Will Aman Abdurrahman’s Death Sentence Backfire?

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Will Aman Abdurrahman’s Death Sentence Backfire?

By executing a top jihadist, Indonesia may be making its terrorism problem worse.

Will Aman Abdurrahman’s Death Sentence Backfire?

Islamic cleric Aman Abdurrahman, center, is escorted by police officers upon arrival for his trial at South Jakarta District Court in Jakarta, Indonesia (June 22, 2018).

Credit: AP Photo/Tatan Syuflana

Sayyid Qutb was an Egyptian Sunni ideologue belonging to Ikhwan Muslim (the Muslim Brotherhood). Following the failed assassination of President Gamal Nasser in 1954 by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Qutb was jailed for 10 years. Qutb was severely tortured in prison but produced some critical radical treatises that urged the revitalization of Islam. His writings talked of the “un-Islamic” and repressive character of the Nasser government, the backwardness of Egyptian society, and the need for an Islamic State in Egypt — if need be, through violence.

Qutb was sentenced to death and executed on August 24, 1966. His death sparked a radical revival movement not just in Egypt but the entire Muslim world, providing a boost to the Salafi-jihadi radicalism that eventually gave birth to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, and even the Islamic State (ISIS). Qutb remains a key beacon for salafi jihadists today.

Now, Indonesia might be about to create its own Sayyid Qutb by sentencing a terrorist leader to death.

Who Is Aman Abdurrahman?

Born in 1972, the spiritual leader of pro-ISIS Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), Aman Abdurrahman (also known as Oman Rochman or Abu Sulaiman) originates from Sumedang, West Java. He is a Sundanese by ethnicity. He was formerly associated with Jammah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), led by Abu Bakar Bashir and the Islamic State. He has been accused of being the brains behind the Islamic State’s attacks in Indonesia, including the January 2016 Thamrin bombing in Jakarta.

What is often ignored is the fact that Aman was first detained not in Indonesia, but in Yemen. Thirteen Indonesians were caught undergoing military training in Sana in 2003 and the group, including Aman, was repatriated to Indonesia. He was first arrested in Indonesia in 2004 and released in 2008. He led a takfiri group called Jamaah Tawhid wal Jihad and was active in prison radicalization. In September 2008, Aman joined the Bashir-led JAT. In 2010, he was rearrested and jailed for nine years for possession of bomb-making materials and supporting the Aceh military camp.

In 2014, Aman pledged allegiance to Al Baghdadi and ISIS, and championed the establishment of an Islamic State. From October 2014 onwards, Aman became the leading supporter of ISIS in Indonesia with his new organization, JAD, as the spearhead of ISIS activities, including getting members to undertake jihad in Syria against the Assad regime. In May 2016, Aman, though in prison, was additionally charged with inciting the January 2016 bombing in Jakarta. Aman’s key role has been to translate key works of Salafi-jihadists in the Middle East into Indonesian and make them available to the masses in Indonesia, playing a key role in promoting radicalism in Indonesia. Alongside terrorists such as Bahrumsyah, the United States designated Aman as a global terrorist.

On June 22, 2018, the South Jakarta District Court found Aman guilty of inciting others to commit at least five terror attacks in Indonesia. The attacks attributed to Aman include the January 14, 2016 attack in Jakarta that resulted in seven deaths; the May 24, 2017 suicide attack in Kampong Melayu Terminal in Jakarta that resulted in five deaths; the stabbing of two police personnel in Medan and attacks on two police officers in Jakarta in June 2017; the riots in May 2018 in a terrorist detention centre where Aman was also held that resulted in the death of five police officers; and finally, the May terrorist attacks in Surabaya from May 13-16, 2018 that resulted in the death of 28 people.

Even though Aman has never directedly taken part in any terrorist attacks in Indonesia, he is accused of being the leading ideologue justifying the use of violence to achieve an Islamic State in Indonesia based on Sharia Islam.

Aman has, however, denied involvement or ordering any bombings in Indonesia. He even described the May 2018 Surabaya bombings as cruel. He said that if someone understood Islam and jihad, they would not use children to undertake such attacks and hence, described them as un-Islamic.

Will Aman’s Death Make Him Even More Dangerous?

Following the verdict, Aman kissed the courtroom floor, expressing his gratitude for being made a martyr by the Indonesian state and its apparatus.

With Aman’s death sentence, he now joins two other Indonesians who are on the death row for crimes relating to terrorism. Iwan Darmawan Munto and Ahmad Hassan were sentenced to death for their roles in the September 2004 bombings outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. While Iwan and Ahmad were directly involved in the 2004 bombing as part of the breakaway Noordin Top’s Jemaah Islamiyah unit, Aman cannot be directly associated with any terrorist attacks in Indonesia so far. The Indonesian government’s case has not been helped by civil groups such as the Communist Legal Aid Institute deploring the death sentence as being counterproductive in counterterrorism operations in Indonesia.

Two developments can make a dead Aman more dangerous than a life one. First, to some, the charges against him are incredulous, with the aim of murdering him with all the legal pomp attached to it. Unlike Osama bin Laden, Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi or for that matter, Indonesian terrorists such as Hambali and Iman Samudra, who were directly involved in bombing operations, either carrying them out or ordering them, Aman cannot be charged as such. The Indonesian Police is yet to discover any evidence of Aman’s complicity in any bombing attacks in Indonesia, even though his teachings are believed to have inspired many attacks. In fact, Aman has been in prison from 2004 to 2008 and from 2010 to the present period. For some, this is stretching the law too far to destroy a human life, even though his views are directly diametrical with that of the Indonesia state.

While Aman’s teaching and propagation of his takfiri ideology is extremely powerful, whether these are strong grounds to execute someone is not convincing, especially for a state that purports to be a democracy. This may create more problems in the future and in some way confirm Aman’s accusation that the Indonesian state and its laws are repressive and designed to destroy Muslims and their belief systems. The situation may be further aggravated if foreign governments and their agencies are believed to have pressured Jakarta to neutralize Aman, as has been alleged by Aman during his court hearing.

As long as there are genuine grievances, terrorists and extremists will continue to emerge, as evident with the inability of the execution of Iman Samudra, Ali Ghufron, and Amrozi Nurhasyim to deter terrorist bombings in Indonesia.

Aman’s execution will not answer key questions about terrorism in Indonesia. One such question is how an imprisoned person, especially in isolation, can be said to be so dangerous in spreading his ideology. Something must be very severely wrong with the Indonesian prison system if it allows dangerous ideologues to spread their message and, if true, then the Indonesian prison system is as guilty as are the ideologues who are accused of the crime.

Plus, as the largest Muslim state in the world, how come such a state that has invested hundred of millions of dollars in counterterrorism unable to counter the ideology of one man? Why are Indonesia’s deradicalization, counter-radicalization and counterideology programs such a failure that Aman is deemed a success?

These questions are critical as executing Aman is unlikely to solve the threat posed by Islamist extremists and terrorism. Whether President Jokowi develops cold feet and decides not to implement that death penalty, the key issue will remain that someone like Aman or probably more dangerous will emerge and the threat will surface again with greater vigor. Only this time, there would be the important symbol of “Indonesia’s Sayyid Qutb,” something many people with grievances will be able to relate to.

As a martyr, Aman’s teaching will probably proliferate like wild fire. Executing a terrorist is far more acceptable than murdering a religious teacher, and this is where Indonesia is straddling a dangerous ground at a time when Salafism is gaining roots in the country. As Aman threatened during the court proceedings, he would be walking out victorious, having steadfastly held on to his principle. Even as a corpse, Aman has power as the martyred victim, just like Sayyid Qutb.

To that extent, the execution of Aman will not end the danger of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and may even make it worse, with Aman as the exemplar martyr of Indonesia in the coming years.

Bilveer Singh, Ph.D. Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore; Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies; President, Political Science Association, Singapore.