Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward

On 17 July 17 2009, Indonesia and the world were shocked by another round of terrorist attacks. Two powerful bombs exploded in the J.W. Marriott and Ritz- Carlton hotels in Jakarta, Indonesia. Another was found and defused in a hotel room the bombers had rented. I am currently visiting Indonesia and have observed initial reactions by ordinary Indonesians as well as by various religious/political organizations.  Two different kinds of responses by the organizations are telling.

Since 2003 the Indonesian police and security forces have captured or killed numerous terrorist leaders and operatives, particularly those associated with the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) organization. Three men convicted of planning and carrying out the 2002 Bali Bombings were executed on 8 November 2008. The executions were covered extensively by the Indonesian press and television news. Islamist groups protested the executions and declared that the bombers died as martyrs. Mainstream Muslim organizations rejected this claim, but many feared that the executions would lead to revenge attacks and reinvigorate violent extremist organizations. 

Revenge attacks did not immediately materialize. This led many to believe that the threat of further violence had dissipated. Others were less optimistic and suggested that JI could not be silenced so easily.  They said members would bide their time and strike again when and where they chose. It is possible that the pessimists were correct.

Indonesian and foreign terrorism experts immediately suspected JI and especially Malaysian Noordin Top, one the few known JI leaders who remains at large. The facts that these were suicide attacks and that the explosives were nearly identical to those in the Bali bombings lends support to this position.

The Marriott Hotel was the target of a previous JI attack on 5 August 2003.  It is an obvious choice of targets, as is the Ritz-Carlton. These are very high profile American hotels frequented by foreign diplomats and business executives. The US embassy often uses them for meetings and public events.

How bombs or bomb making materials could have been smuggled into these hotels is unclear because they normally have very tight security. All vehicles are inspected before they can approach the entrance. Guests and visitors must pass through metal detectors and bags are checked for explosives residue. This suggests that the bombings may have benefitted from inside collaboration, like the attacks in Mumbai, India last year. It is also not clear why high profile people continue to stay in such obvious targets. There are numerous other five star hotels in Jakarta that are not “symbols of the US.”

There has been considerable speculation in the press and among people I have spoken with over the past three days about exactly what the motive for the attacks might be. Some see it simply as a part of the ongoing jihad waged by people referred to as “excessive fanatics,” “followers of Sayid Qtub” (i.e. like al Qaeda and JI) or of the Indonesian Islamist Abu Bakr Basyir, who has been implicated in previous attacks. Others described it as an attempt to discredit recently re-elected President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY), or to “destroy” the economy, particularly the important tourist industry. Still others saw it as attempt to keep the enormously popular Manchester United football (soccer) club from playing a match in Jakarta (the team was scheduled to stay in the Marriott, but the match was cancelled). Many expressed concern that the attacks would promote negative images of both Indonesia and Islam. None of the people I spoke with expressed any support for the bombings.

Muslim organizations have reacted in ways that reflect their more general religious and political orientations. These range from the strongest possible Islamic condemnations of the attacks by mainstream organizations to strategically ambiguous statements by Islamist groups.

Mainstream Organization Responses

Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a religiously conservative but politically progressive organization, and Muhammadiyah, a modernist movement with religiously fundamentalist leanings, are Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations. Both have played leading roles in the democratic transition of the past decade and resolutely oppose violence. Despite very considerable religious differences, the two organizations are united in their concern about the spread of radical Islamism in Indonesia. In a joint statement that aired on Indonesian TV One the two organizations declared that the attacks were “evil” and that terrorism is incompatible with Islamic and other religious values but that counter-terrorist efforts by security forces are in keeping with religious values. They also urged the public not to pay attention to conspiracy theories.

In a separate statement, NU’s leader Hasyim Muzadi explained that, “terrorism is not religion, so it is not the case that the Muslim community can be held responsible for these acts.” This statement requires some unpacking. Muzadi does not deny that the people responsible for the bombings claim to be Muslims. He is stating that those who commit such acts are not included in the community of people who submit to God’s will, which is the theological meaning of the phrase “Muslim Community.”

This is the strongest possible criticism of the bombers, because it suggests that they are not Muslims, but rather hypocrites (munafiq) who merely claim to be Muslims. Almost all schools of Muslim thought teach that munafiq will burn in the fires of hell. Rhoma Irama, a Muslim “pop star” closely associated with NU, made a similar statement: “Terrorism is not a religious problem. It is a political problem. So it is wrong to mix religion and politics.” He was also strongly critical of the view that the suicide bombers died as martyrs, which is likely to emerge among some radical Islamist groups.

Agus Handoko, one of the leaders of the NU community in Pakistan, which consists primarily of university students, described the attacks as “inhuman” and called on the Indonesian government to bring those responsible to justice. He stated that doing so is in keeping with the core NU values of moderation, tolerance, harmony and justice. He added that pursuing terrorists can be understood in terms of the Quranic legal principle of “Commanding the Good and Forbidding the Evil.”

Din Syamsuddin of Muhammadiyah spoke in similar terms. He called on the government to apprehend not only those directly involved but also the “intellectual actors” behind them. This reflects the widely held view in Indonesia that those who carry out these acts are figures of minor importance and that the Islamist ideologues who preach intolerance and hatred of those who do not share their religious views are ultimately responsible. He denied that there is a connection between Islam and terror, and stated that such acts “only sicken the Muslim Community.” He stated that Muhammadiyah opposes all forms of terror and that neither religion nor politics justifies such acts, concluding that “terror is terror and evil is evil.”

Islamist Organization Responses

The responses of Indonesian Islamist organizations were strikingly different. All but Jihadi web sites avoided using the word “terror.” There were no press reports or statements supporting or even justifying the bombings. Several Islamist organizations did, however, suggest that unnamed sinister elements were involved. Most avoided making religiously based condemnations of the bombings.

The most significant of these organizations is Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS, the Justice and Prosperity Party), which was the subject of an earlier post in this blog. PKS can be best understood as the Indonesian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Its organizational base is located in the urban middle class, especially students in engineering and other technical fields at secular universities. P

KS publicly portrays itself as being tolerant, clean (non-corrupt), caring and professional. It is exceptionally well funded and receives considerable financial assistance from wealthy foundations and individuals in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East. As a political party it has not been particularly successful, despite massive media campaigns it has sponsored.

PKS is also a social movement. It attempts to infiltrate and take over mosques, schools, clinics and other social service agencies run by other Muslim organizations, especially NU and Muhammadiyah. Its cadre structure now reaches into middle schools. Cadres are subjected to intense indoctrination during which they are taught to hate other religions and that “their Islam is the true Islam and that other Muslims are non-believers.”

PKS leaders were circumspect in their comments on the bombings. An official statement strongly condemned them and stated that they would have a negative impact on Indonesia’s image abroad and on investors. PKS president Tifatul Sembiring condemned the bombings but did not mention the possible involvement of Islamist groups except in indirect terms.  He suggested–again indirectly–that there might be other culprits. He urged that people refrain implicating “certain individuals or groups” until an investigation was completed.

Other PKS communication echoed this theme. This article on the PKS web page is entitled “Don’t Play Around with Blame for the Bomb.” Soepripto, another PKS leader, urged that the bombings be viewed from a “comprehensive perspective.” PKS parliamentary leader Muhfudz Siddiq stated that the purpose of the bombing was to undermine the credibility of the recent presidential election and that the case had to be resolved before the inauguration scheduled for October. If not, the people’s belief in the government would be shaken.

None of these statements has any religious content. This might be considered strange coming from an explicitly Islamic organization, but it can be understood in the context of PKS’s attempts to discredit or coopt SBY. Despite polling less than eight percent in the May parliamentary elections, PKS demanded that it receive the Ministries of Religion and Education from SBY in return for continuing to support his government. This would have given them the ability to implement the Islamist agenda that the voters had overwhelmingly rejected. It would also have enormously reduced the influence of Muhammadiyah, which generally controls the Ministry of Education,  and of NU, which generally controls the Ministry of Religion. SBY was not interested, nor were the other presidential candidates. The probable result is that PKS will not be represented in the next governing coalition in a significant way. It would appear that PKS is attempting to use the bombings to destabilize the newly elected secularist government while placating some of its more extremist supporters by failing to mention the probability of involvement by Islamist groups.

Hizb ut-Tahrir (Liberation Party) is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Jerusalem in 1953. Its primary goal is the re-establishment of the caliphate which it sees as the only solution to all of the problems facing the Muslim world. It does not advocate violence but is virulently anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and anti-Western. It is also opposed to the governments of all Muslim countries. The party operates openly in Europe, North America and Australia but is outlawed almost everywhere in the Muslim world except Indonesia. Like PKS its primary support comes from students in secular universities. It rejects democracy as un-Islamic and does not participate in elections.

Most Indonesian Islamists consider Hizb ut-Tahrir to be utopian and naive. Party spokesmen denounced the Jakarta bombings stating that Islam does not allow the destruction of private property or public facilities and killing people except for just cause. They also stated that people seeking to destroy the security of the country and society and to discredit Islam carried out the bombings. They warned authorities against holding Islamic groups responsible.  Hasyim Muzadi’s statement that the Muslim community is not responsible for these acts of terrorism could be easily associated with suggestions by radical Islamists that “certain groups” were actually responsible. To differentiate between the two it is necessary for analysts to understand not only Islam, but local, culturally specific modes of discourse. Given the cultural diversity of the Muslim World, this is not an easy task.

Forum Ummat Islam (FUI, the Islamic Community Forum) is one of the most extreme Islamist groups operating legally Indonesia. It frequently references “conspiracies of Crusaders and Jews” and publicly preaches the message of hate that PKS mentions only in private. FUI General Secretary Muhammad al-Khaththath condemned the bombings but stated that the Indonesian Muslim community could not have been involved because it lacks the financial resources to build the bombs or rent the hotel rooms used by the bombers. He suggested that the attacks were carried out by the intelligence organizations of “certain countries.” In Indonesian Islamist rhetoric the phrase “certain countries” almost always refers to some combination of the US, Israel and Australia. The absurdity of these claims is obvious to almost all Indonesians.

Even Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders Front) denounced the bombings and stated that some young people might “follow the bombers like sheep,” which could lead to civil war. FPI is a radical Islamist group that has often engaged in acts of domestic terrorism which they refer to as “sweepings.” These target hotels, nightclubs, bars and religious organizations that hold views they do not agree with and that are frequented by foreigners.


Three implications can be drawn from the Jakarta bombings and the discourse surrounding them. Two are obvious, and the third is more complex.

  1. If JI proves to have been responsible for the attacks, Indonesia’s anti-terrorist efforts have not been as successful as some observers have assumed. There are at least three reasons for this. One is that JI and other terrorist organizations strike when and where they are able. Their agenda is long-term. Many fully expect that it will take generations to achieve results. Another is that they have hidden resources, people who have a commitment to a violent agenda who have escaped the attention of authorities and who for the time being live peacefully and wait until the “time is right.” And a third is that organizations that are not involved in violent action promulgate teachings of hatred and bigotry that contribute to and are used to justify violence. There is little that law enforcement can do to stop the social reproduction of this ideology. That can only be accomplished by progressive, mainstream Muslim organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah.
  2. It does not make sense to place oneself at risk by staying at or conducting business in buildings that are high profile, symbolic targets. The sad fact is that sooner or later they are probably going to be hit. I am often in Jakarta and would not dream of staying at one of these hotels (even if I could afford it). My Indonesian friends think I’m being smart. In this case, they are right.
  3. The more complex conclusion is that it is not whether but how groups criticize attacks like these that is important. It is, after all, highly unlikely that anyone would publicly support them. The differences between the strategic communication of mainstream Muslim organizations including NU and Muhammadiyah and those of (perfectly legal) Islamist groups such as PKS, Hizbut Tahrir, FUI and FPI are striking. Muhammadiyah and NU have taken very strong religious positions against these attacks and against terrorism in general, to the point of implying that the people involved will burn in hell. Criticisms by Islamist groups, on the other hand, are not nearly so strong. They often use the concept of an “objective” investigation to deflect attention from the almost certain involvement of groups that consider themselves to be fighting the long jihad. The distinctions between these two kinds of critique are subtle and depend on cultural context, but they are nonetheless crucial to draw.

UPDATE  7/24/09 6:30 MST

Indonesian authorities recently announced that a man known only as “Ibrahim” (many Indonesians have only one name), who worked as a florist in a basement room of the Ritz Carlton, is suspected to have been an accompice in planning and carrying out the bombings. He vanished shortly before the blasts and has not been seen since. An increasing body of evidence points to the conclusion that Noordin Top and JI associates with links to Malaysia and Singapore were involved. If correct, this indicates that years of seemingly sucessful counter-terrorism efforts have not diminished the ability of the trans-national JI network to plan and carry out increasingly complex attacks. The network is clearly more resiliant and sustainable than many analysts believed.  In statements in print editions of the Jawa Pos and The Jakarta Post, PKS continues to urge Indonesian authorities to be cautious and warning against blaming a “certain religious group” without sufficient proof.