Indonesia's Jihadi Threat Evolves

The simultaneous suicide attacks on two of Jakarta's most exclusive hotels on July 17, which killed nine and injured 50, are part of Indonesia's continually evolving jihadi threat, according to the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, which monitors conflicts worldwide.

The radical Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which gets much of the blame from the press and governments, still exists as an organization although it seems to have lost its sense of direction, the crisis group said in an extensive policy briefing produced last week. JI, the policy paper said, "has gone from being a hierarchical structure with cells in five countries (Indonesia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore and Australia) to a largely Indonesian grouping with a loose system of territorial coordinators and some individual members elsewhere -- especially the Philippines."

The rising star is instead Noordin Mohammad Top, formerly a Malaysian bit player who fled to Indonesia in the wake of the exposure of a plot to attack Singaporean targets in 2001, which led government agents to other JI cells in Malaysia. Little is known of his group, although it is believed to number dozens rather than hundreds. The inner circle may include no more than seven or eight men, who escaped capture in earlier dragnets.

One of those associates, named Achmady, was arrested in the Central Java community of Solo last Thursday in possession of a live bomb and admitted plans to carry out a suicide attack as a follow-up to the Jakarta bombings. A woman suspected of being Noordin's wife was also arrested. Her father, Bahrudin Latif, is also wanted by police. He is the founder of an Islamic boarding school where police found bomb-making materials during a raid on July 14.

It is possible, the crisis group said, that the jihadi organization has no clear structure beyond Noordin and his inner circle and consists only of ad hoc cells put together for specific operations. One document found in the possession of men that Noordin brought into the second plot to bomb Bali nightclubs in 2005 was called Sel Tauhid, translated from the Arabic. It states that small jihadist cells, working autonomously but toward the same goal, can be as or more effective than a larger organisation like al-Qaeda.

Among the close associates are a bomb-maker from Central Java named Reno alias Tedi, but there are a number of others, including two linked to a safe house in Central Java, set up for Noordin's operatives in early 2006 after the Bali II bombing. One, Nur Said Abdurrohman, was originally thought to be the suicide bomber for the Marriott but DNA tests on the body showed he was not.

Indonesia's serious brush with the jihadi threat began when communal violence broke out in the Indonesian province of Maluku in 1999, according to the policy briefing, Jemaah Islamiyah sent "Afghan alumni" – men who had gone through military training in camps on the Afghan-Pakistan border – to the area to train new recruits. Ultimately, after Singapore police uncovered a bomb plot in 2001 which led to the discovery of several JI cells in Malaysia, Malaysian radicals fled to Indonesia.

Two of the Malaysian nationals, Noordin Azhari Husin and Noordin, were among them. Azhari was already part of a group headed by Riduan Isamuddin, who took the nom de guerre Hambali, and who is now said to be in prison in Guantanamo Bay. Although Noordin was regarded as a bit player at the time, he would ultimately rise to split off from the main JI contingent and is now considered the most troublesome of the players in Indonesia's jihadi game.

Noordin and Azhari planned from start to finish the 2003 bombing of the JW Marriott Hotel, which took the lives of 12 people and injured 150, almost all of them Indonesians. Although he was in touch with the JI leadership, the crisis group said, Noordin apparently didn't have its endorsement, with many JI leaders regarding Al Qaeda-style attacks as counterproductive. He would go on to direct the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta although, the policy paper said, "he was very clearly operating a splinter group."

"Of the several violent extremist groups operating in Indonesia, only the network around Noordin Top has both an interest in attacking Western targets and the proven capacity to do so," the heavily footnoted policy review said. "He has shown an ability to recruit new operatives with no previous history of violence, although he has always relied on an inner circle of JI members committed to the same extreme interpretation of jihad."

Noordin, the crisis group said, "is believed to have around him a few other fugitives with bomb-making expertise, most notably Reno...who attended the JI school Mahad Aly. Reno studied bomb-making with Azhari but he escaped when police surrounded Azhari's hideout in Batu, Malang, East Java and shot him. Police suspect he may be the man known as "Aji", sent by Noordin to instruct [a] Palembang group in bomb-making in mid-2007."

Noordin's group, the crisis group emphasized, is not the same as JI. It is a splinter group that includes some JI members but others as well. In at least two of his earlier operations, he has included in the team people newly recruited with no previous experience in JI or any other group. However, he continues to operate under the protection of individual JI members who are reluctant to turn him in even when they don't agree with his actions.

As for JI itself, the policy paper said, no one is sure who the commander is today. While some sources point to a Semarang-based religious teacher, information from some JI members suggest that Zuhroni alias Zarkasih, the acting amir arrested in June 2007, continues to sign off on key decisions from prison. The organization continues to have a military wing and seeks to provide military training. Some 25 to 30 are believed to be in Mindanao, some of them in a camp called Jabal Quba in an area controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Maguindanao. Others are believed to be working with the Abu Sayaf Group in Jolo and several other Southeast Asian jihadis affiliated to JI or other like-minded organisations such as KOMPAK.

In September 2008, many JI members joined spiritual leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir's new organisation Jamaah Ansharud Tauhid (JAT), a radical but above-ground and non-violent group that rejects democracy and seeks the immediate application of Islamic law, the paper said, with a focus on religious outreach rather than violence.

Part of the organization's dilemma relates to released prisoners, many of whom have actively cooperated with police and "are considered tainted by their colleagues and have been marginalised within the organization. This has generated resentment, but it is unlikely that Noordin would exploit it to draw more men into his circle, if only because it would not be in his interests to make use of people who are already well-known to the police and perhaps under surveillance."

Many Indonesians and others were lulled into a sense of security because after annual bombings between 2002 and 2005, foreigners had not been targeted again until now. That appears partly to be because Noordin lost key members of his team after 2005, including his Malaysian comrade Azhari, the major operational planner and master bomb-maker, who was killed in a police raid. Also, it appeared that after the second Bali bombings, Noordin was protected by JI on the condition that he forsake attacks.

Having blown up legions of young tourists in Bali, the bombers now have changed their tactics to deliberately seek out venues where the business community gathers, the report says.

"The global profile of these attacks had the potential to be much larger as they came two days before the Manchester United football team was due to stay in the Ritz-Carlton. The club quickly cancelled the Indonesian leg of its Asian tour. It is highly unlikely that the bombers knew where the team would be staying when planning for this operation began. If they found out when the plans were near fruition, they may have decided that attacking the business executives, who regularly met on Fridays at the Marriott, was still more important.

There is increasing speculation in the Indonesian media that the bombers inserted one of their members into the hotel staff long before the bombing took place. "Whether that is confirmed, what we know is that in every previous operation, the bombers have carried out a meticulous survey of the intended target looking for weak points in the security system..They also would have studied the behaviour of Indonesian guests staying at the hotel, noting the clothes they wore and their style of walking, talking and interacting. This we know from the Bali document, where the bombers were not only told to study how Indonesian tourists there looked but to report back to the field coordinator, including such details as the trademarks of shoes commonly worn.

Despite the bombings, the report gives considerable praise to Indonesian police, who it says have working closely with prisoners and former prisoners involved in terrorism, as well as with some "Afghan alumni" who were never arrested. In the wake of previous bombings, they have acted quickly and effectively and arrests have come quickly. Their efforts, which are more economic than ideological in focus, have been widely praised.

The critical question is where the money is coming from. The earlier bombings haven't been particularly expensive, with financing for the 2003 Marriott bombing arranged by Hambali through al-Qaeda contacts in Pakistan. Some $50,000 was transferred from Pakistan to Thailand, of which $30,000 was then carried to Indonesia by a Malaysian courier. Of this, $15,000 was to be used for "operations" and the Marriott bombing cost less, because there was some left over for the Australian embassy attack.

This operation could have been more expensive, because it involved two hotels, a stay in the hotel, sophisticated planning, and likely rental of a house in Jakarta, although no purchase of a car was necessary since a car bomb was not used. It is possible that the team could have raised the funds needed through robberies, the report continues. Although relationships between jihadi groups inside and outside Indonesia would raise serious concerns about future attacks.

Tragic as these attacks are, the report continues, there is no indication that they will have any impact on political stability. Noordin has never been particularly interested in Indonesian politics, and in the past, when elections have factored into his scheduling, it was not the political aspect that concerned him but rather tightened security resulting from electoral politics. This time, the attack might have been timed for just after the 8 July 2009 elections, when security might have been more relaxed.

The report cautions against overreaction by rushing to strengthen anti-terrorism legislation. "It is too easy to change the laws without understanding why some terrorist cells have taken root. Indonesia has rightly taken pride in its decision to bring terrorism suspects to trial quickly in open trials that are fully covered by the media and to release them when their terms are completed," it continues. "Police efforts to work with prisoners after their release have provided a useful way of ensuring ongoing communication and information about radical networks. There were always ideologues who refused to work with police, but the fact that these attacks took place does not mean the programs were a failure. They should be expanded, but with ongoing evaluation of the results achieved."

Beyond law enforcement, the Crisis Group says, "the government needs to understand why and how fugitives as dangerous as Noordin Top continue to find shelter in Indonesian villages. There needs to be far more attention to a network of JI-affiliated schools, not to close them but to design programs that will entail more interaction with and observation by the Indonesian government."