Jemaah Islamiyah Says It Has Disbanded. Should We Believe It?

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Jemaah Islamiyah Says It Has Disbanded. Should We Believe It?

Late last month, 16 senior JI figures announced the group’s dissolution, and said they were “ready to actively contribute to Indonesia’s progress and dignity.”

Jemaah Islamiyah Says It Has Disbanded. Should We Believe It?

Police escort Usman bin Sef, also known as Fahim, a convicted leader of al-Qaida-linked Jemaah Islamiyah extremist group in East Java province, upon arrival at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia, Thursday, March 18, 2021.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim

Shocking news has arrived that the Indonesian hardline Islamist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), once one of the most feared terrorist presences in Southeast Asia, is to disband.

The announcement came in a video released on June 30 featuring 16 senior JI figures who stated that the group would be formally dissolved. They also pledged their allegiance to the Indonesian state.

In a prepared statement, Abu Rusdan, a senior leader of the group, said that JI now stands “ready to actively contribute to Indonesia’s progress and dignity.”

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) confirmed the authenticity of the video. Sidney Jones of IPAC said that it was “too early to say what the consequences are, but the men who signed the statement have enough respect and credibility within the organization to ensure widespread acceptance.”

JI was founded in 1993 by Indonesian clerics Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar and was most prevalent in the early to mid-2000s, when the group, which had received training and funding in Afghanistan, committed a number of deadly attacks in Indonesia.

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

Yet talk of JI disbanding is somewhat contradictory, as the group previously “disbanded” in the wake of the Bali bombing of 2002, following which members splintered over differing opinions of whether it was acceptable to attack civilians and over wider leadership issues.

In the days that followed the October 2002 attack, JI was also added to U.N. Security Council Resolution 1267, which designated Osama bin Laden and any associates as terrorists, and placed sanctions on individuals and entities associated with Al Qaeda, Bin Laden, and the Taliban.

JI was then also outlawed by the Indonesian government in 2007.

Yet JI has continued to exist covertly in the years since the Bali bombing, despite the Indonesian government’s prohibition against it, turning its attention to its network of Islamic boarding schools (pesantren) and on dakwah, or proselytization.

JI members also continue to live all over Indonesia and beyond, including in Syria and Yemen.

For years, analysts and the Indonesian authorities have warned that JI has continued to raise funds for terrorist attacks and has carried out military and weapons training for members. JI suspects have been arrested periodically on suspicion of continuing to plot attacks across the country.

But the facts also speak for themselves. JI has not carried out a violent attack in Indonesia since 2009.

Is this because of the commendable counterterrorism operations of the Indonesian authorities? Or does it demonstrate that the group has indeed morphed from a once violent entity focused on establishing a Muslim caliphate across Southeast Asia to a different kind of organization with a mostly aging membership?

Probably, it is a little of both, coupled with the directionless and fractured leadership that has plagued the group since the Bali bombing.

Yet JI is much larger and more complex than simply a “terrorist organization” focused on planning and carrying out acts of violence – a narrow parameter usually assigned to radical groups to assess their ongoing threat.

Instead, it is a network of individuals with a shared history, who continue in many cases to live, work, and raise families together all across the country, and who have also created a significant infrastructure to support themselves. This includes myriad businesses run by JI members, the aforementioned network of Islamic boarding schools, legal aid groups, and shared housing – to name just a few.

Members also regularly hold social events and meetings, and travel across the country to visit each other.

As one JI member told The Diplomat, “When we see each other, it is like a high school reunion, but we are all former members of JI.”

As such, the organization is likely to be a nebulous entity to dismantle, despite the assurances of its senior figures that this is what they intend to do.

Does it mean that these individuals will never see each other again? Or just that they will refrain from plotting acts of violence in the future, something they have not done since 2009 anyway?

What will happen to the schools, businesses and communities they have built? Presumably, these will continue, but no longer under the banner of “JI,” which was already a banned organization anyway.

Given the complex social structures embedded in extremist organizations like this and which serve to glue them together, can JI ever truly disband or be disbanded?