The Big Read in short: Terror group JI's new game plan to seek legitimacy
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the Jemaah Islamiyah re-emerged insidiously two decades after its network was decimated by regional authorities. This is a shortened version of the full feature.
Each week, TODAY’s long-running Big Read series delves into the trends and issues that matter. This week, we look at how the Jemaah Islamiyah re-emerged insidiously two decades after its network was decimated by regional authorities. This is a shortened version of the full feature, which can be found here.
- Following a crackdown by regional security forces, the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist organisation has switched tack to play a patient, long game
- Recent arrests in Indonesia suggest that a JI insider had founded a political party, which would be a first for the terror group
- The creation of a hybrid militant-political force, like the Hezbollah in Lebanon, could be one of JI's goals, said experts
- Such a move indicate that JI may be sensing that the ground in Indonesia is turning to its favour
- Despite attempts to rebrand itself, JI has not truly renounced the use of violence and the Singapore authorities are watching it closely
SINGAPORE — The Hezbollah, a militant group in Lebanon known for its bloody history of sectarian violence and branded as a terrorist organisation by many countries, shocked the world when it became part of the winning coalition during the Middle Eastern country’s parliamentary elections in 2018.
Some 9,000km away in Indonesia, experts fear that another shadowy organisation with a violent past is watching these events and taking notes.
Despite crackdowns by security agencies, arrests of several key leaders, and a global war on terror that also saw the emergence of rival groups antithetical to its cause, the scourge of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) organisation that terrorised South-east Asia in the early 2000s still persists today.
Many Singaporeans would be familiar with JI — last week marked the 20th anniversary of the Dec 8, 2001 crackdown against the terrorist group in Singapore, which involved the arrests of dozens of its members and exposed the true extent of the nefarious group's activities in the region. It subsequently emerged that JI drew up plans to attack nearly 80 targets in Singapore.
Terrorism experts speaking to TODAY point to how security actions have decimated JI in the region, restricting its clandestine activities to its base in Indonesia, where it had originated.
But there are increasing signs that JI, whose members are estimated to number between 6,000 and 10,000 today, could evolve into a “hybrid” variant of Islamist extremism that will be hard to eradicate.
On Nov 16, Indonesian counter-terrorism police force Detachment 88 arrested three individuals suspected to be JI members, including Farid Ahmad Okbah, who founded the Indonesia’s People Dakwah Party (PDRI) earlier this year.
Farid is believed to be a member of JI’s governing council and his party is a new conduit used by JI, said the Indonesian police which is investigating the links. The PDRI has challenged these assertions.
If the allegations against PDRI are confirmed, this marks the first time that JI has tried to formally participate in the political process in Indonesia by forming a political party, even though its ideology rejects democracy.
In response to TODAY’s queries, Singapore’s Internal Security Department (ISD) said JI remains resilient and adaptable, even as it beats a tactical retreat.
The terrorist group now appears to be shifting its strategy away from violent attacks and towards the “political infiltration” of political parties, charities and other open-front organisations, said ISD. The JI is playing the long game and has not forsaken its militant ideology nor renounced the use of violence, it added.
Experts said the alleged attempts to seek political legitimacy is nevertheless a concerning sign that the “ground” that JI seeks is shifting in its favour.
Mr Mohd Adhe Bhakti, executive director of Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies based in Indonesia, said there is a feeling among Muslims in his country to want to feel closer to religion, which is something that groups such as JI are exploiting.
In any case, with investigations still ongoing, the opening of a political front for JI poses interesting questions about the future of the banned organisation, said Associate Professor Kumar Ramakrishna, who heads the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
“We are approaching an inflection point as far as the JI is concerned,” said Assoc Prof Ramakrishna.
JI was borne as a splinter cell from a post-colonial separatist movement, the Darul Islam, that sought to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia through violent insurgency. The group later fragmented in 1962 after its leader was captured.
Two of its members, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, would later found JI in 1993.
Both of them had links with the Al Qaeda terrorist organisation in Afghanistan, having travelled there in the '80s, and adopted a global jihad emphasis for the splinter group. Abu Bakar, 83, who remains JI’s spiritual leader, was released from Indonesian prison this year.
But with Singapore sounding the alarm on JI in 2001, and following the Bali bombings in October 2002, the resulting crackdown against the militant group in Indonesia and other countries disrupted JI’s hierarchical structure, sending it into a period of decline.
It also went back to its Indonesia-first roots, said Assoc Prof Ramakrishna.
Over the years since 2002, experts said around 900 JI members have been nabbed. Mr Adhe believes at least seven “emirs” — JI's top leaders — have been caught as well.
JI, however, remained dangerous and violent in this period of crackdown. Arrests of top leaders could lead to reprisal attacks by other members, and there had been cases of several JI attacks when the organisation lost its leaders to the crackdown, Mr Adhe added.
THE SEEDS OF NEO-JI
In late 2009, JI leader Para Wijayanto came to lead the organisation and sought to resurrect JI from its diminished state over the next decade.
He paused the violence that the militant group had become known for to reduce the attention on the group, and the JI at the time became known as the “Neo-JI” due to its changing tack.
Wijayanto planted the seeds for rebuilding and regrouping the organisation, transforming it into one that would bide its time by developing a strong political base in the community before engaging in jihad again using a “strategic patience” approach.
The ISD added that while JI remained quietly active, the security forces’ preoccupation with the Isis threat in recent years has also given the JI space to regroup, referring to the terror group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Isis).
The Isis are ideologically opposed to the JI for a number of reasons, among which is JI’s desire to create an Islamic state in the region while Isis wanted a global caliphate.
Associate Professor Andrew Tan, from the Department of Security Studies and Criminology at Macquarie University in Australia, said the sudden and messy United States withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 — which paved the way for the return of the Taliban, another Islamist fundamentalist group — was, in fact, a shot in the arm for JI and its supporters.
“The re-emergence of the Taliban has been a huge morale booster to militants around the world. It appears to prove to them that if you are persistent, even in the face of great odds, you can ultimately achieve victory,” he said.
One notable shift during Wijayanto’s reign was also to participate in Indonesian politics. a departure from JI’s past stance towards participation in democracy, which is seen as anathema to Islam by the group.
One study earlier this year by RSIS associate research fellow V Arianti described Wijayanto’s focus on political consolidation by winning over the hearts and minds of Indonesian Muslims, through the group’s existing sermons and religious study sessions, JI-aligned Islamic boarding schools, as well as by courting community leaders over to the JI cause.
An example is in 2016, when JI got involved in political mass protests of the “212 movement” against then Jakarta governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as Ahok.
Basuki had been accused of blasphemy against Islam in a speech in 2016 and lost the gubernatorial election the next year, and was also sentenced to two years’ jail.
Reports at the time said that JI members had joined the rallies and Wijayanto had encouraged its members to vote in elections.
Since the incident, Mr Adhe said there has been a growing wave of conservative Islam among people in Indonesia, with some perceiving the current government of Joko Widodo as anti-Islam.
Assoc Prof Ramakrishna said the Ahok incident likely signalled to JI that people’s views may be shifting in its favour, and may be more open to the group's more extreme ideas.
In that context, the establishment of a political party that is actually JI in disguise is the natural next step for the terrorist group.
However, some experts believe that JI’s political debut may be a result of a lack of options caused by the massive clampdown against the group, rather than a deliberate change in tack by JI leaders.
Mr Raffaelo Pantucci, a terrorism analyst at the Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and a senior fellow at RSIS, noted that whether JI’s recent moves are a result of strategic patience or effective deterrence by the authorities is still a matter of academic debate.
It also remains to be seen whether the PDRI is indeed a JI front, or is only characterised as such because it takes an Islamist stance that differs from the current government, he said.
A PROBLEM FOR SINGAPORE
In any case, the resurgence of the regional JI network is a matter of grave concern for Singapore, given the group’s history of targeting the Republic and its links with the United States.
The ISD spokesperson said JI’s comeback “will directly raise the threat of an attack against Singapore and our interests”, as Singapore is still viewed as a prized target by the JI.
For example, in 2010, the Indonesian authorities discovered a map of Singapore’s MRT network – with Orchard MRT station circled – and a street map of Orchard Road, in the possession of a JI-linked terror suspect who was involved in a JI-led militant training camp in Aceh, Indonesia.
Separately, in 2011, the Indonesian authorities also uncovered a plot by a JI-affiliated militant to attack Singaporeans leaving the Singapore embassy in Jakarta.
Although JI’s softer tactics in recent years may have taken some heat off the authorities, the reality is that counter-terror forces in the region have not taken their eyes off the JI completely, even if other Islamic extremist groups with more violent tendencies take priority.
Wijayanto was arrested in 2019 by the Indonesian police, which have continued to nab JI members who are involved in other non-military fronts, such as financing and religious outreach.
Experts said the militant group has not truly deviated from its doctrine of carrying out violence against secular governments and citizens, as well as against Western interests in the region.
Mr Adhe said: “The violence that they still maintain is always justified as an obligation by the religion. In policy, they seem to disengage from violence, but culturally they still make preparations… in case Muslims are attacked by enemies.”
As to how the ISD can guard Singapore against JI’s political moves to legitimise itself or its attempts to win over hearts and minds in the region, the department said the Republic has a “strong zero-tolerance approach towards any form of extremist or divisive ideologies”, especially if they advocate the use of violence.
Singapore also draws a clear separation between religion and politics, the spokesperson added.
“These principles remain relevant and pertinent even as the threat landscape evolves. The (Singapore) Government will not hesitate to use the Internal Security Act or other relevant laws against any groups or individuals who pose a threat to the security and stability of Singapore,” said the ISD.
At present, there is no indication that JI’s activities in Indonesia have spilled into Singapore. Indonesian JI members are not rekindling old ties with their former Singapore associates, nor are there any credible and specific intelligence of any JI-linked plots that target the city state and its interests, the ISD said last week in its report commemorating the 20th anniversary of the JI arrests.
Nevertheless, it stressed the importance for people to take “concrete steps” to flag out suspicious persons and activities, and extremist online content to the authorities.
Urging vigilance, the ISD called on Singaporeans to look out for these signs of radicalisation among people:
- The display of insignia or symbols in support of extremist and terrorist groups
- Frequently surfing radical websites
- Posting and sharing extremist views on social media platforms like expressing support and admiration for terrorists or terrorist groups, as well as the use of violence
- Sharing their extremist views with friends and relatives
- Making remarks that promote ill-will or hatred towards people of other races or religions
- Expressing intent to participate in acts of violence overseas or in Singapore
- Inciting others to participate in acts of violence.
Experts said people should keep abreast of general current affairs and the evolution of the terrorism landscape, because events happening elsewhere in the world — such as the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan — have an impact on security here.
After all, the threat of JI had been unknown to Singapore until the 9/11 attacks in the US 20 years ago, which Al Qaeda had claimed responsibility for.
It was only when a member of the public tipped off the authorities to an individual who claimed to know Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden that the lid was blown off the JI’s clandestine activities back then.
The difference today is that with JI operating under a changed strategy, experts worry that people may not know what to look out for because the line between moderation and extremism is starting to blur.
New generations of Singaporeans also lack the historical context of Al Qaeda and its offshoots, including JI, even though their violent plots remain as the Republic’s closest brush with transnational Islamist terrorism in the past two decades.
Assoc Prof Ramakrishna said: “It is important to be aware of the trends, and I consider this to be part of good citizenry in this day and age. As the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.”