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Indonesia’s terrorism: a perpetual threat

By Alexey Muraviev 11 April 2013 International Studies No Comments »

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Author: Levi J West

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Bali bombing, there’ll be remembrance ceremonies, personal reflections, and the entirely justified acknowledgments of the successful law enforcement and security cooperation that emerged since 2002. But there has been limited public discussion on the ongoing threat that terrorism poses to both Indonesia and to Australia. While it’s relatively safe to assert that larger scale terrorist organisations such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) have been substantially impacted by the dedicated and effective work of Indonesia’s counterterrorism professionals, this shouldn’t be equated with an end to the terrorist threat. While JI as an organisation is significantly diminished as a likely perpetrator of violent terrorism, the threat remains, and is likely to remain, a permanent aspect of the regional security landscape. As such, it’s worthwhile considering how and why the terrorism threat evolved in Indonesia in the first instance, and how this relates to both international developments and to the domestic situation here in Australia.

Much of the change in the nature of terrorism in Indonesia is reflective of the evolution that has occurred within Al Qaeda internationally. In part as a response to global counterterrorism efforts, but also as a conscious implementation of the strategic thought of terrorist theorists such as Abu Musab al-Suri (seen as an influential exponent of modern jihad), Al Qaeda, and its regional branches and affiliates have adopted an alternative structure and strategy. These changes are proving highly effective in ensuring the preservation of some form of operational capability, and in providing a resilient mechanism for the transmission of ideological propaganda as well as the communication of knowledge of terrorist tradecraft. What was once taught in training camps in Afghanistan or Pakistan is now delivered over the internet in video and audio files containing religious sermons, education in military theory, and practical instruction in how to assemble homemade explosive devices. Most online forums provide all this material in a range of languages, ensuring easy access to a wide variety of content. The global penetration and local relevance of AQAP’s Inspire magazine is reflected in a report by the International Crisis Group on Indonesian jihadism that noted that the first issue was immediately translated into Indonesian. In addition to the adoption of this method of education and communication, the global salafi-jihadist movement has also altered its military strategy.

The ongoing emergence of localised affiliates or franchises, each with differing relationships to Al Qaeda central, has made the terrorism threat more diverse and the movement more resilient. This process however, usually needs a conflict zone, a degree of instability or state weakness (or some combination of those) to gain traction. The secondary element, which has been evidenced in Indonesia, is individual jihad (jihad fardiyah), an idea explicitly advocated by al-Suri in his magnum opus, The Call to Global Islamic Resistance. This strategy involves the abandonment of hierarchical organisational structures and allows individuals and small groups to undertake relatively autonomous attacks without the need to seek authorisation from a centralised command structure. This notion has gained particular currency amongst the jihadist community in Indonesia, with divisions arising between those who subscribe to jihad fardiyah and those who remain wedded to the idea of jihad tanzim (organised jihad). Indonesia has witnessed a spate of these small-scale attacks that have often targeted individuals rather than larger scale symbolic targets. Sidney Jones makes reference in the ICG report to what is known as ightiyalat, or secret assassinations as the ‘preferred method of operation’ for terrorists in Indonesia. The relative ease with which a small cell or a ‘lone wolf’ can strike against an individual target is appealing to terrorists operating in an oppressive counterterrorism environment.

What this means is that the organisational structures haven’t disappeared, and in fact still play an important role in the preservation of jihadist terrorism in Indonesia, in much the same way as Al Qaeda central continues to play a role in the ongoing promotion and inspiration of global terrorism. Organisations such as JI continue to provide what are essentially networking opportunities for prospective terrorists, and attempt to build broader support for the political objectives of Indonesian terrorism. In this sense, the small cells and individual represent the vanguard of the movement, while the organisational elements create legitimacy and support. While their direct role in specific plots may be limited, they retain an important function in the broader process of terrorism in Indonesia.

Terrorism in Western jurisdictions has suffered parallel changes, with smaller scale attacks by individuals who have auto-radicalised via Internet video content or through reading copies of Inspire. In particular, the United States has seen a number of incidents involving individuals who have had limited contact with a traditional terrorist ‘organisation’ but have had sufficient communication with the virtual manifestation of Al Qaeda.

The conscious implementation of this strategy, as articulated by al-Suri, either as sophisticated strategy or as a response to the successes of global counterterrorism, means that the international community will continue to face an agile, difficult to detect, and resilient threat from terrorism. The single greatest challenge remains the survivability of the ideas and ideologies that underpin and justify global salafi-jihadist terrorism. Reflecting on the successes that have been achieved in the post-Bali era is important, but it should not be forgotten that there remains a diminished but perpetual threat.

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