Saturday, April 23, 2011
Indonesian Jihadists and the Good Friday Bomb Attempt
Indonesian police announced the discovery of five explosive devices around a church near Jakarta on April 22. Investigations into recent jihadist incidents in Indonesia reveal a growing crossover between hard-line Islamist and jihadist groups, and that recent plots were hatched by a militant network rather than by lone-wolf actors. While security forces have managed to limit jihadists to smaller soft target attacks, the jihadists are now seeking to expand their support by once again targeting Christians. The potential for an attack over Easter thus remains a serious risk. Analysis
Police found five explosive devices with timers around a church in Tangerang, a city just west of Jakarta, Indonesia, National Police Spokesman Anton Bachrul Alam said April 22. An earlier announcement had said that one 330-pound device had been discovered near natural gas pipes in a lot next to the church, but further details revealed that there were two 220-pound devices and three small pipe bombs. The devices reportedly were set to detonate at 9 a.m. on Good Friday, when the church would have been packed with worshippers. The attackers apparently hoped to breach the pipeline and ignite the natural gas, creating an even larger explosion.
Since the 2002 Bali attacks, and even more so since now-deceased militant leader Noordin Top planned to target President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and the Jakarta hotel attacks in 2009, Indonesian jihadist networks — which frequently seek support among the island nation’s Islamist groups — have been dismantled and their members captured or killed. A series of book bombs, an attack on a police mosque in Cirebon, and now the failed church devices, however, show a growing effort by Indonesian jihadists to strike back at the police, incite religious violence and expand their appeal. The discovery of the five devices confirms STRATFOR’s suspicions that non-Muslim groups would be targeted in such attacks. We therefore expect more such attempts over the Easter weekend and during the coming months.
Jemaah Islamiyah’s Tactical Debate
The leading jihadist network in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has long had major internal debates over its tactics. In a fairly liberal country like Indonesia, JI has struggled to gain the support necessary to make its end-goal of instituting an Islamic state even a remote possibility, much less build a substantial support base. The International Crisis Group detailed this ongoing debate in a paper published April 19 that examines different groups of arrested jihadists as well as the public papers and translations of influential jihadist thinkers.
* International Crisis Group report on Indonesian jihadists’ ideology and tactics
(STRATFOR is not responsible for the content of other Web sites.)
STRATFOR has chronicled the tactical debates among international jihadists, particularly noting the move to grassroots and lone wolf-style attacks, most notably promoted in al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire magazine. This is not, however, a function of ideological debate, but of tactical realities. Worldwide, jihadists have faced major crackdowns, from two wars in the Middle East to major police actions in Southeast Asia. Their ability to network and operate has been severely curtailed, and many individuals making connections with known jihadists have been arrested or killed. Indeed, we have seen militant training camps raided and dismantled in Indonesia.
That 19 suspects were rounded up so quickly, and that the police are leaking information that recent militant incidents in Indonesia are linked, confirm a larger network is behind the incidents, rather than grassroots cells. The fact that the individuals sending book bombs knew about the church attack underscores those connections, and, worse for the network, a serious lack of operational security. This is a continuing trend of loosely connected cells commanded by former senior JI figures, or at least those who are still free. The continued success of police may eventually force Indonesian jihadists to move to grassroots tactics, but it has not happened yet.
Fear of detection, however, has prompted small attacks by individuals with limited skills, which may explain the discovery of the devices in Tangerang and the low casualty count of the attack at the Cirebon mosque. Media reports have linked the book bombs and the Cirebon and Tangerang plots, but the nature of those links remains unclear. This is probably a reflection of JI’s long-time strategy of having small cells not directly connected to major leaders, particularly ideologue Abu Bakar Bashir, who has sought to keep his hands clean.
More clear is that the National Police and perhaps the new National Counterterrorism Agency gathered intelligence from the book bombs that led to the discovery of the church devices. The arrests of 19 suspects further underlines that Indonesian security services are hot on the trail of any jihadists, even though they are hampered by hard-line groups’ ability to maintain plausible deniability to avoid being linked to the violence.
The Jihadist-Islamist Nexus
New evidence on the bomber in the Cirebon attack, Muhammad Syarif, highlights the interplay between jihadists and Islamists in Indonesia. Before Cirebon, Syarif had been wanted for his involvement in attacks by groups on convenience stores that involved the destruction of alcoholic beverages. The leader of a local hard-line Islamist group in West Java, the Movement Against Illegal Sects and Non-Believers (GAPAS), confirmed that Syarif had participated in its activities, though it denied he was an actual member. (GAPAS is part of the Ummah Islamic Forum in Cirebon, one of many groups carrying out mob violence and protests across the country, demanding Shariah.) While some claim he carried out the Cirebon attack on his own, his participation in previous attacks with like-minded individuals suggests he may have received aid from known jihadists.
Syarif reveals the associations between groups like GAPAS and jihadists. An anonymous police source told The Jakarta Globe the device Syarif used was very similar to those designed by Malaysian bombmaker Azahari Husin, who was killed in 2005. Azahari’s trainees are currently the highest on the list of wanted JI militants still at large. This could mean they are recruiting from members of hard-line, non-jihadist Islamist groups, which could prompt a government crackdown on such groups. While direct links between the 19 suspects and JI bombmakers have not been publicized, Ansyaad Mbai, head of Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency, said all of the suspects are somehow related to mainstream jihadist figures or groups.
This crossover between hardline groups and jihadists is a worrying trend for Indonesia, where religious tensions are on the rise and which has a history of mob violence. Jihadists have always recruited from pesanterens (Islamic boarding schools), mosques, and even hard-line Islamist groups; the latter’s growing popularity has made them a potentially dangerous force.
JI and its associates have long searched for ways to encourage membership and support from a large base of Indonesians, but past involvement in sectarian Christian-Muslim violence in Ambon and Poso, for example, failed. In 2000, JI’s first series of attacks involved setting explosive devices outside 19 churches on Christmas Day. Since then, the group has debated in published papers and Internet forums the issue of attacking non-Muslims. There are many churches in many different parts of Indonesia, and these churches are very soft targets that are vulnerable to attack — even by unskilled attackers. Ironically, as their capabilities limit them to soft targets, the jihadists inevitably will kill many Muslim Indonesians in the process — something that will hurt their popularity. Given that the book bombs and Cirebon attack directly targeted Muslims, this prospect does not seem to worry JI, however.