Asia

20 years after 9/11, is Southeast Asia's feared militant group Jemaah Islamiah on the cusp of a revival?


The world changed forever after Sept 11. Suspicion and security trumped trust and privacy, and another attack seemed imminent. It came more than a year later, in Southeast Asia, in a chilling reminder of the insidious reach of extremism.

On Oct 12, 2002, Jemaah Islamiah (JI) – the Southeast Asian branch of al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the attacks in the United States – set off a series of bombs on the Indonesian tourist island of Bali . Two of the explosives were detonated in the buzzing tourist district of Kuta, killing 202 people from more than 20 countries in the deadliest terrorist attack in Indonesian history.

JI was virtually unheard of before the Bali bombings, but its notoriety spread rapidly. It had cells in locations including Malaysia , Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, with the latter two countries bearing the brunt of its attacks.

From 2002 to 2010, the group was behind every major terror attack in Indonesia, including the 2003 bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and the car bombing a year later at the Australian embassy in the capital.

“JI was the most consistently lethal al-Qaeda-affiliated organisation in the world between 2002 and 2010 … they perpetrated large, complex, mass-casualty attacks,” said Zachary Abuza, professor of Southeast Asia studies at the National War College in Washington, who specialises in terrorism and insurgencies.

Stung by JI’s rise, the authorities swung into action. Detachment 88 (Densus 88), Indonesia’s elite police counterterrorism squad, was formed in the wake of the Bali bombings. It led a spate of raids and arrests that weakened JI to the point that little was heard of the group from 2014, with Islamic State (Isis) affiliate Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) becoming the new face of terror in Indonesia.

“There were several major attacks that were in the final stages of planning that security forces thwarted, in large part because of international cooperation [with the likes of Australia, Malaysia, and the US],” Abuza said. “Were it not for law enforcement and intelligence cooperation, there would have been more attacks.”

But JI had not gone away – it had gone underground. Worse, it has gone legitimate, radically restructuring its ragtag funding efforts. No longer does it rely on robberies – the new JI owns oil-palm plantations, hotels, and schools.

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Over the past two years, following the key arrest of its leader, JI has come out of the shadows. And now, two decades after Sept 11, the Taliban is back in power in Afghanistan, boosting the morale of militant groups in Southeast Asia.

While security sources and analysts say former JI members from the likes of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore are too old to make their way back to Afghanistan, they are concerned the country may once again become a haven for terror groups seeking a training base.

The first sign of JI’s re-emergence came in 2019, when Densus 88 arrested the group’s leader, Para Wijayanto, who had been on the run since 2003.

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His capture revealed that JI had transformed from a network reliant on donations and crime into a moneymaking entity with interests in plantations and other businesses. These economic activities proved so lucrative that the group now had recurring income to fund its activities, and by the time of Para’s arrest it was even able to pay its “officers” a monthly salary of 10-15 million rupiah (S$942 to S$1,413).

“JI is the most well-organised radical organisation in terms of recruitment, organisational structure, and funding,” Densus 88 head of operations Aswin Siregar told This Week in Asia , listing plantations, humanitarian foundations, and schools as some of its enterprises. “We are always focused on this group, which has never once stopped being active and expanding.”

Aswin said JI also tried to collect funds from the public through charity boxes placed in public areas, with 15,000 such boxes that were thought to be linked to the group having thus far been confiscated by the police. He added that an NGO with suspected ties to JI had collected an estimated 20.6 billion rupiah (US$1.45 million) in donations over the past year; the funds have been seized and its leader was arrested last month.

Mohd Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (PAKAR), said besides the plantations, JI’s wide-ranging business network included gyms, traditional herbal medicine providers, restaurants, cafes, car rentals, and hotels.

“It restructured the organisation and moved into the economic sector while maintaining training to improve the fighting and physical capabilities of its members,” he said, adding that JI had stockpiled explosive materials and firearms as well as producing its own weapons.

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Densus 88 operations chief Aswin said the group continued to actively recruit members, and collect fees from them that were used as capital for its businesses. Between 2019 and August this year, the counterterrorism unit arrested 242 suspected JI members.

“According to our estimates, there are more than 6,000 of them [at large], some in sleeper cells that blend in with society,” he said. “The new members are attracted [to JI’s narrative] of Islam being oppressed, purifying the religion, and the fight against Western hegemony.”

Under Para’s leadership, JI – which had earlier focused its attacks primarily on Western interests – had been building a clandestine paramilitary wing, according to police and terrorism experts, with recruitment drives conducted on university campuses. It also looked for new recruits within JI members’ families as well as on social media.

Retired police general Benny Mamoto, who investigated the Bali bombings, said JI also targeted the educated as well as professionals who excelled in their fields.

“They have their eye on strategic areas such as logistics, IT, transport, education and media,” he said, adding that it was also constantly seeking to establish networks with other groups sharing its ideology, including those in Afghanistan.

JI’s resurgence in Indonesia also poses a threat to the Philippines, as its followers are in contact with militants on the island of Mindanao, according to Rommel Banlaoi, chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research.

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“In fact, pro-Isis foreign terrorist fighters operating in the Philippines continue to use the network established by JI there,” he said.

In Malaysia, a senior counterterrorism official said the prospect of former JI members attempting to take part in the group’s resurgence was “very remote”, based on police monitoring and engagement with them.

“However, we cannot write off the possibility of the rise that comes from foreign JI members who may be residing or working in Malaysia,” the official said, adding that precautionary measures were being taken.

The Sept 11 attacks were planned in Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda trained the terrorists who would hijack the aircraft used that day. The Taliban, which ruled the country at the time, not only allowed this plot to be hatched, but it also sheltered Osama bin Laden and refused to hand him over to the US – prompting the October 2001 invasion of Afghanistan that ended last month with the chaotic withdrawal of American troops.

Afghanistan was also the training ground for some of JI’s most hardened and lethal members. Speaking to This Week in Asia in July, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen said it would no longer allow any foreign terror groups , including al-Qaeda, to operate in the country – though analysts remain unconvinced.

“The Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan will not lead to any real improvements in terrorist capabilities in the short run. In the medium to long term, however, the jury is still out,” said Abuza from the National War College. “We just don’t know whether or not the Taliban will open up the country to foreign fighters as they did from 1996-2001.”

The Taliban’s return to power after the 20-year war with the US has boosted the morale of militants in Southeast Asia, inspiring some to make plans to go to the country and undertake military and other training there – though experts say this is a difficult prospect for now amid pandemic-related travel restrictions.

While a senior Indonesian security source said there were no signs of people from the Southeast Asian nation making their way to Afghanistan for now, he said seven Indonesians who had joined Isis were among the 5,000 prisoners freed by the Taliban from a former US airbase in Kabul last month.

On the Malaysian side, the counterterrorism official said the return of the Taliban opened up an “opportunity for terror groups to once again congregate in Afghanistan”.

“If the Taliban manages to run the country through proper governance and bureaucracy, then a stabilised position will prevail. This provides a pathway for Afghanistan [to become] a centre of excellence in jihadism,” said the official, stressing that there was no material implication as yet for Malaysia as the situation remained fluid.

“If the Taliban fails to manage the country well due to internal squabbles or tribal resistance, some disenfranchised parts of the country will become an oasis for terror groups as they self-govern,” the official said. “Either way, both scenarios will provide an avenue for foreign terrorists, including from Malaysia, to gain experience in jihadism there.”

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Some of JI’s most prominent leaders and members have been Malaysian, including the group’s top bomb-maker, Azahari Husin, whose explosives were used in the 2002 Bali attacks. The former university lecturer, who underwent extensive bomb-making training in Afghanistan, was killed by Indonesian police in 2005.

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Malaysian scientist Yazid Sufaat was recruited by Osama bin Laden to allegedly develop anthrax for use as a biological weapon. He was released from prison in 2019 , and is currently being monitored by police.

There are fewer than 100 Malaysians who had gone to Afghanistan 20 years ago, and the official did not expect them to pose a threat due to their advanced age.

Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) said while there was currently no information of a specific terrorist threat to the island nation arising from the situation in Afghanistan, the ongoing developments could again attract “radicalised individuals seeking to participate in armed jihad”.

“The security vacuum and escalating civil conflict there could allow transnational militant organisations such as al-Qaeda and Isis to regroup or establish safe havens, just as how they have exploited other conflict zones like Syria and Iraq,” it said in an emailed response.

“These terrorist groups may call upon ideological narratives to draw recruits to Afghanistan as a theatre for jihad. Islamic State Khorasan Province [or Isis-K, the group behind the deadly August 26 blasts at the Kabul Airport ], for instance, draws its relevance from the significance of the ancient Khorasan region, which encompassed much of Central Asia, including parts of Afghanistan, in what was considered a golden era for Islam.”

At least 11 of Singapore’s JI detainees were known to have attended military training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.

The National War College’s Abuza cautioned that “the history of terrorism in Southeast Asia runs through Afghanistan”, and that the people who returned from fighting overseas usually had been in leadership positions. “This is something to watch out for,” he said.

“Terrorism is a persistent but manageable threat in Southeast Asia. It is not going away any time soon, but the security forces in Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia are very capable, well resourced, and have significant legal authority,” he said, though he pointed out that what terrorist groups did so effectively was exploit pre-existing societal and sectarian divisions.

“They create crises, then when the state fails to act, they can then justify their vigilante actions in the name of defending the religion,” he said. “Sadly, politicians and government policies and laws often create these schisms in the first place.”

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.



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