Center for Strategic Communication

by Mark Woodward, Ali Amin and  Inayah Rohmaniyah*

In recent months, Indonesian security forces, including the US-trained Detachment 88, have proven to be increasingly effective in locating, capturing or killing suspected terrorists. But police power alone will never defeat a deeply entrenched extremist sub-culture.  Soft power is a crucial component as well, perhaps even more important than enforcement.

The deaths of Noordin Top on September 17, 2009 and Dulmatin on March 9 of this year, raids on a training camp in Aceh on February 23rd, and continuing operations in that province are examples of the Indonesian authorities increasing operational capabilities. Reuters described Dulmatin’s death as a “fresh blow to Indonesian militants.” Western media reports have focused largely on his role in the 2002 Bali bombings and have suggested that his death may have crippled Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and other Indonesian militant groups because of the entirely unsubstantiated claim that he was the sole remaining operative with the skill to construct large bombs.

It is undoubtedly true that militant groups have suffered significant losses over the past few months. But it is also true that “decapitating” militant organizations and breaking up training centers will not solve the problem of Islamist violence in Indonesia or elsewhere. Some terrorism experts have expressed concern that the existence of the Aceh camp is a sign that radical Islamists are regrouping and that evidence points to the continued existence of Indonesian and trans-national networks providing weapons, funding and ideological-religious support.

These concerns are probably well founded. At the same time they are myopic and rooted in the naive assumption that “taking out” critical nodes in radical networks will resolve the problem of extremist political violence. Sidney Jones of the International Crisis Group, who is the foremost authority on Indonesian Islamist militant groups, has warned against over estimating the significance of Dulmatin’s death. She is almost certainly correct.

Almost every time a leading terrorist operative is killed or captured the media, government officials and some terrorism experts proclaim that the movement has been crippled or its capacity to conduct operations diminished. This has not proven to be the case. Despite the apprehension or killing of several leaders, Indonesian extremists have proven to be remarkably resilient. The source of this resilience is not international links or financing. It is that fact that JI, Negara Islam Indonesia (NII) and other extremist groups have very small, but highly dedicated and well organized support bases.

Most of these supporters have never engaged in terrorist or other criminal activities. They live seemingly normal lives and include people who are everything from farmers and petty traders to business executives. Even if they could be indentified, only a government that aggressively pursued repressive security measures unacceptable in a democratic society such as Indonesia could detain them. NII and other extremist groups also have centralized leadership structures that make replacing “fallen comrades” relatively easy. They are based on bureaucratic not charismatic authority.

The cell structure of Indonesian militant organizations isolates both the leadership and rank and file members. Structurally it is similar to the segmentary lineage systems well known to anthropologists and multilevel marketing schemes. Typically rank and file and mid-level militants know only members of their own groups and their immediate superiors. They also swear oaths of eternal loyalty and obedience. The structure of these networks is such that not even high-ranking leaders are not fully aware of their size or structure.

Some Indonesian extremist organizations are of relatively recent origin and have ideological ties to Middle Eastern Jihadi organizations including al-Qaeda. Others, especially NII, have deep historical roots. The fact that some Indonesian groups appropriate the name al-Qaeda and a handful of leaders may have once met with bin Laden or his associates does not imply anything like a centralized command and control system or that Indonesian and other Southeast Asian organizations are “al-Qaeda franchises.”

Indonesian extremist groups have received funds from Middle Eastern extremists. The Saudi government spends a lot of money in efforts to promote an exclusivist, intolerant version of Islam that contributes to the development of extremist sub-cultures. There is a shared perception that Muslims the world over face a common threat from an aggressive Western alliance. Many non-violent and even entirely non-political groups and individuals share this view.

NII is the largest underground Islamic extremist movement in Indonesia. It is the grandfather of JI and the “splinter groups” led by Noordin Top and Dulmatin. There are probably others of which authorities are not yet aware. NII has always been a nationalist Islamic movement concerned only tangentially with affairs outside Indonesia.

Kartosuwirjo and other Islamic leaders who rejected the secular orientation of mainstream Indonesian nationalism founded NII in the 1940s. Their goal was the establishment an Islamic state based on Shari’ah. During the Indonesian Revolution (1945-1949), NII rejected negotiations with the Dutch and the Indonesian Republic. It proclaimed an Islamic state (Darul Islam; DI) on August 7, 1949. The movement was instrumental in fomenting ethic and Islamic separatist movements in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the mid 1950s it controlled much of West Java, South Sulawesi and Aceh. Indonesian forces broke its military strength after the declaration of martial law in 1957. The movement went underground and has persisted for generations.

A 2005 report by the International Crisis Group stated that:

Every time the older generation seems on the verge of passing into irrelevance, a new generation of young militants, inspired by DI’s history and the mystique of an Islamic state, emerges to give the movement a new lease on life. If the pattern outlined in this report holds, Indonesia will not be able to eradicate JI or its jihadist partners, even if it arrests every member of the central command but, with more attention to a few key measures, it ought to be able to contain them.

The measures ICG suggested included the resolution of ethnic conflict, better control of the arms trade, improved law enforcement capability and recognition that prison terms do not lessen the commitment of DI militants. The fact that all but one of the Bali Bombers was completely unrepentant even facing execution supports this view. The Indonesian government might well have spared their lives had they expressed remorse and regret for their actions. They preferred death and martyrdom.

The Indonesian government has had a fair measure of success in attaining the first three objectives. The fact that the US-trained counter-terrorism unit Detachment 88 seems to be inclined to kill rather than capture terrorist suspects may indicate that they are taking this last recommendation seriously. Some Indonesian human rights advocates are concerned that the police are now taking the law into their own hands, killing suspects who should be and could be captured and brought to trial. Some understand this as resurgence of the brutal and oppressive policies of the military regime of former President Suharto (1965-1998).

Despite these measures, NII, JI and other militant groups have not vanished. It is naive to expect that Dulmatin’s death will diminish their conviction and capacity. There may be no further incidents for a year or five but there is no reason to believe that they will not strike again where and when they feel ready. The suggestion that eliminating one or even a group of key figures can cripple the movement is wishful thinking.

So is the idea that neutralizing one explosives expert seriously diminishes the operational capacity of militant groups. Hundreds if not thousands of Indonesians were trained in the use of weapons ranging form small arms and improvised explosive devises to surface-to-air missiles and heavy artillery in Afghanistan and Pakistan during the war against Soviet occupation forces. While they have not had the opportunity to use sophisticated weaponry on the home front, knowledge of simpler but no less deadly technologies has been passed on to younger generations in camps such as the one recently discovered in Aceh.

These operations do not require extensive foreign or domestic funding. Indonesian government sources state that the Aceh camp had a funding stream of approximately $50,000 (US). It was a remarkably cost effective operation. Firearms are difficult to obtain in Indonesia, but the Philippines is awash with them, many stolen or purchased illegally from the armed forces. The Philippine-Indonesia boundary is porous and unsealable because it is open seas.

Religious Extremism or Culture of Radicalism?

Hendropriyono (many Indonesians have only one name), the former chief of Badan Intelijen Negara (BIN; the Indonesian state intelligence agency) recently stated that:

Terrorism is analogous to the stem and the leaves while the fundamentalism is the root, which should be removed.

Former militants we have spoken with over the past several months share this view. They often say that if the authorities capture or kill one terrorist anywhere from three to a hundred will take his place.

Hendropriyono’s statement that the government should act against fundamentalism and “inflammatory sermons” is more problematic because these concepts are extremely difficult to define in ways that do not infringe on freedom of speech and religion. Political violence cannot be unambiguously linked with any theological position. His suggestion that people who hate people of other religions is the root of the terrorist problem is equally naive because Islamist militants are as concerned with other professed Muslims as they are with people of other faiths.

JI is linked to the extremist Salafi understandings of Islam characteristic of most other contemporary Sunni Islamist groups; NII is not and never has been. Its goal is the establishment of an Islamic state, not the promotion of a particular theological agenda. Some leaders and supporters of the movement do hold religious views similar to those of Saudi Wahhabis. Others have more traditional views and engage in religious practices including pilgrimage to holy graves that many contemporary Islamist and other Indonesian Muslim organizations, including the modernist Muhammadiyah, that are not linked to violence in any way, consider to be “unbelief.”

The defining characteristics of the ideologies of NII, Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia and other extremist groups are commitment to the idea of the Islamic State. They denounce  those who do not share this commitment as kafir (unbelievers) and regard the taking of their blood and property as halal (permissible). This is a critical point because there is an increasing tendency in Indonesia and elsewhere to link Muslim political violence to Wahhabi understandings of monotheism and ritual practice. As is stated in a previous posting, this is a serious and potentially dangerous mistake.  NII’s position is that Muslims who embrace the teachings of al-Wahab on religious matters, but who reject jihad and accept the legitimacy of the Indonesian state, are also kafir.

While political violence cannot be linked directly to a single variant of Islam, there is what can be called a subculture of extremism. It defining characteristics are principled opposition to secularism and the secular state along with the belief that violent jihad is a legitimate form of political action. This is often coupled with belief that only those who share these views are truly Muslims and stand for the glorification of martyrdom. This subculture is now several generations old.

Militant groups are usually endogamous. That is, young members are only allowed to marry others committed to the cause or at least to “bring in” their spouses. Marriages are often arranged without the knowledge or consent of young couples’ families. These practices build in-group cohesion at the cost of cutting family ties that are of central importance in Indonesian societies. Children from NII and other militant families are raised with the belief that they are different from others and quickly learn to be suspicious of political and religious authorities. Many are sent to camps for “basic training” and formally initiated into extremist organizations as adolescents.

Others are recruited in secular secondary schools, colleges and universities or in local mosques, including campus mosques at secular universities, and undergo similar training and indoctrination, with or without a para-military component. Some recruits live double lives, keeping their membership in extremist associations secret even from close friends and family members. It is not possible to say how large this subculture of extremism is. Most members of these communities are not currently engaged in terrorist activities. They are, however, a pool from which violent activists can be readily recruited.

Dulmatin’s funeral provides insight into the characteristics if not the extent of this culture of radicalism. Dulmatin was buried in his native village of Loning in Central Java on March 12. Several hundred mourners had gathered, not only from his home town, but from as far away as Bayuwangi in East Java and Banten in the west, both hundreds of miles away.  Some came as soon as they learned of Dulmatin’s death. His supporters, including Islamist cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, maintain that he is a martyr not a “terrorist.”

Ba’asyir is generally considered to be the spiritual leader of JI. In his sermons he denounces Indonesian leaders and most other Indonesian Muslims as kafir. In a sermon delivered in a Yogyakarta mosque during Ramadan last year, he stated that more than 90 percent of the Indonesians who call themselves Muslims actually are not. He calls for jihad against the United States and its western allies but publicly rejects violence in Indonesia, always referring to it as “mistaken” or “misguided.”

In a statement reminiscent of his eulogies for the Bali Bombers executed last year, Ba’asyir stated that Dulmatin was a martyr who had died in the struggle for Islam, but that he may have erred by conducting violent operations inside Indonesia. As proof of Dulmatin’s martyrdom Ba’asyir stated that at the time of his burial Dulmatin looked as if he was still alive, his body smelled sweet and blood continued to flow in his veins. Rumors spread throughout the country that as he was carried to his grave the words “Allah Akbar” (God is Great) appeared in the sky, confirming the chants of the mourners. A banner erected in front of his family home stated that he was not a terrorist but a mujahid (freedom fighter).

Counter-Exclusivism as Counter-Extremism

Indonesia’s security forces have proven that they are capable of locating, killing or capturing known terrorists. This alone will not bring an end to Islamist political violence. Given the fact that there is a well established and well organized subculture of violent extremism it is to reasonable to conclude that there are no quick fixes. This does not mean that the country must or should resign itself to the institutionalization of violence of the type that has occurred in India and Pakistan, where Muslim on Muslim, Hindu on Muslim, Hindu on Christian and Muslim on Hindu violence have become almost politics as normal.

There are at least three factors that can lead to the diminution of violence:

  • Islamic Education. The more people know about Islam, the less attractive they find extremist ideologies. Extremists rely on simplistic religious ‘proofs’ for their political positions. Muslims with more than rudimentary understanding of the Qur’an and Hadith (traditions concerning the Prophet Muhammad and his companions) recognize the simplicity and banality of these ‘proofs.’ This is not conjecture; former NII recruiters have told us that people with little religious education are the easiest targets and those from pesantren (traditional Islamic boarding schools) the most difficult.
  • War Weariness. Violent Islamist ideologies offer the promise of “victory or martyrdom.” Indonesian Islamists have engaged in what they think of as jihad for nearly seventy years. They are no closer to victory than they were in the 1940s and much further than they were at the height of their power in the mid-1950s. Some have come to see the Islamic State as a lost cause and have turned to peaceful strategies to bring about political and religious change. Aceh, in North Sumatra, was once a rallying point because the Acehnese waged jihad against first the Dutch, then the Japanese and finally the Indonesian government for more than a century.  The Acehnese provided a heroic example for others in much the same way that the Palestinians do on a global scale. Aceh now shows that there is an alternative to violent struggle and that peace and reconciliation are possible. A 2005 peace accord between Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (GAM; the Acehnese independence movement) and the Indonesian government granted the province a high level of self-government. In return, the Acehnese stopped the jihad. Today, peace has returned to the province for the first time in a century. When you travel to Aceh, people speak of two things: their sorrow about loved ones lost in the 2004 Tsunami and how overjoyed they are to be able to do simple things such as going out to dinner or to a coffee shop or to a fruit market in the evening. Those things were not possible during the long years of war. This is not to say that all is well in Aceh. In a rush to establish its Islamic credentials and assert its independence the provincial government has implemented draconian Shari’ah legislation that negatively impacts women. The equation of Islam with gender-based discrimination is an alarming tendency not only in Indonesia but in other regions of Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia that have used the concept of local autonomy to promote Islamic identity.
  • Takfiraphobia. Takfir is the practice of declaring professed Muslims to be kafir. It is a common element in Islamist ideologies. In the abstract it is not difficult to refer to people with whom one strong disagrees as kafir, especially if they are geographically and socially distant. It is an entirely different matter to accept the fact that your relatives and friends are kafir who are going to hell. This is one of the things that violent Islamist organizations demand of recruits. It is very hard to accept the fact that your mother is going to hell, if you believe in it and most Indonesians do. This limits the ability of extremist groups to recruit new members. Takfiri rhetoric may strengthen solidarity and collective identity in instances where there are clearly discernable lines of conflict. This is not the case in contemporary Indonesia.

The Case for Soft Power

No reasonable person would deny that it is necessary to use police power to combat violent extremists who believe that they have religious obligations to kill other people. Police power is a necessary but not sufficient component of an ongoing effort to counter violent extremists. But as long as they are ideologically and socially intact and are able to reproduce themselves, these networks will endure. In Indonesia, some have endured for generations.

The use of police power confronts extremists where, culturally and ideologically speaking, they are least vulnerable. Jihad and martyrdom are among the key organizing principles of the extremist sub-culture. Dead extremists become heroes and martyrs for surviving members. It is entirely possible that Dulmatin and other JI fighters who have been killed or executed are more influential dead than they were alive. This is certainly true of the Bali Bombers who were unknown to most Indonesians prior to the 2002 attacks but whose funerals attracted sympathetic media coverage despite the horrendous nature of their crimes. They are now the posthumous authors of best sellers that can be found in bookstores throughout Indonesia.

Building strategies rooted in Islamic education, and concepts such as war weariness and takfiraphobia has an important role to play in the struggle against extremism. Such efforts strike extremists where they are sociologically, psychologically and theologically most vulnerable. Properly implemented, they can expose the banality of Islamist theologies, offer hope of life without fear and escape from the psychic trauma of imagining loved ones enduring the torments of hell.


* Mark Woodward is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Arizona State University. Ali Amin is Academic Director at the Center for Religious and Cross-cultural Studies at Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta Indonesia. Inayah Rohmaniyah is Senior Lecturer of Tafsir and Hadith at Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University, Yogyakarta Indonesia.