Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

In the aftermath of the 17 July bombings at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Jakarta, some interesting developments have emerged in Indonesia’s anti-terrorism efforts.

The incident has shattered the illusion that Indonesia was safe from the threat of terrorism following four years without a major terrorist incident.  It also led to some puzzling rhetoric from President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, in which he likened terrorists to vampires, speculated that some of his political rivals might have been behind the bombing, and claimed to have evidence of a plot to kill him.

The attack has also introduced challenges for Indonesia’s emerging democracy. Despite the best intentions of those wishing to eliminate terrorism, some of the ideas proposed to identify those people associated with terror may do more harm than good.  As in the United States following 9/11, the demand to respond to attacks is putting pressure on democratic institutions and civil liberties.

Here is a roundup of recent developments in Indonesia.

A Free Press?

Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman

Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman

On 25 August, Indonesian police arrested Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman, who maintains the website In the days since the arrest, the police have made statements linking him to jihadist training in Pakistan, membership in al Qaeda, and financing terror, specifically the 17 July bombings, among other charges.  Jibriel responded by threatening to sue the police for wrongful arrest.

The web site was closed for several days, but is back online, and includes an essay by Jibriel in which he claims he is “enjoying” this test (along with a photo of him grinning). The police charges include funding terrorism, being a member of a terrorist organization, and possessing false identification papers.  Jibriel is claiming that it is a case of stifling a free press, a relatively novel concept in newly democratizing Indonesia.

Although he is accused of more serious crimes, this does raise questions about the limitations of freedom of the press in Indonesia. Is promoting jihad without advocating specific acts legal? Is a jihadist website covered under press laws? Jibriel’s claim that the police acted improperly and that he was covered under press freedom law was published on his father’s website,, and he has appealed to the Indonesian Press Council for support. The police responded that he was being charged under anti-terrorism law. He has also claimed that he was tortured while in custody; the Human Rights Commission stated that it will investigate.

The story took an intriguing turn when former cinetron (soap opera) star Soraya Abdullah Balvas’ name became associated with Jibriel’s arrest and fueled speculation as to the nature of their relationship. She began wearing an abaya (see below) and following the teachings of Jibriel’s father in 2007, and has spoken out on his son’s behalf.  She is under suspicion for funding terrorism.

Monitoring Mosques, Abaya, Turbans, and… Beards?

In an effort to stem radicalization of Muslims during Ramadan, the Indonesian government proposed a program whereby Indonesian police would monitor Friday sermons at mosques throughout Indonesia. After an immediate, vocal, and understandable uproar, the plan was scrapped. There have been several other similar proposals, including searching women who wear abaya (alternatively, chador or burka, Islamic dress that covers the whole body, rare in Indonesia), banning backpacks from malls, and putting men who wear beards under suspicion. Perhaps they will also consider monitoring men with zebibah, a bruise or callous on the forehead from pressing one’s head forcefully while prostrate during prayer.  This is viewed as an outward display of piety for devout Muslims (zebibah literally means “raisin” in Arabic).

The Military and Domestic Terror

Another proposal that remains on the table is for the Indonesian military to play a role in combating domestic terrorism, revising the 2003 anti-terrorism law. Although it would expand the number of personnel working to eliminate terrorism, this plan is fraught with problems.

Indonesia’s armed forces, particularly its land forces, were focused on “internal” matters during the New Order (suppressing regional rebellions and eliminating dissent).  This is why the Indonesian Navy and Air Force are rather small in comparison to the Army, which is strange for an archipelagic country. The armed forces were also notoriously corrupt, and relied on military-owned private enterprises for most of their operating budgets. The military had an explicit role in government and social life, known as dwifungsi (dual function), and occupied seats in the parliament set aside for its members.

Human rights supporters are quick to point out that despite the increasing limitations on the military, it is still responsible for abuses in places such as West Papua. Analysts have connected the members of the military to Islamist groups such as Laskar Jihad during the conflict in Ambon in 1999-2001. Delegating more authority to the military could enable more abuses. The Indonesian army’s commander, General Djoko Santoso, may have just stoked these fears by arguing that “conflict areas,” including West Papua, may be susceptible to terrorism, implicitly lumping together the predominantly Christian West Papuan separatists (who have historically been abused) with extremists intent on creating an Islamic state.

Having just seen the military’s role reduced in the past decade, many are wary of delegating it more authority. A recent International Crisis Group (ICG) report states:

Local police and community leaders in particular need to learn much more than they know now about the radical groups operating in their areas and what danger signs to look for. While there is a justification for greater information-sharing, there is none at all for giving more authority to the military or intelligence agencies to arrest or interrogate suspects. One of the great strengths of Indonesia’s counter-terrorism program is that it is a civilian law enforcement effort, not a war, and it should stay that way.

The strength and shape of JI

The aforementioned ICG report details the intricate web of connections that support terrorist Noordin Top, Jemaah Islamiyah, and related networks. These include family ties, pesantren (Islamic boarding schools), mosques and ulama (clerics) known for recruiting, foreign sponsors, and sellers of Islamic herbal remedies. As usual, the report shows the in-depth and well informed research typical of the Jakarta office of the ICG, and it underscores the importance of maintaining vigilance and avoiding complacency in Indonesia’s anti-terrorism efforts.

Noordin Top

The 17-hour shootout in Temanggung on August 8 was theater, but not very good theater. The mainstream press raised important questions in the days after the shooting.  Why didn’t the police try tear gas or other non-lethal forms of subduing the house’s resident?  Why had the police allowed a terrorist safehouse identified two years ago to remain a safehouse? These questions were repeated in jihadist websites such as Prisoner of Joy as proof of anti-Islam conspiracies and as evidence that Allah is protecting his mujahadin “slaves.”

A statement attributed to Noordin Top identified the man killed and stated that Noordin had been at the house two days prior. The fact remains that in full view of the media (and therefore the people of Indonesia) it took 17 hours and countless bullets to neutralize one suspect. In those 17 hours, and the several days it took to process DNA tests, the story that Noordin had been killed was repeated in the press. In fact, he remains on the loose, his whereabouts subject to speculation and unsubstantiated claims, and the threat from his Jemaah Islamiyah offshoot (and potentially others) is not diminished.

Terrorism remains appealing to a small segment of Indonesians. Those involved in trying to reduce terrorism by marginalizing or eliminating its supporters need to avoid alienating those who may be susceptible to terror’s message. The Indonesian government must take pains to implement plans that will be effective and palatable to not only mainstream Muslims but also staunchly conservative ones as well. It must also avoid the temptation to trample democracy and civil liberties to defeat those who threaten democracy and civil liberties.   In a war of ideas, tactics matter.