Signaling an End: Indonesia’s Battle with Jemmah Islamiyah

After a gap of nearly 19 years, the arrest of Arif Sumarsono, also known as Zulkarnaen or Daud, on 10 December 2020 in Lampung Sumatra, has brought some closure to the work of counter-terror agencies in Indonesia. Known to be one of the masterminds of the 2002 Bali bombings and the 2003 JW Marriot Hotel bombing in Jakarta, the arrest of Zulkarnaen has sent positive signals in the country’s battle to fight terrorism in the archipelago.

At the turn of the century, as the war on terror commenced in the aftermath of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in the United States, Southeast Asia itself was declared as a ‘second front in the war against terror’ by the Bush administration. This was because the region was home to several separatist conflicts and insurgencies which were Islamic in character and content. These conflicts extended across the southern regions of Thailand and Philippines, linking both ethnic and religious conflicts that were rooted in the region’s historical evolution and had led to demands for separatism from the state.

In the case of Indonesia separatist conflicts such as Aceh and Papua were rooted in the historical evolution of the State, but following the country’s transition to democracy areas like Maluku and Poso witnessed horizontal communal conflicts, particularly between Christian and Muslim groups. While these conflicts were at their height between the years 1998 to 2002, the particular focus on Maluku was critical as it highlighted the linkage of terror groups such as the Jemmah Islamiyah, of which Zulkarnaen was a member.

Indonesia became a critical part of the war on terror after the Bali bombings of 2002, which specifically targeted western tourists vacationing in Bali. In August 2003 the scene of the terror attacks was closer home at heart of Jakarta’s financial and metropolitan hub, the JW Marriot hotel. In both these cases, the linkages with the Jemmah Islamiyah was critical. Following these,two other attacks in front of the Australian Embassy in 2004 and the second Bali bombings in 2005 pushed the focus on Indonesia’s efforts to grapple with the situation. From this time onwards the efforts of the Indonesian government to focus hard on issues of counter terror measures took significant shape.

It is interesting to note that the roots of the Jemmah Islamiyah group lies in the Darul Islam movement itself which has been active in Indonesia since before the country’s independence from the Dutch. The origins of the movement began in the early 1940’s as a movement that supported both Indonesia’s independence from the Dutch and the establishment of an Islamic state. However, as the nationalist movement progressed, the promise of an Islamic state also ended with the doctrine of the `pansacila’ evolving to become the state ideology following independence. Not being able to achieve its objective, the Darul Islam movement continued to push for Indonesia’s Islamic identity to prevail during the Sukarno period. However, following the 1965 coup, under the military regime of Suharto several of these groups did not find the space to reckon with the Indonesian establishment. By the end of the Suharto regime the Darul Islam movement had already splintered and one of the factions became the Jemmah Islamiyah.

Zulkarnaen’s association with the Jemmah Islamiyah can be traced to his links with the founders of the group Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir both of whom were considered to be the masterminds behind the Bali attacks of 2002. As a close associate of Abdullah Sungkar, Zulkarnaen was trained in the terror camps along the Pakistan Afghanistan border in the 1980’s. During the reformasi phase the eruption of communal tensions in regions such as Poso and Maluku were very severe, particularly between the years 1998 to 2002. The activities of the JI were clearly clinked to these regions and it was only after the Malino I and Malino II accords brokered by the Indonesian government that the communal tensions reduced. By that time the focus on the `war on terror’ also brought the Jemmah Islamiyah under direct scrutiny of the Indonesian state, pushing the group even further in its reactions to the state policies. In the run up to the Bali bombings he was the known associate of Riduan Isamudddin, popularly known as Hambali or the `Bin Laden of Southeast Asia’. Hambali was arrested in August 2003 in Thailand following which Zulkarnaen was known have taken over the operations of the Jemmah Islamiyah.

In September 2006 the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution following which the Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF) was created. This was followed by the Security Council Resolution 1822 of June 2008, which clearly highlighted the relevance of a consolidated list relating to individuals and groups involved in acts of terror as endorsed by the earlier Security Council resolutions 1267 (1999) and 1333 (2000). As per these, the importance was reiterated upon member states to add the names of those involved on the consolidated list which would be internationally known. As early as 2005 Zulkarnaen’s name was listed in the Security Councilcommittee’s records as having been linked to groups like the Al Qaida and the JI. In 2008, the focus on Zulkarnaen became even more rigorous after the execution of three of the Bali bombers. The summary of his involvements were also loaded on the CITIF website as early as August 2009, further adding pressure on the state authorities for his arrest. The arrest of Zulkarnaen earlier this month heralds a closure for the Indonesian law enforcement as it brings to book one of the final fugitives in the Bali attacks.

Professor Shankari Sundararaman is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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