"Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon", crisisgroup

Asia Briefing N°132 26 Jan 2012 


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