Sixteen years after carrying out the Bali bombings, which killed over 200 people, al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) remains the key terrorist group in Southeast Asia today. Despite being pushed back since 2009 by the death of its key leaders and arrest of its members, JI has deep political and ideological roots in the region. The rise of the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) since 2014 has been a God-send for JI, as it has absorbed the security apparatus’ attention, permitting JI to expand and be in a position to pose a threat to states in the region, especially Indonesia. Its key leaders believe that JI is in a state of heightened preparedness today.
Explaining JI Resilience
Today, JI’s key geographical area of focus is Indonesia. This is despite JI’s links with groups and individuals in the Philippines (such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, and the Abu Sayyaf Group), Thailand (Gerakan Mujahidin Islam Pattani) and Malaysia (Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia) through a JI regional network. The Southeast Asian region was subdivided into three mantiqis or zones for the specific purpose of training (Philippines), funds (Malaysia and Singapore) and operations (Indonesia). The shrinking of JI’s area of focus is due to the success of Southeast Asia’s security apparatus in dismantling the network through the arrest (Abu Bakar Basyir, Abu Rusydan, Zarkasih, Adung, Umar Patek, Abu Tholut, etc.) and decimation (Noordin Top, Azahari, Dulmatin, etc.) of its leaders as well as the largescale killing and detention of its members between 2002 and 2009. More than 150 and 1,500 JI members have been killed and detained, respectively, since 2002 in Indonesia alone.
Still, JI succeeded in revitalizing and remaining relevant for a number of reasons. First is the continued existence of al-Qaeda (AQ) and JI leaders. Despite Osama bin Laden’s death, Ayman Zawahiri has continued AQ’s mantle of leadership, just as in the post-Abdullah Sungkar era, JI leaders such as Abu Bakar Bashir, Abu Rusydan, Zarkasih, and Adung continue to operate. Only Abu Bakar Bashir joined ISIS and remains in detention today.
Despite JI’s low profile nationally and internationally, most JI members have remained loyal to AQ and many have developed close ties with the pro-AQ Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN) or its successors, the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFaS) (July 2016-January 2017) and Tahrir al-Sham (TaS) (since January 2017). Indonesian JI members are known to have fought alongside JaN, JFaS, and TaS as, according to Nasir Abbas and Sofyan Tsauri, whom the author met recently, JI continues to believe in undertaking violent jihad abroad but not yet in Indonesia. (Sofyan, a former member of the Indonesian police force, was jailed in March 2010 for 10 years for his part in the Aceh incident. However, he was released in October 2015, leading to accusations that he is a police spy tasked with infiltrating into terrorist groups, something Sofyan has publicly denied.)
The JI “System”
However, it is the continued presence of the JI “system” that is the key and has acted as a conveyor belt for JI and its causes in Indonesia today. This is evident from a number of activities. First, JI leaders continue to meet on a regular basis and the PUPJI (JI’s constitution) remains the key guide to JI activities. The JI’s Shura (governing) Council meets regularly even though, according to Nasir Abbas and Sofyan Tsauri, this is undertaken clandestinely.
JI continues to have an emir, the unquestioned leader. What is an anomaly today is the presence of two JI emirs, the de facto emir and another who is publicly touted as the JI leader. While the leader of JI’s military wing was believed to be Muhammad Khoirul Aman or Ustad Batar, who was arrested in 2017, since 2009, the JI emir is believed to be Para Wiyanto, a senior figure with close ties to leaders such as Hambali, Azahari, Dulmatin and Umar Patek. Originating from Kudus and trained in Mindanao, south Philippines, Para Wiyanto is assumed to be JI’s emir today, something confirmed by analysts such as Sidney Jones and Rakyan Brata.
However, key JI leaders on the ground today have another opinion about who is the real JI emir. The primus inter pares leader of JI is believed to be Abu Rusydan, who took over as emir in October 2002 following Abu Bakar Bashir’s arrest. Rusydan was arrested in 2003 and released from detention in late 2005.
According to Sofyan Tsauri, who played a key role in the JI military training camp in Aceh in 2010 and was a key lieutenants for arms supplies for the trainees, Abu Rusydan is the de facto JI emir today.
Sofyan argued that Para Wijanto is the “emir bitona” or the emergency emir. This position is necessitated by the fact that the JI is a proscribed group in Indonesia — anyone associated with it can be arrested and funds associated with it can be frozen. In view of this, tactically it is good to have an emir bitona who has remained underground but Abu Rusydan, who remains publicly active as a religious teacher with no clear association with JI, is seen as the real leader. According to Sofyan, whenever there is a disagreement in the Shura Council, Abu Rusydan’s word is final, clearly showing his authority in JI today. Also, if ever Para Wijanto is arrested, JI will be able to continue without a true leadership vacuum.
Spread of JI’s Ideology
JI also remains active in spreading its ideas and ideology through pesantrens (religious boarding schools), mosques, educational institutions, and its publishing houses. JI is also supported by various educational and research institutions.
According to Sofyan Tsauri, JI has taken the late Osama bin Laden’s advice to heart. The former AQ leader is believed to have said that where jihadists are fighting in Muslim countries, they should continue the struggle to the end. However, in Muslim countries where there is no “jihad front” being opened yet, research institutes should educate the Ummah about jihad and become key advocates of this approach to struggle, including in Indonesia today.
JI also runs many publishing houses and media outlets, including those associated with Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia. Two of the key publications include Risalah Mujahideen and Symina, which are produced on a regular basis in Jogjakarta and Kudus respectively. Ar-Rahmah.com is also a key JI-linked online website with pro-AQ and JI-oriented perspectives published on a regular basis.
JI is also active on the humanitarian front, supporting like-minded institutions and Muslims who are in need of assistance. One such institution is Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia, which has been active in the Middle East. The United States has proscribed it as being linked to AQ and JI. JI has also sent humanitarian assistance to support people fighting in areas where the JaN had been active. Another JI-linked active humanitarian group is the Lembaga Kemanusian One Care, which operates along the same lines as HASI.
The JI has always had a military wing, with many of its members involved in various bombings in Indonesia between 2000 and 2009. Following the crackdown by the Indonesian security forces, Sofyan Tsauri argued that the military elements have been not demobilized but merely made “non-active.” They are “parked” until ordered to re-surface.
Since 2009, JI’s military members have only been involved in combat outside Indonesia, mostly in the Philippines, but also in Iraq and Syria. With the arrest of Khoirul Aman in 2017, Abu Husna and Abdul Manap from Solo are its key military leaders. However, JI leaders such as Abu Rusydan have repeatedly stated that the time has not come for it to strike. Claiming that JI is mainly focused on education and training, not violence, Rusydan has also warned that JI would only be peaceful “up to a point” and should not be provoked.
Benefiting from Islamic State’s Backlash
Finally, a key factor that has accounted for JI’s rise and relevance is the backlash against ISIS and its violence in the Middle East, Southeast Asia in general, and Indonesia in particular. Even though there are ISIS supporters in Indonesia, the Philippines is seen as the epicenter of ISIS activities in Southeast Asia, best evident in the Marawi Siege from May to October 2017 that consumed more than 1,000 lives and inflicted massive damage to the city. The East Asia Wilayah or Wilayat Sharq Asiyya has been based in the Philippines since mid-2017, formerly under Isnilon Hapilon, who died in the Marawi Siege and is believed to be led by an emir bitona today.
As ISIS is foremost on the global and regional radar of security planners, JI has effectively been given a green light to operate freely. Some Indonesian security agencies also believe in using the JI to counter ISIS, as part of the balance of power and divide and rule game. As JI continues to have the largest number of terrorist detainees in jail or those who have been released, as well am sthe largest number of trained and ideologically fortified fighters with combat and bomb-making experience, it remains the key threat to Indonesian security. Analysts such as Sidney Jones and Rakyan estimate the strength of hardcore JI members today to be between 2,000-3,000, with many more thousands as supporters and sympathizers.
Most JI members also believe that ISIS is a proxy of the West and has to be countered as it has brought disrepute to jihad and the struggle of Muslims worldwide. By promoting inter-jihadi infighting, as has happened in the Middle East and Africa, and lately in the Philippines, ISIS is believed to be the long arm of the West, aimed at encouraging jihadists to congregate in a conflict zone — Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in the past, and the Philippines at present — and where regional governments, with the support of the West, can decimate the jihadists altogether. JI aims to prevent entering into this trap, according to Sofyan Tsauri.
Clearly, the JI is far from irrelevant. Learning lessons from the past and taking advantage of the current geopolitics with the focus on ISIS, JI has been able to regenerate its leaders and members and remain in a heightened state of preparedness. Far from rejoicing and being complacent because JI has not launched a major attack since 2009, states in the region should remain vigilant as this state of peace can change quickly once the habitat of violence is resanctioned.
Bilveer Singh, Ph.D., is an an Adjunct Senior Fellow, Centre of Excellence for National Security, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science, National University of Singapore.