JI’s Infiltration of State Institutions in Change of Tactics
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Al-Qaeda (AQ)-linked militant group behind the devastating 2002 Bali bombings which killed 202 people, is changing tactics in its efforts to turn democratic Indonesia into a puritan Islamic State based on shariah. Where JI once saw armed attacks as part of its struggle, they now see the ‘infiltration’ of state institutions, political organisations, the military and the police to spread their ideology as a less ‘costly’ way to achieve their goal.
In 2019, little was heard of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Southeast Asian affiliate of the international terror network Al-Qaeda. The once fearsome group had been severely weakened by continuous raids and arrests by Indonesia’s special counter terrorism police, Detachment 88 (Densus 88).
While JI was responsible for some of Indonesia’s deadliest terror attacks from 1999-2009 – including the devastating 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people in the biggest terror attack in the country to date – the group kept a low profile from 2010 onwards. JI staged its last attack in 2011, when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive device at a mosque attended by police officers in Cirebon, West Java. The blast killed the bomber himself and injured some 28 people, most of them from the police force.
With the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014, counter terrorism police turned their focus towards countering threats from pro-IS militants, and little was heard from JI. That was until June 29, 2019, when Indonesian police captured JI’s leader Para Wijayanto, then aged 54, who had been on the run since 2003. Para was detained in a hotel in Bekasi, West Java, along with his wife, also an active JI member, and three of his associates.
Para, known as the “crown prince of JI”, was named the militant group’s emir, or leader, in 2008, owing largely to his good organisational skills, though his knowledge of Islam was limited. An engineering graduate of Diponegoro University in Semarang, Central Java, Para underwent paramilitary training on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao in early 2000.
Former JI leader Nasir Abas, who had taught Para while serving as an instructor in Mindanao, southern Philippines from 1994-2001, described the latter in an interview with this author, as a bright student and a fast learner who was good with weapons and could also assemble bombs. Para was involved in the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings across Indonesia as well as the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing in Jakarta. He is also believed to have been actively involved in terror activities in the eastern city of Poso, Central Sulawesi, from 2005-2007.
Under Para’s leadership, over the next decade JI transformed from a radical group living off donations and robberies, to a budding business enterprise with interests in palm oil plantations on the islands of Sumatera and Kalimantan. JI also actively recruited members and built up a clandestine paramilitary wing in an effort to regenerate and consolidate itself.
In this regard, Para recruited and sent members for combat training in Syria between 2013 and 2018. It is estimated some 100 men – in six waves – were sent between 2012 and 2018 to train with a variety of militias in Syria, including the Free Syrian Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and IS, before returning to Indonesia. While about a dozen have since been arrested, an estimated 40 remain at large.
Perhaps most significantly, since taking over JI’s leadership in 2008, Para has charted a strategy to infiltrate state institutions in a bid to turn Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country and officially a secular democracy, into an Islamic state. This transformation has marked JI’s recovery from near destruction in 2007, when an armed clash with police in Poso led to the arrest of more than 40 JI members, including its top leaders.
JI’s Attempts to Infiltrate State Institutions
From 2008-2009, former JI leader Para set about expanding the group’s reach from underground operations to aboveground activities. JI today seeks to influence policies in Indonesia’s political, social and religious spheres to support its agenda to implement its version of shariah and establish an Islamic state. To that end, since 2010, JI has tried to infiltrate political parties, the military, the police, state-owned enterprises, and the civil service. It has also set up its own political party.
Under JI’s “tamkin strategy”, the group’s cadres are sent to infiltrate political parties, mass organisations and government agencies to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, as part of its planned process to take control of regions in Indonesia. One of JI’s long-held beliefs is that the country’s democratically elected government is “haram”, or forbidden, and must be replaced with an Islamic state. JI views the democratic system of governance as a product of the West and based on man-made laws.
According to Para Wijayanto himself, as revealed during police questioning following his detention, the group has “about 6,000 to 7,000 members” spread across government institutions and civil and religious organisations. Between 2010 and April 2023, a total of 45 civil servants and police and military personnel were arrested for alleged links to militant organisations – mostly from JI – according to data provided by Densus 88. Of the 45, five were from the military, nine from the police force, and 31 from the civil service and state-owned enterprises.
Targeting the Military and Police
Indonesia’s military and police force have been targeted for infiltration by JI as both institutions have access to weapons, according to a two-star military general in a recent interview with this author. JI also seeks to influence and radicalise military and police personnel by spreading propaganda that justice in Indonesia can only be upheld via the establishment of a caliphate. The general was of the view that such attempts are a means to gain control of the military’s leadership, and that JI is copying the tactics of Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI) back in the 1960s.
If left unchecked, opined the general, it would be a danger to the country. However, he added that to date no JI member has tried to join the military. He also expressed confidence that JI members would not be able to enter the military as fresh recruits owing to the robust and strict vetting processes involved.
The recent arrest of two Indonesian policemen with links to JI is a case in point. On November 15, 2022, Densus 88 arrested two mobile brigade (Brimob) police personnel in Lampung, Sumatra, for alleged links to JI. The two policemen were accused of selling ammunition to a JI member in Lampung. The JI member in question had befriended the two cops while hunting, a hobby shared by all three. Unbeknownst to the policemen, their “hunting comrade” was actually a JI member. And when he asked for ammunition, one of the policemen sold it to him.
Another institution eyed by JI for infiltration are Indonesia’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs), primarily as a potential source of funds. SOEs play an outsized role in a range of critical industries in the country, including electricity, pharmaceuticals, air navigation services, food distribution and logistics, among others. Together, Indonesia’s SOEs have US$600 billion in assets, equivalent to more than half of the country’s annual gross domestic product.
To date, JI is known to have recruited personnel from SOEs, with at least one individual having been involved in fund-raising for the group. In September 2021, Densus 88 arrested a terror suspect with the initial “S.” An officer with one of Indonesia’s largest state-owned pharmaceutical companies, Kimia Farma, S was reportedly a fund-raiser for JI’s advocacy wing, Perisai Nusantara Esa, which he had joined in 2018. He was subsequently sacked from his job following his arrest.
In November 2019, a supervisor at the giant state-owned PT Krakatau Steel in Banten, West Java, was arrested along with three other men for suspected links to terrorism. The name of the terror group was not disclosed.
JI’s political strategy was brought to the fore in November 2021, when Indonesian police arrested Farid Ahmad Okbah, the founder of the Indonesian People’s Dakwah Party (Partai Dakwah Rakyat Indonesia, or PDRI), and a suspected member of JI’s consultative council. His arrest indicated that the group had opened up a political front as part of the operationalisation of its tamkin strategy.
Also arrested that same month was Ahmad Zain An-Najah, a member of the Fatwa Commission of the Majelis Ulama Indonesia (Indonesia Ulema Council, or MUI), the nation’s top Islamic clerical body. Farid and Ahmad Zain, along with a third man arrested, were accused of raising funds for JI.
Farid is known to have spread his ideology via social media and seminars. He had briefly trained in Afghanistan and was very close to the ulamas in JI’s dakwah wing. He was also Indonesia’s foremost anti-Shia ideologue. In December 2022, a Jakarta court sentenced Farid to three years’ jail for terrorism activities.
Ahmad Zain An-Najah
Ahmad Zain, along with two associates, was alleged to have set up a charitable organisation that diverted money to JI. The charity was created to obtain funding ostensibly for social and educational purposes, and part of the funds collected were used to mobilise JI.
JI’s Foray into Politics
According to a former JI recruiter interviewed by this author, the group’s foray into politics actually began around 2007, with the realisation that it could not “win” the fight to spread its ideology through violent means. However, JI encountered difficulties in fielding a strong candidate who could gain popularity and public approval. As such, JI instead embraced segments of the government with whom it deemed it could establish a close rapport.
JI realised it would never win its fight against the government by using violence, as evinced by the 2002 Bali bombings, which were deemed a failure that resulted in the arrests of many of its members, according to the former JI recruiter interviewed. With this new strategy, however, JI now believes it stands a better chance of getting the support of the country’s populace without needing to resort to costly terror attacks.
This strategy was tested in 2016 when JI members joined the mass rallies against the then governor of Jakarta Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok, over remarks on the Quran that were deemed blasphemous by hardline Muslims. JI considered the mass rallies a relative success, as it added to the pressure that subsequently saw Ahok charged and jailed on blasphemy charges.
JI and the 2024 Elections
As Indonesia gears up for the 2024 legislative and presidential elections, there are signs JI is not sitting idly by. On March 13, 2023, the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) found indications that a new political party, which failed the administrative verification process overseen by the General Elections Commission (KPU), was affiliated with a terrorist group, revealed BNPT chief Boy Rafli Amar.
BNPT’s Boy declined to name the party, but said it was linked to a banned organisation that had changed its strategy from “bullets to ballot”. Given that JI was banned by the Indonesian authorities in 2008, it is likely that the organisation he referred to is JI.
However, BNPT also assured that, to date, only one out of severa that underwent the KPU’s verification process showed signs of links to terror organisations.Overall, there are 24 newly registered political parties and they are largely free from terror links.
JI is playing the long game. Its well-educated and committed members and well-thought-out, well-executed strategies make it arguably the biggest security threat to democratic Indonesia.
As Indonesia moves closer to the 2024 presidential and legislative elections, JI can be expected to try to approach or cultivate ties with, directly or indirectly, political parties, individuals or politicians who could potentially be elected as leaders. JI views these individuals, political parties, politicians, and organisations as entities expedient to the fight for their ideology.
At present, JI still has many supporters and sympathisers whom it could direct to vote for whichever party or candidate who could guarantee its continued survival post-2024 elections. The discovery of political party with links to a terror organisation, that failed the Indonesian election commission’s verification process, is a sign of militant groups’ attempted forays into politics in Indonesia.
BNPT is continuing its efforts to monitor the movements and activities of individuals connected with the unnamed party in order to prevent it from evolving into a threat to Indonesia and the country’s secular national ideology, Pancasila.
A similar approach is needed to monitor and counter extremist propaganda online. In 2022, BNPT’s director of deradicalisation, Ahmad Nurwahid, described the spread of radical propaganda on the internet as significant. He estimated some 67 percent of Indonesian content online was filled with intolerant religious teachings. Social media will continue to be weaponised by militant groups to undermine the government and the democratic system of governance, and to spread extremist views and propaganda.
There is also a need to enhance the general public’s digital literacy to guard against fake news and extremist propaganda, especially with regard to the older generations, who have been known to share content without verifying its provenance and authenticity. Digital literacy is thus crucial in ensuring future governments are elected based on sound government policies and performance, and not because of extremist propaganda wars waged in cyber space.
About the Author
Amy Chew is a former senior correspondent for Channel News Asia, Reuters Jakarta and other regional publications. She currently writes for Nikkei Asia and Al Jazeera, covering news in Asia and parts of the Middle East, including terrorism, the impact of Russia-Ukraine war on the region and Southeast Asia’s transition from a fossil fuel-based economy to a green economy.
Thumbnail photo by Arnaud Jaegers on Unsplash
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