ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

How Are Indonesia’s Terrorist Groups Weathering the Pandemic?

A group’s ability to exploit the pandemic is confined by their existing structure and resiliency.

By Zachary Abuza and Alif Satria for
How Are Indonesia’s Terrorist Groups Weathering the Pandemic?
Credit: Unsplash

Indonesia has been hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 23, Indonesia had over 47,800 confirmed cases, but has among the lowest levels of testing in the region, with only 1.4 tests per 1,000 people. With 2,400 dead, Indonesia still accounts for two-thirds of the total fatalities in Southeast Asia. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the death toll is at least three times higher than the official count. 

Even today, as Indonesia’s leadership rushes to re-open the economy, the number of cases continues to grow. The seven-day rolling average for the first 18 days of June showed nearly 1,000 confirmed cases a day as the spreading of the virus continued from its epicenter in Jakarta and across Java. 

After weeks of denial, conflicting policies, and partial militarization, the government has clearly mishandled the pandemic response. That will have political consequences, even for a president who was re-elected with a clear mandate last year. But what about the security implications? Will COVID-19 impact Indonesian terrorism? If so, how? Which groups will benefit, and why? 

Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD)

On June 1, a sword-wielding pro-Islamic State militant killed a policeman and wounded another in South Kalimantan before being gunned down. It was the latest attack by JAD and their first during the pandemic. It was also decidedly amateurish.

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

The attack fits a pattern by JAD, which began as an umbrella organization for Indonesia’s pro-Islamic State groups but has morphed into the country’s leading terrorist organization. Some JAD attacks have been complex, spectacular, and lethal, such as the 2018 Surabaya suicide bombings that involved two families. Not only did this signify JAD’s ability to orchestrate simultaneous attacks, it also showed their ability to expand organizational roles to women and children. Another example is the nine-man cell in Sumatra that was broken up in September 2019. It had a cache of TATP, a hallmark of more skilled bomb-makers. 

But more broadly, JAD’s attacks have become less professional, planned, and lethal. One observable trend is the increasing number of lone-wolf attacks, including a mid-2019 knife attack on the former coordinating minister for politics and security affairs, Wiranto. That attack exemplifies the type of attacks JAD most often orchestrates: those with little planning, training, or funds. Even when attacks are better planned, they are poorly executed. For example, the November 2019 suicide bombing at a police station in Medan wounded six but caused no deaths other than the bomber. 

The varying quality of JAD’s attacks can be attributed to the horizontal nature of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, in general, and Indonesia, in particular. JAD’s decentralized structure and lack of a dedicated training unit prevents an equal learning distribution between cells, hindering skills from one cell being transferred to others. Although Islamic State central inspires and funds various cells, it has never directed attacks as it did in France or Belgium, instead acting as motivator for lone wolves or independent cells to orchestrate their own attacks.

This organizational characteristic has also affected JAD’s COVID-19 response. While the pandemic is indeed an opportunity, JAD has failed to exploit it. Due to the group’s decentralized horizontal structure, its cells vary in intention and capability in responding to COVID-19. Even if it had a centralized strategy, it could not be implemented across the region.

Within JAD themselves, there have been multiple narratives on how to respond. Some perceive the virus as the plague written in the hadiths, giving a religious context for the pandemic and resulting in some members staying at home. Others see COVID-19 as a sign of the end of the world, an event occurring before the coming of the Islamic messiah. While there are members who echo Islamic State central’s views and see the pandemic as an opportunity for attack, few have tried.

It is not that JAD is doing nothing, but they have largely focused on their in-group. JAD’s fundraising through Telegram channels supports operational costs and mujahideen families, rather than any attempts to broaden their appeal by providing medical or humanitarian assistance. This fits an existing pattern: most of the pro-IS affiliated charities, including organizations such as Baitul Mal Ummah and RIS Al Amin, have worked to support the families of incarcerated militants. 

Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT)

MIT was almost annihilated after the death of its leader, Santoso, in 2016. Based in the densely forested mountains around Poso, the group was the first in Indonesia to declare allegiance to the Islamic State. 

MIT is important for two reasons. First, the group was an outgrowth of the sectarian bloodletting in Maluku and Central Sulawesi perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah following the fall of Suharto in 1998. It was in Poso that a qoidah aminah, a secure base governed by Islamic law, would be established. Since then, Poso has been core to the narrative of every jihadist group in Indonesia.

Second, unlike any other group or cell in Indonesia, only MIT succeeded in physically controlling territory. Poso is the only location where that is possible in Indonesia; the next closest location is the southern Philippines. 

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

It is for these reasons that Indonesian security forces focus on MIT. Indeed, the Indonesian military’s current push to expand their legal counterterrorism role dates to Operation Tinombala in 2016, when it waged jungle warfare to dismantle the group.

Despite having fewer than a dozen militants by 2016, recent deaths of its top leaders, and government claims of their annihilation, the MIT has remained committed to regrouping. MIT began a new recruitment campaign from late 2017. Police arrested 17 recruits in early 2020. 

While the leadership role of Santoso’s son-in-law helps give MIT some continuity, its resilience can be attributed to MIT’s ability to tap into Poso’s local narrative by remaining focused on combating the near enemy or locals it believes are informants. In this regard, MIT’s geographic isolation is both an advantage and a handicap, keeping them tied to Central Sulawesi where they have ample opportunity to tap into the community’s networks. Using Santoso’s extended family members and a local cleric’s networks, the group receives funds from outside Poso while recruiting members across Sulawesi and Java, especially among prisoners.

Another factor to MIT’s resilience is their ability to utilize natural disasters as recruitment platforms. For instance, MIT-affiliated groups and individuals were involved in the response to the devastating 2018 Palu earthquake that killed over 4,500 people. MIT not only used the disaster to leverage frustration with the government’s slow city rehabilitation efforts among numerous displaced families, but they also successfully used it to bring recruits into Poso under the guise of humanitarian work. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has been beneficial for MIT, which has remained focused on its local community. MIT was the first group in Indonesia to conduct an attack during the pandemic and have now conducted four, even amid member losses. While JAD developed multiple narratives on COVID-19, the MIT is unequivocal: the pandemic is an opportunity to attack the state.

In short, MIT has been doggedly resilient since the government declared its destruction in mid-2016, and COVID-19 has played into their resilience. As the current MIT chief, Ali Kalora, told his supporters: Taghut [tyrants] will fall because of the coronavirus and the war in the near future.” He threatened further reprisals against villagers supporting government health and security efforts.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)

Of all Indonesia’s militant Islamist groups, the one poised to take the greatest advantage of the pandemic and the ensuing economic recession is JI, al-Qaeda’s regional affiliate, which was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and major terrorist attacks through 2009. 

Following the 2002 Bali bombing, JI suffered from concerted counterterrorist campaigns and crippling factional disputes over strategy and tactics. By 2008 the group’s central leadership deprioritized violence over da’wa (proselytizing), and by 2011 the group ceased to function as a militant organization. This does not mean that JI ceased to operate altogether. 

Since 1993, JI has sought broader societal support. Seeing the importance of the people in establishing an Islamic state, JI invested heavily in developing madrassas to serve society while connecting them to JI’s cause. Although between 1999-2002 news of JI largely focused on their attacks, their overt activities gave them resilience. 

By 2004, JI was well underway in transforming itself to a group that actively provided social services beyond its in-group networks. With the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami in Aceh and the 2006 Java earthquake, JI was overtly involved in humanitarian assistance programs through a network of charities and re-oriented paramilitary groups.

It is not that JI renounced violence. As former leader Abu Rusdan noted, “JI would only be peaceful ‘up to a point.’” They were simply lying low to rebuild their network. Indeed, in 2013, reports found that JI sent six members to train in Syria, while in 2019, police recovered new evidence of JI’s militant training that included new manuals and funding for overseas training.

With the rise of the Islamic State in 2014 and core JI elements, including its co-founder Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, pledging allegiance to Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, many in JI were happy to let pro-Islamic State groups conduct violence and take the brunt of the government’s counterterrorism operations. Preoccupied with the JAD, Indonesian security forces essentially gave JI a “green light to operate freely.” 

By 2019, JI was the strongest it had been since its decline in 2011, running a large network of preachers, corporations, mosques, and plantations. In June 2019, Indonesian security forces finally captured JI’s leader, Para Wijayanto, and were aghast at the organization’s institutional scope and financial resources, which were sufficient enough that they could pay salaries and support detained militants’ families.

While JI is publicly very quiet, they are in much better position than other groups to take advantage of the pandemic.

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

For one thing, JI remains a much more centralized and hierarchical organization. Though it is unclear who leads the group since Wijayanto’s arrest, JI is still governed by a council (shura) that acts on a constitution with well-defined organizational structures. Although JI’s divisions are not as specialized or well-connected as they were in the 2000s, the organization’s general chain-of-command remains the same. 

If JI’s education division is anything to go by, the organization’s chain-of-command remains centralized. A police report found that by late 2013 JI’s education division had 24 coordinators active across Indonesia. These coordinators answer to seven heads of section who aggregate funding and performance reports to a central body. From this alone we see that JI’s documentation still flows upward and resources downwards.

Whereas JAD suffers from intra-organizational discord and lacks sufficient cross-cell logistics and skill distribution, JI’s structure is more resilient and better able to implement a pandemic response.

Beyond providing benefits to their constituents, JI also has more experience and institutional infrastructure to support out-groups, broaden their support base, and exploit the government’s failures. They did this using KOMPAK in early 2000s, and a humanitarian organization called HASI during the Syrian conflict. If past humanitarian crises are anything to go by, JI is probably prioritizing humanitarian efforts during this pandemic.

While many of JI’s humanitarian organizations have been banned since Wijayanto’s arrest, some may have re-registered and others that have largely operated overseas (mainly in Gaza), such as Lembaga Kemanusiaan One Care, appear to still be running. Even without legal charities, in the midst of a recession, few recipients are going to be that concerned about the source of needed aid. 

Conclusion

In the end we do not know if any group will actually benefit aside from quick propaganda points by spreading anti-Chinese sentiments or complaining about government failings. A group’s ability to exploit the pandemic is confined by their structure and resiliency.

JI’s resilience lies in its resources, centralized organizational capacity, and experience in providing social services beyond its immediate constituency, at a time when an armed campaign against the state is deemed counterproductive. For pro-IS groups such as JAD and MIT, to kill is to be — that is their raison d’etre. Without waging an armed struggle against the state, they have little else to offer in the ideological marketplace.

Currently, Indonesians are already suffering the double blow of a raging pandemic and a recession. The government has few financial resources to manage either at its disposal and is rushing to re-open the economy. Given that any attack that might hamper economic growth or the return of tourism would alienate an already aggrieved population, we can expect attacks to likely remain focused on security forces for the time being.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and an adjunct professor in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program. The views here are the author’s and do not reflect the opinions of the National War College or Department of Defense. 

Alif Satria is a leading analyst on terrorism in Indonesia and an MA student in Georgetown’s Security Studies Program.