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Three strategies for Jihad - and more prevention needed
Three strategies for Jihad - and more prevention needed
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa
Op-Ed / Asia

Three strategies for Jihad - and more prevention needed

Originally published in Tempo

When police arrested the CIMB-Medan robbers, they found copies of a book called Encouraging the Heroic Mujahidin to Revive the Practice of Secret Assassinations (Ightiyalat)—with a chapter on letter-bombs. Written by a Saudi al-Qaeda member named Faris al-Zahroni alias Abu Jandal, it was translated into Indonesian and began circulating on radical websites probably around 2009. The focus on ightiyalat is one of several ideas imported from the Middle East that has gained steady ground in Indonesian jihadi circles.

A jihad manual released in early 2010, called Ensuring Security in Insecure Times (Mewujudkan Keamanan Di Zaman Serba Tak Aman) highlighted the importance of ightiyalat. Instructors in the Aceh training camp taught that ightiyalat was more effective than Noordin Top-style attacks. The group of high school students arrested in Klaten last January called themselves ‘Tim Ightiyalat’ or the Assassination Team.

The attraction of targeted killings underscores the changes that have taken place here over the last few years as large organizations have proved easy to infiltrate, and high-profile bombings of iconic buildings too often end up killing Muslims and taking operatives out of circulation without advancing political goals.

Look at some of the attacks since the 2009 hotel bombings:

  • Attempted killings of NGO workers in Aceh, March-November 2009. No one claimed responsibility, and the attacks remained a mystery until the Aceh camp participants were arrested.
  • Executions of police in Purworejo and Kebumen in March-April 2010. These were carried out by a small Bandung-based group with ties to JAT but not acting on JAT instructions.
  • Assault on Hamparan Perak police station September 2010 in which three policemen were killed. A group from Medan called Kumpulan Mujahidin Indonesia was responsible
  • Largely failed efforts at bombing campaign in December 2010 against churches and police posts in Central Java.The Klaten teenagers and their leader were the culprits.
  • Letter-bombs in Jakarta, March 2010, which are still under investigation.

These are all attempts at ightiyalat, secret assassinations that target generic or individual enemies without the perpetrator ever coming forward. There has been a shift away from large organizations to small groups of five to 10 members. The importance of JI, JAT and other organizations is that they provide the community through which social connections are made and ideas disseminated. JAT in Bandung, for example, helped provide a forum for Aman Abdurrahman, a radical ideologue just sentenced to nine years in prison for his role in the Aceh camp; the men who killed the police in Central Java met each other at Aman’s lectures. Neither Aman nor JAT directed them to murder, but the violence probably would not have happened without them.

There is no common socioeconomic profile of these groups. The Klaten youths were relatively poor; the Bandung group was almost all university-educated. Poverty was not what drove these people to radicalism. It was rather ideas, conveyed by persuasive individuals through religious discussion groups, in which local grievances could be fit into an easily understood framework of friends and foes. Reports of an international evangelical group trying to convert Muslims in Greater Aceh after the tsunami became a rationale for attacking foreign NGO workers. The death at police hands of some two dozen men after the Aceh camp broke up became the motive for murdering police in Central Java a few months later.

Working through small groups is ideologically sound, from a jihadi perspective, and essential to avoid detection. They are easy to form and difficult to distinguish from groups of friends that meet regularly for discussion. If groups that we have studied in Medan, Lampung, Bandung, Poso, Klaten and Laweyan are any indication, they tend to have a few members with ties back to the important groups of the past—JI, Kompak, or Darul Islam—but operate outside their control, and many members have no previous organizational affiliation.

This raises the question of what the large organizations are doing. They too have their own ideological imperative. Building on the framework laid down by the Jordaniascholar, Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, they argue that organizations or tanzim form the critical building block of an Islamic society; the long-term goal is to establish an Islamic state, and jihad is a critical means toward that end. But it cannot be waged without community support. Therefore, for JAT and JI, the imperative is growth and recruitment, through schools and dakwah; expanding the mass base is critical. This is accomplished in part by finding issues that resonate with the target population.

These organizations have found that while at an intellectual level, the struggles in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere are important, they are too abstract for the broader public. The anti-Ahmadiyah and Christianization issues have a much more direct appeal, so in the interests of strengthening the mass base, they are willing to join Islamist coalitions for the purpose. Thus, we saw JAT take an active role in the anti-Christianization demonstrations in Bekasi, outside Jakarta, last year, organized by non-jihadi groups like Forum Umat Islam; join other groups to remove displaced Muslims family from church shelters after the Merapi volcanic eruption in Central Java; and place advertisements in the mass circulation magazine Sabili for JAT’s disaster relief crisis center. The ads stressed the role of the crisis center in combating Christianization. This kind of alliance-building with nonjihadis would have been unthinkable before translations of al-Maqdisi opened the ideological door to cooperation.

The two strategies of small group violence and large organizational base-building may seem diametrically opposed but in many ways they are complementary. The organizations have not abandoned active jihad, only deferred it. They have the resources, human and financial, to support the publication and dissemination of jihadi literature in print and on-line. Book launchings of Indonesian translations of al-Qaeda material remain an important vehicle for spreading ideas and attracting new members—who then become the recruiting pool for small groups. For both, military training is essential. The small groups can hit at the enemy, however defined, without necessarily jeopardizing the broader effort to build an Islamic state. The logical consequence of the teachings of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Aman Abdurrahman is violence, but they can maintain that they have no responsibility if some of their followers are inspired to action on the side.

We also have a third important category of jihadis in Indonesia who can draw on the other two camps: those who believe in open, frontal attack against apostate governments through armed insurgency. The men who formed the Aceh camp, led by Dulmatin, seem to have envisioned a training center whose graduates would eventually form the army of an Islamic revolutionary state, created in and expanding from Aceh.

Umar Patek is one of these revolutionaries. He fought side by side with the MILF and Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao; he was interested in the struggle in southern Thailand; and he somehow has ended up in Pakistan. Understanding the network that he and Dulmatin built in the Philippines, and that Dulmatin brought together on Java before his death last year is going to be critical to understanding how the revolutionaries fit in to the other jihadi groups operating in Indonesia.

The small groups do not need any international input other than ideological direction, which they can get from books—but the revolutionaries may have a hand in transmitting ideas. The focus of the large organizations is increasingly domestic, in order to attract the mass base, but the attraction of international solidarity with oppressed Muslims around the world remains powerful. The revolutionaries have the most interest in alliances with terrorist groups abroad and in learning from their experience. Several Indonesian blogspots now showcase the al-Qaeda agazine Inspire, and we know that the al-Qaeda media unit in Waziristan has regular contact with individuals here. There are also almost certainly contacts with the Yemen- based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its counterpart in North Africa.

What to do? The new anti-terror agency, BNPT, must focus on prevention, not creating programs out of thin air but starting with hard data on the groups that we know exist now and the mosques where their routine study sessions and discussions take place. If they do not yet have a list of the mosques where extremist groups have routinely met, they should, and they should be developing pilot projects in those communities. A condition should probably be included in the conditional release program for prisoners convicted of terrorism, banning any dakwah or preaching activities for the duration of parole. Abdullah Sunata and Aman Abdurrahman are two men who were back preaching within weeks of their release. They need to have an Arabist on staff who follows ideological developments in the Middle East and radical websites here and can alert BNPT staff to new trends that have implications for terrorist tactics in Indonesia.

We like to think that terrorism has been defeated in Indonesia.The networks are weaker, but they are very much alive.

An Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) soldier takes part in a foot patrol following an alleged ADF attack in the village of Manzalaho near Beni, 18 February 2020. AFP/ Alexis Huguet
Q&A / Africa

Understanding the New U.S. Terrorism Designations in Africa

The U.S. has designated two armed groups in the DRC and in Mozambique as terrorist organisations, claiming they are affiliated with the Islamic State, and creating potential legal peril for peacemakers who may deal with them. Crisis Group analyses the implications.

Which armed groups did the U.S. designate under its terrorism authorities and what is their backstory?

Last week the U.S Department of State designated two armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique, as well as their leaders. U.S. officials allege that these two groups – the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) in the DRC, and Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) in Mozambique – have become Islamic State (ISIS) franchises. It refers to them as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Democratic Republic of the Congo (ISIS-DRC) and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique). ASWJ is also known locally as Al-Shabaab, although it is distinct from its Somali namesake.

The U.S. designations come amid expressions of increasing alarm in Washington that despite the end of ISIS’s physical caliphate in the Levant, the group could be gaining influence elsewhere, especially in Africa. Already, local groups in Nigeria and the Sahel fight under ISIS’s banner. Since 2019, ISIS has stated that its “Central Africa Province” includes parts of the DRC and Mozambique, where it says it has developed alliances with local armed groups, including the ADF and ASWJ.

The ADF and ASWJ are groups whose violence has historically been first and foremost driven by local dynamics and grievances. They recruit mainly local fighters.

Although it emerged in the 1990s as an Islamist movement fighting the Ugandan state, the ADF has since the 2000s mostly been active in the northern part of the DRC’s North Kivu province, where it has recruited Congolese fighters, including by force, and entrenched itself by manipulating disputes among local chiefs and communities in areas under its control. Having developed tactical alliances with both senior army officers and armed groups fighting security forces, it both fuels and feeds off an internecine and murky conflict on the ground.

In Mozambique, ASWJ formed when frustrated youth, including local petty traders and poor fishermen, began building their own mosques and prayer houses in Cabo Delgado province and challenging established religious leaders they saw as too close to state authorities. As the police clamped down, they eventually took up arms, launching their first attack in 2017. Some former ruby miners, expelled from mining concessions earlier that year, also joined the fight, according to Crisis Group’s research.

There is some evidence of prior contacts between the two designated groups. Local observers and officials in the DRC and Mozambique say that there are some known cases of Mozambicans, including some of the leaders of ASWJ, travelling to the DRC for training, but these movements are believed to have ended years ago. The U.S. Department of State says the two groups are “distinct”.

Women wait in line during a World Food Program distribution at a school in Matuge district in northern Mozambique, 24 February 2021. AFP/Alfredo Zuniga

How dangerous are the ADF and ASWJ?

Both the ADF and ASWJ have grown more dangerous over the years, becoming increasingly bold in their attacks against security forces while inflicting terrible violence against civilians.

The ADF, long dormant in the DRC, first began resurfacing again in 2014, mainly committing atrocities against civilians in gruesome machete attacks. From 2017, the group then began turning its attention increasingly against government security forces and UN peacekeepers. Its operations became more sophisticated and used greater firepower. According to a December 2020 report by UN investigators in the DRC, the ADF has over time also become better at building improvised explosive devices, although it has nothing like the ISIS core’s expertise.

Recent Congolese military operations between late 2019 and October 2020 have killed hundreds of fighters belonging to the ADF, which Crisis Group’s research indicates is now split into competing factions. Some elements have moved east to the foothills of the Rwenzori mountains bordering Uganda, and some north into neighbouring Ituri province, where they have been involved in reported killings.

In Mozambique, ASWJ has become significantly more dangerous and sophisticated since it first started up in 2017. In the early stages of the insurgency, attackers grouped in small packs of a few fighters to attack remote police outposts or villages, often brandishing blunt weapons. But by early 2020, the insurgents had taken significant stockpiles of weapons from government security forces and were able to mount attacks on district capitals, including the port of Mocimboa da Praia. Government forces fled the city in August and have yet to retake it. Violence against civilians also escalated over the past year, as the insurgency swept south towards the provincial capital Pemba, with numerous credible reports of atrocities committed by ASWJ fighters.

In recent months, security forces working with foreign military contractors from South Africa have caused the group some setbacks, destroying some of their camps and storage facilities in the bush. Nevertheless, insurgents continue to regroup and mount guerrilla attacks on security forces, while also plundering villages for food.

Are countries in the region concerned about these groups?

Yes, although for the time being the DRC’s and Mozambique’s neighbours in the Great Lakes region and Southern Africa are less concerned about the groups’ possible territorial ambitions than the threat they might pose to public spaces in their capitals and other locations. Some worry that they will face the kind of attacks that Kenya has seen in recent years in Nairobi, or that Uganda saw in Kampala in 2010. Somalia’s Al-Shabaab jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the Nairobi and Kampala attacks, although some Ugandan security sources believe the latter was carried out with assistance from ADF operatives. South Africa also shows signs of being worried about militant groups, including those from the Great Lakes region and Mozambique, using its territory as a base or safe haven, and about possible links between home-grown militants in South Africa and those in the DRC and Mozambique.

What is the Islamic State’s relationship with the two groups?

Crisis Group has shown in the past how ISIS was able to strengthen and shape the tactics of the Boko Haram faction that became the Islamic State in West Africa Province (ISWAP) by deploying a limited amount of resources, training and instruction, although any influence ISIS possessed did not transform the movement’s overwhelmingly local aspirations. There is little to suggest that ISIS has gained anything like that level of sway over either the ADF or ASWJ, much less the ability to exert command and control over them.   

A recent study on the ADF by George Washington University, which some U.S. officials privately endorse, provides evidence that ISIS has given financial assistance to the DRC group, and that there have been communications between the two organisations. Specifically, the report details financial transactions between Waleed Ahmed Zein, an ISIS financial operative who was sanctioned by the U.S. Department of Treasury in September 2018, and his alleged ADF contacts. It additionally details cases where ISIS disseminated propaganda about ADF attacks and presents ISIS-published photos of ADF leader Seka Musa Baluku, who according to the study has pledged allegiance to the global ISIS leadership, preaching to his recruits.

The study also states, however, that it has found “no evidence of direct command and control orders” from ISIS to the ADF. The December 2020 UN report states that even if ISIS claimed 46 purported ADF attacks in 2020, compared to 29 in 2019, many of the claims inaccurately described the attacks’ locations and dates, leading the authors to conclude that ISIS had “limited knowledge and control” of these operations. In the meantime, sources close to the ADF say one ADF faction appears to have rejected ISIS and may even be turning against Baluku’s group.

Similarly, while there is evidence that ISIS has had some contact with jihadists in Mozambique, it is unclear how close or meaningful their ties are. In a report issued last year, UN investigators working on Somalia stated that Mohamed Ahmed “Qahiye”, a native of the semi-autonomous region of Puntland in northern Somalia and a member of an ISIS-linked Al-Shabaab splinter group, had travelled to Mozambique in early 2020. Regional security sources say he is a trainer and a bomb-maker. While ASWJ attacks did become more sophisticated in 2020, the group has yet to show evidence of explosive device capacities.

In addition, communication between the groups and some coordination in disseminating propaganda does not suggest especially close links. When ASWJ took control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia in August, ISIS did not broadcast this in its Al-Naba magazine for two weeks. Nor has it claimed any ASWJ attack as its own since October. U.S. officials say this is because the ISIS core’s media wing is under pressure that currently limits its output.

Are there foreign fighters in ASWJ?

Yes. The biggest cohort of foreigners fighting within the ranks of ASWJ, according to government officials, regional security sources and eyewitnesses interviewed by Crisis Group, are from Tanzania. Many of them appear to be acolytes of Aboud Rogo, a former Kenyan cleric who was linked to both al-Qaeda and Al-Shabaab in Somalia and who was assassinated in 2012. Abu Yasir Hassan, whom the U.S. has identified as ASWJ’s leader, is also Tanzanian.

What will be the effect of these designations and how might authorities in the DRC and Mozambique manage the fallout?

Among other things, the terrorism listings freeze all of the assets under U.S. jurisdiction that belong to the ADF and ASWJ or their designated leaders, and make it a U.S. criminal offense to knowingly provide material support to any of the designees.  

While the sanctions that flow from these designations in theory do not criminalise all contact with the two groups, they are extremely broad, and their implementation could create problems for both humanitarians and peacemakers. Humanitarian agencies may shrink from providing support to vulnerable populations in Mozambique and the DRC if they believe they might end up resourcing someone who could later be accused of being an ADF or ASWJ member. Government or UN officials who might want to put resources into the hands of insurgents or fighters in order to, for example, transport them to a forum for peace negotiations, could technically also fall foul of the material support restrictions that flow from the designations.

Nor is there much likelihood that the designations will lead to a quick dismantling of these armed groups, which manage much of their money in cash or via forms of money transfer that will require painstaking work to investigate and chase, and may put them beyond the reach of U.S. sanctions.

The U.S. designations meanwhile could unintentionally send a counterproductive signal to political actors in the region. Especially in the DRC and Mozambique, where these measures are not fully understood even by top policymakers, they could be used by hardliners to justify calls for addressing the challenge posed by the ADF and ASWJ through military action alone. Diplomats in the region also now wonder whether the official unveiling of a U.S. military training program for Mozambique right after the sanctions were announced will be the thin end of the wedge for more U.S. military engagement in the gas-rich country. So far, however, the Mozambican government has signalled very clearly it does not want any foreign boots touching the soil of Cabo Delgado. Military operations in the DRC and Mozambique have recently dented both groups, but tackling the threat they pose will require a broader approach, including efforts to appeal to the Congolese and Mozambican citizens who respectively make up the bulk of fighters in both groups.


Deputy Director, Africa Program
Deputy Project Director, Central Africa
Senior Consultant, Southern Africa
Researcher, Horn of Africa