New ICG Report on Jihadists in Aceh, Indonesia

by Chris Lundry

The International Crisis Group has issued another report on terrorism in Indonesia, concerning the recent arrests and killings in Aceh, Indonesia (the report is available here). As with most ICG reports, it is thorough and informative, and includes much detailed description obtained through extensive interviews. The report emphasizes some important elements of the fight against terror in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Most importantly, perhaps, is the ability of jihadists to adapt to changing security situations and adopt new methods. It also shows the divisions among supporters of terror over tactics, and the groups that emerge that reflect these divisions (for example, whether it is permissible to use bombing as a tactic despite the risk of killing innocent Muslims). The report’s executive summary and recommendations are spot on.

One of the remarkable aspects of the Aceh-based group — which contributed to its discovery and elimination — is its assumption that Aceh would prove a fertile ground for recruiting as well as a safe place to train. The report alludes to the deep-seated feelings of nationalism held by the Acehnese that all but ensured a lack of support for the terrorists. Acehnese pride themselves on their independent spirit and religious devotion, which is reflected in the autonomy agreement between the Acehnese and the Indonesian central government. Signed in 2005 following decades of armed rebellion against Jakarta, it allows considerable authomoy for Aceh as well as permiting the enforcement of Shari’ah (Islamic) law in the region. Despite claims made to the contrary by Indonesia (especially after 9-11), the Acehnese refused assistance from terrorist groups operating in the region such as Jemaah Islamiyah. The Aceh group clearly miscalculated.

The report mentions the work of local police in the initial prosecution of the group, but also highlights the work of the national anti-terror force Densus 88. A source who just returned from northern Sumatra told me that the attention given to Densus 88 caused some resentment among local police in Aceh, who felt as though they weren’t getting enough credit for their initial investigation. Hopefully this won’t hamper any cooperation in the future between local police and Densus 88. (In a statement that emphasized the role of Densus 88 and the police’s mobile brigade (Brimob) but said little about local police efforts, National Police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri also emphasized that the military was not involved as terrorism was within the “realm of law enforcement”).

Some other important elements of the ICG report include the call to more closely monitor the role of prisons in facilitating the spread of jihadist teaching, the cooperation (albeit somewhat limited and less than well coordinated) cooperation between Indonesian terrorists and those of Abu Sayyaf and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and family ties between jihadists who marry into their fellow jihadists’ families thus creating a dense web of support. The report also shows the tangible ties to quasi-legal groups such as the Islamic Derfender’s Front, a group of thugs who operate protection rackets in the name of Islam and who have a proclivity for breaking the law in the name of Islam (and who seldom face law enforcement). Finally, the report shows some of the weaknesses within the Indonesian police structure, including the willingness for some police to take bribes or sell weapons to terrorists, and sometimes lax law enforcement that allowed, for example, a wanted terrorist to walk away from arrest because the police felt sorry for him as he had recently been in a motorcycle wreck (!).

The terrorists may have picked something up from their dealings with the GAM (Free Aceh Movement) membes who they did contact (only a couple were recruited, and their ties to GAM are questioned in the report): Detik.com reported that the Aceh-based terrorists were planning on hijacking ships in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways.

Finally, as to be expected, Indonesian jihadist websites have been publicizing the deaths of the militants and lauding them as martyrs (due to the supposedly fresh smell of their corpses and that the corpses were smiling, proof of martyrdom in Islam).

Indonesia has been able to kill or arrest some of the most significant figures in terrorism in the region in the past year or so, and no doubt has significantly weakened their networks. The question that remains is in what form they will next emerge, and which tatics will they adopt? Only time will tell, but continued vigilance on the part of the police — and civilians such as those who reported the suspicious activity — will remain a necessary element in Indonesia’s continuing battle against extremists.