Jemaah Islamiyah Is Not Back After Malaysia Attack

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Jemaah Islamiyah Is Not Back After Malaysia Attack

The recent attack on a police station in Johor State bears all the hallmarks of a lone-wolf attack.

Jemaah Islamiyah Is Not Back After Malaysia Attack
Credit: Photo 88088694 © Audiohead |

It was never going to be Jemaah Islamiyah.

On May 17, the Malaysian police announced that a police station in Ulu Tiram in the state of Johor had been besieged by a lone attacker carrying a machete, and that the perpetrator had killed two police officers before being shot dead at the scene.

The same day, the Malaysian authorities dropped a bombshell: the attacker had been a member of the hardline Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which is thought to have members in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, and the Philippines.

What followed was a firestorm of interest. JI, once one of the deadliest terrorist groups in Southeast Asia, was apparently back after decades of laying dormant.

But, as the news continued to break, the reaction from former Indonesian JI members and counter-terrorism experts could be summed up by the same single word: Really?

Almost immediately, Bali bomber Ali Imron said that he thought that there was little likelihood that this was a JI attack.

Bomb maker Umar Patek went a step further, labeling it “impossible.”

As the basic details of what had transpired in Malaysia emerged, they seemed largely inconsistent with the group’s modus operandi.

Firstly, JI, which was founded in 1993 by Indonesian clerics Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar, was most feared in its heyday in the early to mid-2000s when the group, which had received training and funding in Afghanistan, committed a number of large-scale attacks in Indonesia.

These included the Christmas Eve church bombings of 2000 that left 18 people dead, the 2002 Bali Bombing that killed 202 people and injured over 200 more, and the JW Marriott Hotel attack in Jakarta in 2003 that killed 12.

JI has never, however, attacked the police.

Over the years, a number of police and army posts across Indonesia have been targeted, including one in Cirebon in 2011 and one in Medan in 2019, but these attacks were committed by perpetrators affiliated with other hardline groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, which is in turn loosely inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS).

ISIS has encouraged its followers (a loose term encompassing anyone who watched their videos online) to attack whenever and wherever they could, using any means, leading to spates of unsophisticated attacks, often by lone perpetrators who lacked the skills, training, and access to weapons to cause significant carnage.

As such, the small-scale siege on a police station in Malaysia by a single perpetrator had the hallmarks of an ISIS-inspired attack — or of a burst of violence by an individual with a personal grievance and no affiliation to any hardline group at all.

JI has also not attacked anyone, anywhere, since 2009, and the organization has now mostly pivoted to dakwah, or proselytization — a decision caused by the jailing, execution, and death of some of its most senior former members, which crippled the group in the mid-2000s.

JI was officially banned in Indonesia in 2007, further adding to its woes and the continued splintering of the group, which had already been plagued by infighting following the widely unpopular decision to target civilians in attacks like the Bali bombing.

Back in Malaysia, however, the police continued to support the theory that JI had been resurrected, including making a statement that they had found “JI paraphernalia” at the suspect’s home.

While the police did not elaborate, JI does not have distinct “paraphernalia,” such as its own flag, nor does it have a range of merchandise like t-shirts or other insignia.

The police also said that the perpetrator’s father had been a “known former member of JI” — which if anything only supported the hypothesis that this was not a JI attack, for all the reasons noted above.

JI has also never officially launched an attack in Malaysia before and, instead, the country has long been used as a transit hub for JI members and funds, with high-profile members like Encep Nurjaman alias Hambali, and Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar living there in the 1980s and 1990s.

As such, a sudden presumed JI attack on a police station begged the obvious questions: Why here? Why now?

Then it came, a retraction of sorts, or at least a clarification from the Malaysian authorities.

According to the Home Minister, the attacker had been a “lone wolf” and was not affiliated with any terrorist group.

It seems that Jemaah Islamiyah was not back after all.