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OPINION / ANALYSIS

Jemaah Islamiyah: Survival in Question Following High Profile Arrests

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Dr Pankaj Jha
June 25, 2007

One of the most dreaded terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is presently facing a leadership crisis. The arrest of two of its most prominent leaders, Abu Dujana and Zarkasih (also known as Yusron Mahmudi and Abu Irsyad respectively) has jeopardized JI’s future plans in the region. Of late, JI has faced the wrath of the anti–terrorist initiatives by the Indonesian government duly supported by other Southeast Asian neighbours as well as Australia. In 2003 Abu Rusdan (Hambali) was arrested and even then there was a leadership vacuum which was created and few of the prominent leaders like Noordin Top had initiated their own terror modules. With the decline in the strength of JI which was apparent after the incident free year of 2006, led to speculation that few of the terror modules operating under the umbrella of JI had either disintegrated or has lost the purpose. Even in the last two and half years about 200 arrest made by Indonesian police has fractured the cadre base of JI.

The most important question that arises at this juncture is what could be the possible options for JI. As earlier whenever their leaders got arrested their successors were named so as to sustain the organisational structure. But JI, off late, has been considered as a rather decentralised organisation having less of spine and more of rhetoric. Even then JI could not be called as a spent force because recently JI had announced the floating of a 200 cadre elite operational force mandated to attack sensitive targets and conduct assassinations. Also with the release of Abu Bakar Bashyir in June 2006, the religious ideologue of JI, is still free and has the potential to influence the radical Muslims. JI has also been associated with the two major terrorist attacks in Bali and Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in the past and so it still has the most potent explosives experts who have been trained by JI bomb expert Azhari Bin Husin. Husin was killed in November 2005. Even JI militants like Umar Patek and Dulmatin are at large and supposed to be hiding in southern Philippines and reportedly affiliated with the Abu Sayyaf.

The recent success that have been achieved by Detachment 88 (Indonesia’s Anti-terrorism unit) is because of the concerted efforts undertaken by Philippines under ‘Operation Ultimatum’ in December 2006–January 2007 to fan out Abu Sayyaf militants hiding in Mindanao province of Philippines. This operation led to the fleeing of the JI operatives who had sought refuge in southern Philippines after the crackdown in Indonesia. Also stringent security measures undertaken by Singapore and Malaysia have left few rendezvous options for JI militants.

In fact the close coordination between the intelligence agencies and police organisations in Southeast Asia is paying dividends. In relation to the terrorist threat, Southeast Asian governments continue to treat home-grown Islamists cautiously, being concerned primarily with the threat of separatism, political instability, and social turmoil, as well as their own political fortunes. The common fear is that too aggressive prosecution of the anti-terrorist campaign will progressively radicalise more and more of the disparate groupings that make up Southeast Asia’s Islamic communities. There is also the question of the possible erosion in newly democratic countries of hard won liberties as new suppressive mechanisms are put in place. In fact this is one of the reasons for Indonesia to not proscribe JI and thus earn the wrath of countries like US and Australia but even then Indonesian anti-terrorism efforts are commendable.

In such a situation it is important to note the role of other high profile JI terrorists. Noordin Top who has been the most impressive indoctrinator has floated his own organisation known as Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad in Malaya Archipelago (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines) while the two prominent JI terrorist involved in Bali bomb blasts, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, are among the most wanted in Southeast Asia and are untraceable. The United States has offered $10 million for the capture of Dulmatin, who uses the alias Joko Pitono, and $1 million for Patek. Dulmatin is an Afghan-trained expert in explosives.

Both US and Australia are taking keen interest in the activities of JI militants owing to the loss of the 88 Australians in the first Bali bomb blasts while US is trying hard to stop the globalization of terrorism. One of the instances was that of Omar Faroukh who fled from US captivity after capture in Indonesia, visited Indonesia and subsequently was killed in Iraq in September 2006 while fighting against US forces. Also during the Israeli–Hezbollah war, radical Muslims in Malaysia and Indonesia were keen to join their Muslim brothers in Lebanon. This polarization is a dangerous precedent for the multinational nature of terrorism. So JI annihilation or even marginalization would act in favor for US.

JI has been losing its leaders but in the recent past the speed has accelerated. It is still to be deciphered whether JI would come back with a blast like that of Bali or would try to assassinate few of the important westerners to drive home their relevance in the Southeast Asian theatre. Indonesia has been tackling the menace and has been looking to bring the anti-radicalization bill but more than anything many of the international terrorism experts feel that Indonesian laws are weak and because of which many JI elements got free in the past. It would be interesting to watch which modus operandi JI would initiate to strengthen its cadres and look for new recruits for revitalizing the terror group.

Dr. Pankaj Kumar Jha, Associate Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, New Delhi