Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Rise and Fall of a Terror Cell

The jungles of Indonesia’s Aceh Province seem fertile ground for Islamic militants. But not this time, reports Aubrey Belford.

By Aubrey Belford for

For ideologues in Indonesia’s jihadi movement, pious and remote Aceh must have seemed an ideal base from which to launch holy war. In the towns, mosques’ calls to Friday prayers send shopfront shutters clattering shut. In the countryside, the jungles are so dense and vast that whole armies can disappear.

And so, at the beginning of this year, scores of militants began armed training in a knot of forested hills in Jalin just south of the capital of Banda Aceh. Under the remote guidance of Dulmatin—a Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader frequently labelled by the media as ‘mastermind’ of the 2002 Bali bombings—the group dug in, in efforts to build a nerve centre for Southeast Asian terrorism under the name Al-Qaeda of the Verandah of Mecca. An alliance drawn from across Indonesia’s radical spectrum, the group, if successful, would have helped ushered in a new and disturbing threat.

Yet it was wiped out in just weeks.

The precipitous fall began on February 22, when police moved in. In the ensuing operations, dozens were arrested or killed as locals and a pervasive network of ex-rebels set aside old rivalries with Jakarta to eject the militants. On March 9, Dulmatin himself was tracked with intelligence gathered from Aceh to an internet café on the outskirts of Jakarta and shot dead, left slumped in a computer cubicle with a revolver in his hand.

The militants weren’t the sinister geniuses of legend, laughs Aceh Gov. Irwandi Yusuf, but merely ‘stupid.’ Nasir Abas, a JI turncoat now helping police, assesses their efforts similarly: ‘It’s not a training camp, it’s a grave.’

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At first glance, there’s a lot that makes Aceh, on the northern tip of Sumatra, appear fertile for militant extremism. The province has long been famed for being the most strictly Islamic region of Indonesia and is the only part of the country to enforce Sharia law. For three decades, the same hills held rebels of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) as they fought a bloody war of independence from Jakarta.

Peace has held since a foreign-brokered 2005 deal, but distrust between the locals, the former GAM and security forces remains pervasive. The province has also contained a scattered network of extremists who entered in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 168,000 here.

But if the militants were relying on Islamic solidarity, their hopes were sorely misplaced, says Teungku Machsalmina, spokesman for the Aceh Transitional Committee (KPA) of former GAM fighters.

‘They saw on the map that Aceh was in a strategic location for the Malacca Strait and they saw that Aceh was consistently in conflict,’ says Machsalmina, who spent two decades in the forest fighting central government forces. ‘They were also free to enter after the tsunami hit Aceh because government institutions were paralyzed.’

‘The Acehnese people didn’t accept them; they had the wrong idea entering Aceh,’ he says. ‘The Acehnese have felt conflict and trauma for a long time, so they’ll work together to guard peace.’ The fact that most of the militants were non-Acehnese—and many of them the hated Javanese—made them all the easier to pick out and take on.

Outsiders—and sometimes Islamists themselves —often assume that conservative Muslims are a natural constituency for terrorists. But the failure of the Aceh group should put paid to such assumptions, says Sidney Jones, an expert on Islamist militancy from the International Crisis Group.

‘I think that there’s a fundamental misperception that devoutness and piety are equivalent to extremism, and that’s never been the case in Aceh,’ Jones says.

But for Dulmatin and other militants around him, Aceh was meant to be a fresh break. Starting around 2007—and catalyzed by Dulmatin’s return to Indonesia from the Southern Philippines around the same time—the group developed a scathing critique of JI, which in recent years has turned away from support for attacks in Indonesia in favour of da’wa, or proselytizing, Jones says.

A violent JI splinter faction led by Malaysian Noordin Mohammed Top had already taken up the banner of armed struggle, but found itself devastated by police raids following each successful attack. Last year, following twin suicide bombings that killed seven people in hotels in Jakarta, Noordin was finally killed.

‘One of the major failings of Noordin Top was that he didn’t have a secure base, so that every time he did a bombing he had nowhere to go,’ Jones says. ‘There was also no thinking on Noordin’s part of any long-term strategy, whereas the group in Aceh thought that if they could develop a secure base, that could become the nucleus for an Islamic community.’

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In one video released from the training camp a seated militant with an AK-47 and a thick Javanese accent lectures at the camera as guns fire in the background, taunting JI clerics for ‘sitting around the office’ and forsaking armed jihad.

Dhiahuddin, a 35-year-old local KPA commander who still goes by his rebel nom de guerre Gajah Keeng (‘Bull Elephant’), smirks when he recalls how easy his men found it to mop up the militants. The 2005 peace deal left a disarmed GAM a presence virtually everywhere in Aceh, while political power has gone to the movement’s political wing, Partai Aceh. As a rebel, Gajah Keeng moved through the forests at the base of Mt. Seulawah, which looms in the distance over the terrorist camp at Jalin. This was his territory.

After receiving a tipoff from a local villager collecting rattan in the forests, police swooped in a shambolic raid that saw only four militants arrested, with one bystander killed. Dozens of fighters slipped through the police net into the jungle.

But in the aftermath, locals and KPA members quickly ratted out the fleeing militants. Gajah Keeng says his men provided the intelligence for two separate group arrests. With evident pride, he also recounts how he terrorized the family of one Acehnese group member who claimed to be ex-GAM, Abu Rimba, until he surrendered.

‘(I told them) if he surrenders he’s fine. If he doesn’t surrender, his family will be wiped out too,’ he says. ‘Why? Because on the Internet it said he was former GAM, but my men are not connected. We don’t want to be branded as terrorists’.

‘(The Acehnese in the group) were naïve, stupid, they didn’t know anything… They were really stupid people, real village people.’

Gov. Irwandi, also an ex-rebel, claims to have had informants linked to the group since early last year. As Israel launched its war on Gaza, an Islamist group called the Islamic Defenders’ Front (FPI) put out the call for recruits to be trained for holy war in Palestine. Once in Java, half a dozen of these men fell into the orbit of Dulmatin’s group, and began the drift back to Aceh.

‘They were really naked, but we waited until they violated the law. If we made an arrest earlier of course we wouldn’t (be able) to catch the big guy,’ Irwandi says.

The hand-in-glove cooperation between former insurgents and Indonesian authorities was a ‘good example of cooperation and re-integration post-conflict,’ Irwandi says, but there’s no shaking the fact that Acehnese remain deeply suspicious of Indonesia.

Turning the Other Cheek

Abdul Majid was riding back after a fishing trip on his motorbike with his friend Kamaruddin and two 14-year-old boys when they stumbled into the initial police raid. In the darkness, he heard a shouted warning, followed by a shot over their heads, and then a peppering of bullets that sent them sprawling to the ground.

As Kamaruddin, a former GAM fighter bled to death, and one boy lay wounded, Abdul was pinned down as police removed his shoes and bound him with his laces. One officer removed his helmet and beat Abdul over the head with it.

Abdul says the actions were typical of the ‘arrogant’ police. ‘It’s clear they didn’t have enough discipline,’ he says. But he adds that it was important to get rid of terrorists, and at least the provincial police chief apologised over the incident.

Hendra Fadli, the local head of the rights group handling the incident, Kontras, says the clear use of excessive force has caused anger but ‘Acehnese are really tired of armed conflict. So groups like (the militant cell) become a common enemy, they’re seen as destroying the peace.’

KPA spokesman Machsalmina similarly says turning the other cheek over the killing of one if its members was necessary in order to ensure the militants were expelled.

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Besides, he says, extremism has never been an Acehnese problem, but an issue among ‘Indonesians.’ Acehnese had to kick this group out, because, he says referring to an old conspiratorial refrain often heard in Aceh, shadowy forces in Jakarta were likely somehow behind them.

‘I’m not saying it’s an institution—these are third parties who (want to) disturb the peace in Aceh,’ he says.

Analysts still warn the emergence of the Aceh group shows regional jihadi networks are stronger and more fluid than previously thought, and that in the wake of the latest setback the new alliance could return to the tactics of Noordin Top or try to establish a base elsewhere.

But in Aceh, at least, any return seems extremely unlikely.