Rise and Fall of a Terror Cell


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.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.’

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief