and Azahari.

The five men thus represent three pools of recruits: those inspired by a living legacy of rebellion (West Java), those with grievances from recent communal conflicts (Poso), and those indoctrinated in the tiny handful of JI schools. None of these potential recruits would act on his own, however: they have to be plucked from the pool by a more senior jihadist figure respected for his religious knowledge.

To address the problem, one can try to influence the recruits or the mentors or both. The only people the mentors are going to listen to are men with unquestioned salafi jihadist credentials and religious knowledge equal to their own. Exhortations from "moderate" Muslims will fall on deaf ears, and you will never get these men to take part in interfaith dialogues. One priority for the Indonesian Government should be how to persuade jihadists who are opposed to indiscriminate attacks on civilians - and there are many - to reach out to others, including in the JI schools. It may be that this will happen on its own, but if there is any way to facilitate the process, including enlisting repentant prisoners, it would be desirable.

In the Poso area where there are specific local grievances - unresolved issues of justice, displaced people, land seizures - assistance programs aimed at involving young mujahideen might help. West Java is more difficult, because it's not just the Darul Islam legacy, it's the fusion with salafi jihadism that makes such a lethal mixture.

Suicide bombing is now clearly an established practice in Indonesia, but we don't have to throw up our hands in despair and wait for the next attack. If we do more to understand the problem, we might be able to tackle it.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

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