Central Sulawesi and Central Java Continue to be JI Strongholds

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Central Sulawesi and Central Java Continue to be JI Strongholds

Jemaah Islamiyah remains the most active terrorist organization in Indonesia, even as its priority has shifted to preaching rather than conducting direct attacks.

Central Sulawesi and Central Java Continue to be JI Strongholds
Credit: Depositphotos

In April of this year, eight suspected members of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) were arrested in counterterrorism operations across Central Sulawesi, Indonesia. Four of the individuals were arrested in Palu, two in Sigi, and one in Poso regency. This is only the second batch of terrorism arrests this year, following the earlier arrest of 11 JI suspects across Central Java in January.

The Central Sulawesi arrests are significant given the suspects held crucial positions within JI’s organizational structure, spanning its various divisions including dakwah (preaching), recruitment, training, and fundraising. Meanwhile, those arrested in Central Java allegedly held operational support roles within JI, including facilitating group activities, providing a place of exile for JI members wanted by the authorities, and fundraising. 

Neither instances of JI arrests this year yielded any discovery of weapons, in contrast to past arrests. However, the police reported that JI operatives in Central Sulawesi were actively participating in physical and military training activities in Poso, suggesting the group continues to rebuild its attack capabilities. It is also notable that both the provinces where arrests were made in 2024 belong to the Eastern Qodimah of JI. Under former Emir Para Wijayanto, territory was divided into the Western Qodimah and Eastern Qodimah, the latter headed by the historically important JI cell in Solo. 

A Concentration of Terrorism Activity?

In the past, observers have argued that terrorist networks were spreading across Indonesia. Echoing similar concerns, the former Indonesian National Police Chief Tito Karnavian proposed the expansion of Special Detachment 88 from 16 to 34 task forces in 2018, such that the nation’s counterterrorism unit now has a presence in each province of Indonesia. 

However, terrorist arrests since 2021 have been concentrated in fewer provinces in Indonesia. For JI in particular, the number of provinces where members were arrested declined from 17 provinces in 2021 to 12 provinces in 2022, reducing further to 11 provinces in 2023. Throughout this period, Central Java and Central Sulawesi have consistently featured in several arrests each year, aside from 2022, when there were no arrests in the region.

Furthermore, reported arrests in 2024 have only occurred in two provinces, Central Java and Central Sulawesi, and involved JI members. This trend suggests two things. First, that JI remains the most active terrorist organization in Indonesia, even as its priority has now shifted to dakwah rather than conducting direct attacks. Second, it suggests a possible concentration of JI activity in Central Java and Central Sulawesi.

That said, a concentration of JI activities in Central Java is not surprising, given that it has historically been a stronghold for JI and houses JI’s governing council (Markaziyah), most of JI’s pesantrens (Islamic boarding schools), and half of all JI members. One of the most notorious JI schools, Pesantren Al-Mukmin in Ngruki, was also located in Central Java and graduated many JI members who went on to conduct the Bali bombing. Some analysts have argued that Central Java’s relatively higher terrorism activity can be attributed to its higher population density compared to other provinces in Indonesia.

JI’s Stronghold in Central Sulawesi

Central Sulawesi province has three main characteristics that are conducive for JI activity.

Firstly, Central Sulawesi has a particularly strong history of communal conflict, leaving local grievances and residual infrastructure for militants to exploit. The Poso conflict in the 2000s gave way to a strong anti-police attitude in parts of the community, as many had family members who were killed by authorities. This makes the Central Sulawesi community particularly vulnerable to radicalization, as stated by Zainal Abidin, the former chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council’s Palu chapter. Many extremist organizations have taken advantage of this local grievance to recruit members, including the now-dismantled Eastern Indonesia Mujahidin, a pro-Islamic State organization that conducted some of the most fatal attacks against police and Christians from its base in Poso. 

JI’s activities in Poso only became pronounced after Mindanao-trained JI-member Hasanudin, alias Slamet Raharjo, took charge of Poso operations in 2002. From 2002 to 2007, Hasanudin led JI to conduct a total of 13 terrorist attacks, including the brutal beheading of Christian schoolgirls in 2005. Hasanudin was subsequently arrested but returned to Poso in 2016. He then reactivated military training (tadrib askari) for new cadres in the Pamona Selatan district, Poso, in 2018, and recruited at least 70 new cadres in the next two years. Hasanudin was re-arrested in 2021, but his legacy likely left a blueprint for remaining JI members for building military training programs – one of the indicated ongoing activities in Poso. 

The second reason why Central Sulawesi possibly continues to be a favored area for JI is its topography, which is marked by hills and dense forests and is advantageous for secluded military training. Indeed, the most notable aspect of the April arrests was the police’s mention of the suspects’ active physical and military training in Poso. Many terrorism analysts have outlined how JI used Central Sulawesi as a qoidah aminah (secure base) for JI to govern, gather support, and launch jihad.

Finally, JI has an extensive network of affiliated pesantren and mosques in Central Sulawesi, similar to Central Java, which it has used for dakwah and recruitment. This is significant as the Indonesian government takes care to tread lightly in its policing of pesantren, making the Islamic educational institution a safe basis for recruitment and even fundraising. Evidence of JI preaching can still be found in pesantren and mosques in Kayamanya, Tamanjeka, Gebang Rejo, Kalora, and other villages in mid-2023, though it would also be remiss to categorize all these institutions as purely pro-JI as some of them, such as Pesantren al-Amanah, have also accepted government aid. 

Importantly, JI also built relations with influential local figures such as Haji Adnan Arsal, a former militant who authorities now consider to be a key partner for peace in Poso. Arsal’s influence is such that his son, Muhamad Amin Adnan, was excluded from a round of arrests in 2021 despite being the local coordinator of Syam Organizer Daerah, an extremist charity which was known to fund-raise for JI. JI’s links with Arsal date back to 2001, when representatives of JI central command met the leader in Poso and offered assistance in the form of preachers and fighters.  JI’s established relations with Arsal eases the path for JI to maintain operations in Central Sulawesi. In fact, one of the suspects arrested this April was allegedly involved in fundraising through Syam Organizer.

JI’s Future Operations in Indonesia

The April arrests in Central Sulawesi indicate that JI is continuing to rebuild, not only through its dakwah division – which has been a JI priority for the last decade – but also potentially its military capabilities through its recruitment and training division. 

Besides Central Java and Central Sulawesi, North Sumatra, Lampung, East Java, and West Java have also seen a higher number of JI arrests compared to other provinces since 2021. The lack of arrests in these provinces so far this year may not be a conclusive sign of lack of activity. JI has been particularly adept at integrating into society and pursuing their goals through legal avenues in the past few years, such as through investing in palm oil plantations and training their cadres through legally certified nature associations.

As such, monitoring of terrorism activity should be continued throughout Indonesia, especially given JI activity in provinces, other than its strongholds, tend to be sporadic and opportunistic. While there is no indication from the recent arrests that JI may be planning an attack, a potential flashpoint to look out for is militant activity in the lead up to the Indonesian regional elections, which will be held simultaneously nationwide on November 27. In the past, police have discovered terror plots to disrupt regional elections. While JI as an organization may have ostensibly distanced itself from the use of violence for the time being this does not negate the possibility that younger JI cadres may act on their own accord and pursue more aggressive measures.