Terrorism in South East Asia: (Part One of Two)

by JOHN W. MILLER August 18, 2010
Have You Heard About This One?
 
My adopted nation is renowned for gambling. It is said that we are gambling mad and would bet on anything like two flies crawling up a wall, paint drying, grass growing and so on. I don't gamble myself for personal reasons and I abhor the way government is dependent on gambling revenue and the fact that organized crime has moved in on casinos and other forms of gambling. But in this instance, I could be tempted to make a small bet and pose the question: how many FSM readers have heard of Jemaah Islamiyah  and Abu Bakar Bashir?  The alternative would have been to offer a small prize but FSM and I both need our funds.
 
In the forefront of the public mind when it comes to terrorism is al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, while in the UK, they are probably coterminous with Laskar-e-Toiba (LeT) which you will know if you have across my series Terrorism for Novices, has spread around the world through Pakistani emigration. This article is a brief attempt to fill the knowledge gap and deals with Indonesia since independence and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. By the end of the article, if readers do not know more about a dangerous adversary, I will count that as a failure.  
 
Origins - Indonesia in S.E.Asia
 
Jemaah Islamiyah
 
This group is primarily based in the Indonesian archipelago - some 1700-plus islands, with distinctive ethnic, religious and linguistic differences, that lie to the north of Australia separated by narrow straits and having land borders with Papua New Guinea, Malaysia and East Timor (popularly known as to the effete as Timor Leste).
 
Officially Republik Indonesia is the fourth largest country in the world and home to the largest Muslim population.  It has always been seen as important strategically and historically, known for many years as the Spice Islands and attracting major European powers, fighting for a monopoly of rich resources. The Dutch became the preeminent colonial power and ruled the country until World War II.  Fairly typically of such a diverse area, rich and poor are found in close proximity and the country has attracted the attention of many scientists because of its biodiversity and active volcanoes.
 
Indonesia was subject to Japanese invasion during World War II and independence was generally encouraged, firstly as an anti-European sentiment and secondly as part of the Japanese notion of a Greater Southeast Asian Co-prosperity Sphere.  Following World War II, the Dutch tried to reestablish colonial rule in the face of a declaration of independence by Sukarno, the preeminent nationalist leader. The struggle lasted until 1949 when the Dutch formally recognized independence and the country was subsequently recognized by the United Nations. Like most divisive leaders, Sukarno had to perform a balancing act between various power blocks, which included the military, ethnic groups and the Communist Party of Indonesia PKI.  Fairly typically of such arrangements, the President moved away from democracy to an authoritarian role, carefully balancing the Army and the PKI. As Indonesia began to slide towards the left internationally, the influence of the PKI grew and with it, Western concerns about the security of vital sea lanes, especially the Singapore Straits.
 
Malaysia and Singapore had briefly united as Malaysia and found themselves in conflict with Indonesia over the future of the island of Borneo in a period known as Konfrontasi, which lasted from 1962-66.[1]  The government of Sukarno saw Malaysia as a potential political rival in the region and although there was no official declaration of war and casualties through the four year conflict were  light, Malaysia was backed by the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, who fielded troops alongside their Malaysian counterparts.
 
With the end of Konfrontasi in1966, the power and influence of the PKI was virtually ended and in geopolitical terms, it signified the destruction of a pro-Beijing Communist Party in the region. Many Chinese PKI members fled into the jungles and  were systematically broken up into smaller groups and eventually eliminated. From veterans of that conflict, I was told of the important part played by local tribal groups who were fiercely anti-Chinese and bounties were paid for demonstrated communist kills. Grisly though it may sound, the proof of death of a communist was the production of the individual ears to the authorities. It has been estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million people were killed in the anti-communist purge and many captured communists found themselves in prison camps with a harsh regimen.
 
The Indonesian government under Sukarno remained in power until 1968 but had been greatly weakened and outfoxed by Gen. Suharto, who became president in March 1968. However, the new Indonesian government found itself facing the same problems as its predecessor albeit with much more Western goodwill and aid, especially investment and military training conducted by both the US and Australian forces.  The so-called New Order led to three decades of substantial economic growth but this was offset by the growth of corruption and the suppression of political opposition. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s hit Indonesia very hard and increased political opposition and discontent led to the resignation of Pres. Suharto in May 1998.  In addition, East Timor decided to secede from Indonesia in 1998 after many years of military repression.
 
Following the resignation of President Suharto, the central government became stronger and a number of reforms were instituted including changes to the constitution which have had effects on the judicial executive and legislative branches of government.  The president is head of state, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, director of domestic government policymaking and foreign affairs, assisted by an appointed council of ministers, who are not necessarily members of the elected legislature. The country probably as stable as most in the region but is constantly plagued by accusations of graft and corruption, occasional inter-communal violence and religious ferment.
 
The rise of Jemaah Islamiyah.
 
Jemaah Islamiyah or more usually JI means quite literally “Islamic Congregation" which of itself, like so many other names associated with terrorismAppears quite harmless. Just to reiterate, Indonesia has the largest Muslim population in the world and is the fourth largest country.   JI is one of the oldest radical Islamic movements the world and its origins lie in Indonesia as a radical group in the 1940s, where it sprang from an older group, known as Darul Islam  (literally House of Islam). In its modern form, it was formally established on January 1, 1993 by Abu Bakar Bashir and another militant, the Arab-born Abdullah Sungkar, who were both being pursued by the Suharto government and after imprisonment, had taken refuge in Malaysia in the early 1980s. While this paper is concerned with JI, I should mention in passing the great changes in Malaysia since my first visit. On that occasion, Islam in Malaysia was apparently benign and extremists were marginalized. However, Malaysia is an Islamic country and has a radical movement of its own, with connections to Al Qaeda and at one stage, a significant element of the Al Qaeda leadership met in Kuala Lumpur at a conference, prior to 9/11.
 
The objectives of Jemaah Islamiyah extend beyond the borders of Indonesia and are based on the creation of the caliphate or Islamic state in Southeast Asia which would encompass Indonesia, Malaysia and the southern Philippines. One of the co-founders, Abdullah Sungkar reportedly established links with Al Qaeda but this is hard to document, being based on a BBC transcript no longer available. However JI members had been bloodied by serving with the mujahedin against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It also has links with the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) which was an offshoot of the Muslims Students Association in the US. It is considered to be more radical than the Islamic Society of North America (INSA) which is well-known to readers of FSM.
 
 Like most fundamentalist Islamic organizations, it is extremely difficult to penetrate JI and as a consequence, the battle against them has been largely carried out by Detachment 88 of the Indonesian army, which has been trained variously by the US and Australia.  As far as can be determined, JI's first involvement in violent inter-communal activity was conducted in the Malaku islands  (part of the original Spice Islands, more commonly known as the Moluccas) and in the province of Sulawesi, but following 9/11 and the Bush administration's declaration of a war on terror, it's attention shifted to US and Western interests in Indonesia and the wider region.
 
Often during my writings and conversations, I have said that the countries of the West -  the liberal democracies - are in this fight together. And one of the first and most clear demonstrations of this point came with a plot by JI to bomb diplomatic missions of the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Israel and attack their personnel in Singapore in December 2001.  During my personal dealings with the Singaporean authorities, I found them to be acutely aware of many external threats to this extremely small but economically successful and viable state, which for a while was part of Malaysia. The security authorities impressed with their professionalism and it was no surprise that the plot of 2001 was uncovered.
 
The other fact about Singapore is that under Lee Kwan Yew, democracy may be limited by some standards but it is stable.  Justice dispensed quite legally by the Singaporean courts is often regarded as harsh but many including myself would consider that when it comes to terrorist matters, justice must be seen to be done.  Within a month, 15 people were in custody and further investigations led to the detention of another 26 people between 2002 and 2005. As of late 2006, 37 were detained without trial under the Internal Security Act while for have been released on restriction orders. This is tough justice but the lily-livered left and those who whinge about civil liberties might care to consider the possibility of numerous casualties had the plot succeeded.
 
For a while it threw into bold relief, the existence of a branch of JI in Singapore. The state would be hostile territory for religious extremists because Singapore's population is mainly Chinese and would reject the notion of a caliphate. It was subsequently learned that the JI had started with a sleeper cell in Singapore in 1993 under the leadership of a veteran of the mujahedin campaign in Afghanistan, Ibrahim Maidin, who commenced recruiting members by running religious classes, a common tactic overlooked far too often in the West.
 
 According to a White Paper produced by the Singaporean government, at least eight members of the sleeper cell had received training in Afghanistan. They also determined that Riduan Isamuddin, the JI leader more usually known as Hambali had facilitated their travel to Pakistan using false documentation and cover stories to have them accepted by a religious school in that country. It appears that they stayed in an Al Qaeda safe house in Pakistan before traveling to Afghanistan.   They received basic and tactical military training in Afghanistan, where they also became familiar in the use of AK-47s and mortars. It is also claimed that several members attended a Philippine training camp set up by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which was run by JI members from Indonesia. [2]
 
Contradicting reports by the  International Crisis Group,  the Singapore authorities made it abundantly clear that this particular cell was operationally active and operated under conditions of tight security and used coded communications. However, the Singaporean authorities have discovered that the group had surveyed other targets, as early as 1997 and in particular, the transportation of Naval personnel from the US and UK to a recreation facility. According to a press report, a member of the Singapore cell traveled to Afghanistan and was trained for an operation but ultimately Al Qaeda rejected the plan for reasons unknown.[3][4]  Interestingly, it appears that JI operatives from the Philippines were also involved in the plot and in Malaysia, others acted as regional organizers for Al Qaeda.
 
With the thwarted attack of 2001 on the embassies and the substantial round up suspects by the authorities, it is abundantly clear that the relationship between JI and Al Qaeda was well-established.  Furthermore, despite the setbacks, it was equally clear that the JI would continue to prosecute war against the West.
 
In Part Two: The killing ground.
 
Endnotes
 
[1] Indonesia had initially favored the creation of Malaysia but there was considerable opposition from the Indonesian Communist Party.  The island of Borneo was divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Sultanate of Brunei.   The Sultan of Brunei was opposed to joining the federation of Malaysia and began backdoor diplomacy with the Indonesian government and there was talk of military exchanges. This was untenable situation. An unsuccessful uprising in Brunei In December 1962 resulted in the restoration of order by British forces from Singapore and in so doing, the security of the Sultanate was maintained.  Less a month later, the Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio announced an official policy of Konfrontasi, reversing support for Malaysia and President Sukarno declared that Malaysia would be crushed. The conflict in the field was typical jungle warfare - close quarters and vicious and the British, having been successful in the Malayan emergency of the 1950s, used basically similar tactics and deployed both the SAS and Gurkha regiments.  
 
Early in 1965, Australia and New Zealand deployment forces alongside British and Gurkhas.  The military strategy against the Indonesians was largely successful, being based on aggressive defense and probing attacks. In Indonesia the political situation deteriorated and the PKI attempted a coup d'état.   It failed basically because many of the senior military officer survived attacks against them and the response was brutal and swift. An army coup basically under the command of Gen. Nasution followed and there was an extensive anti-Communist purge.  Control was reasserted under Gen. Suharto and the Indonesian and Malaysian governments declared Konfontasi at an end in March 1966 and of peace treaty was signed in August of the same year.
 
[2] As noted in the text, JI's objectives extend beyond Indonesia. Sidney Jones, a well-known commentator on Islamic groups and project director for the International Crisis Group in Jakarta considers that Jemaah Islamiya  is divided into four regional groups known as mantiqi: Mantiqi I - mainland Malaysia and Singapore, mainly for fundraising; Mantiqi II -  Java, Sumatra and other islands in the Indonesian archipelago, whose principal objective is jihad; Matiqi III -. Philippines,Borneo and Sulawesi,  basically training areas and Mantiqi IV -  Australia for fund raising.  While giving Ms. Jones credit for some of her analysis of JI, it comes with a caveat.
 
The Singaporean ISA identified at least 3 cells in the city-state, all active in planning jihad.  Being a woman based in Jakarta and notwithstanding her position with the ICG, she has been expelled by the Indonesian government for a short period of time in 2004 for violating her work permit. A more serious charge was a claim made that the Indonesian authorities regarded her work as subversive. However, the prospects of a woman obtaining significant details and assessments of JI without recourse to Indonesian government sources is extremely remote. Her assessments of JI have varied considerably over the years, from considering that the organization had been broken by the Indonesian authorities to a more realistic appraisal that the dispersed nature of JI in the Indonesian archipelago means that it will continue to remain a dangerous force. The most recent assessment by her that Indonesian terrorists in jail are recruiting and planning new attacks is scarcely a surprise: it can be found at Radio Australia.
 
The Singapore Government White Paper - "White Paper - The Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and The Threat of Terrorism" Ministry of Home Affairs, Singapore. 9 January 2003, is no longer available online.
 
[3] “Sleeper Cells in Indonesia Show a Long Reach” by Raymond Bonner & Seth Adams
 
[4] My view is somewhat more prosaic.  Given the long lead-in to the attack on the WTC on 9/11, the plot could be shelved until later and when that time came it followed three months after 9/11 and Singaporean security was successful.
 
FamilySecurityMatters.org Contributing Editor John W. Miller is a former senior intelligence officer with NATO and allied forces, with considerable experience in Russian (Soviet) affairs and counterterrorism.
 

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