Current Trends in Islamist Ideology

Radical Islamist Ideologies in Southeast Asia

Default Expert Image
Senior Policy Analyst, Rand Corporation

Adherents of radical Islamic ideologies are a small minority in Southeast Asia. Islam spread in Southeast Asia largely through the conversion of elites and therefore developed under different conditions from other regions of the Muslim world, where the religion was established through military conquest. The ethnic and linguistic diversity of the region; the persistence of strong pre-Islamic cultural traditions; the absence of a common language and discourse (such as Arabic, which reinforces ideological and cultural trends in the Arab world); and the presence of substantial non-Muslim communities throughout the region accustomed Muslims in Southeast Asia to co-exist with other religious and cultural traditions and produced a famously tolerant version of the religion.

There always were, of course, tendencies toward more orthodox and Sharia-based forms of Islam and periodic attempts to introduce more radical interpretations of the religion. The Padri movement in Sumatra in the 1820s and 1830s involved an effort to introduce Wahhabism by clerics returning from Mecca who had been influenced by Wahhabi teachings during the al-Sauds’ first occupation of the city at the beginning of the nineteenth century. There were bursts of Muslim radicalism throughout Southeast Asia during the European colonial period—armed jihads to liberate Muslim lands from the occupation of infidels. Indonesia faced a major uprising against the secular republic, the Darul Islam rebellion (1949-1962). The Darul Islam worldview combined the goal of the Islamic state with the Javanese ideal of the Just King who would bring in a reign of justice. The way to the just society was through violence. In 1961, the Darul Islam leader Kartosuwirjo had a vision in which he saw the road to the Islamic state covered with mounds of corpses.1 Although the rebellion spread from its original base in West Java to other parts of the Indonesian archipelago in the 1950s, it failed to gain broad support among Indonesian Muslims. Kartosuwirjo was captured and executed by Sukarno’s government in September 1962.

In more recent years, the growth of Islamic radicalism in Southeast Asia has been catalyzed by the worldwide Islamic revival and the influx of funds and ideologies from the Middle East. Saudi money has come in two forms: Above-board funds for religious and educational purposes and funds quietly disbursed for militant Islamic groups. The funding has had a profound effect.It has allowed extremist groups to expand their activities and to make inroads into the largely moderate system of Indonesian religious education.2 This inflow has, in turn, accelerated a process of Arabization —the displacement of indigenous culture by Arab religious and social practices—and the growth of international Islamist networks reaching from the Middle East and South Asia into Southeast Asia.

The spread of radical ideologies in Southeast Asia is associated with groups that made their appearance in the region in recent decades, such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir and Jamaah Tarbiyah, that support the establishment of a pan-Islamic caliphate, and the Muslim Brotherhood. Other extremist groups surfaced in Indonesia in the immediate post-Suharto period. The most notorious of these, but by no means the most dangerous, was the Forum Komunikasi Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jamaah and its paramilitary wing, the Laskar Jihad, which were inspired by Saudi-style Wahhabi teachings.

Laskar Jihad achieved notoriety by recruiting fighters for armed jihad in the Moluccas. In the summer of 2000, Laskar Jihad dispatched several hundred fighters from their training camp in Bogor, in West Java to Ambon, the epicenter of the communal violence, and were unhindered by the authorities, despite President Wahid’s orders to stop them. In Ambon and later in Poso, Central Sulawesi, the Laskar Jihad militiamen participated in conflicts that pitted Muslims against Christians.3 In addition to the Laskar Jihad, there were even more sinister groups operating in the areas of conflict in eastern Indonesia, such as the Laskar Jundullah and the Laskar Mujahidin, both of which have been linked to terrorist organizations. These irregulars sometimes clashed with the Laskar Jihad militiamen.4

Of course all of these groups had agendas that were broader than, as they put it, the defense of beleaguered Muslims. At the heart of the Laskar Jihad’s agenda was the imposition of Sharia law in Indonesia. Laskar Jihad leader Ja’afar Umar Thalib presided over an illegal Islamic court in Ambon that condemned an adulterer to death by stoning—the first recorded application of Islamic criminal law (hudud) in modern Indonesian history. Ja’afar was arrested for his role in the execution, but released after protests by some sectors of the Muslim community. Unlike other Indonesian radical groups, however, the Laskar Jihad did not question the legitimacy of the Indonesian government and, in fact, insisted that its involvement in fighting in the Moluccas was intended to protect Indonesia’s unity from alleged Christian secessionists.

There is evidence of early contacts between the Laskar Jihad leader Ja’afar Umar Thalib and Osama bin Laden, whom Ja’afar met in Peshawar, Pakistan in 1987. However, the Laskar Jihad refrained from joining bin Laden’s movement and after the September 11 terrorist attacks, Ja’afar took pains to distance his group from al-Qaeda. He criticized bin Laden for lacking proper understanding of Islam and characterized al-Qaeda as Khawarij (“Seceders” who in the orthodox Sunni view have defected from religion and unsheathed the sword against the rightful ruler).5 Laskar Jihad’s leaders disbanded the militia after the Bali bombings of October 12, 2002, although the group was not linked to the attack.6

Some Indonesian scholars have noted that Islamic extremism in their country has been associated with clerics of Arab and more speci.cally Hadrami (Yemeni) origin—such as Laskar Jihad leader Ja’afar, Jama’ah Islamiyah founders Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar (see below) and the Islam Defenders Front chief Muhammad Habib Rizieq, among others. This is not to suggest that individuals of Arab origin are more prone to Islamic radicalism than other Muslims. The majority of Arab-Indonesians are politically and religiously moderate and the Arab-Indonesian community includes such luminaries as former foreign ministers Ali Alatas and Alwi Shihab. Nevertheless, the Arab diaspora, particularly its newer elements, may serve as either a liaison or camouflage for missionaries or terrorists arriving from the Middle East. There is considerable evidence that Middle Eastern influences have shaped the ideology of most, if not all, of the Indonesian militant movements. Some Indonesian Muslim scholars attribute the moderate character of Indonesian Islam to their perception that Indonesia is the least “Arabized” of the major Muslim countries.7

Origins and Development of Jama’ah Islamiyah

The closest nexus between radical Islamism in Southeast Asia and the global jihadist movement is the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a regional terrorist network closely associated with al-Qaeda. Jemaah Islamiyah was established in the early 1990s by two radical Islamic clerics living in Malaysia, the late Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir. In 1971 Sungkar and Ba’asyir established an Islamic boarding school or pesantren, Pondok al-Mukmin, which two years later moved to the village of Ngruki, Central Java.The al-Mukmin pesantren became one of the fountainheads of radical Islam in Southeast Asia—the locus of the so-called “Ngruki network,” the original core of the Jemaah Islamiyah organization. The network’s goal was to revive the Darul Islam’s agenda of an Islamic state by establishing vanguard “Islamic communities” (jemaah islamiyah) as a necessary precursor of the Islamic state.8 (The Darul Islam-JI connection remains strong today; as Australian analyst Greg Fealy points out, the DI areas have proven a rich source of new members for the JI and are likely to remain so in the future.)9

Sungkar and Ba’asyir were imprisoned in 1978 by the Suharto government for subversion. (Among other things, they were accused of rejecting the non-denominational state philosophy of Pancasila and refusing to fly the Indonesian flag at their pesantren.)10 The two were released on appeal in 1982, but to avoid re-arrest they fled to Malaysia—an event they represented as a hijra, an emigration imbued with religious significance in imitation of the Prophet Mohammed’s fiight from Mecca to Medina.

In Malaysia, a then more welcoming environment for Islamic militants than Suharto’s Indonesia, they were met by an Indonesian Afghan war veteran known as Abu Jibril (alias Fikiruddin, alias Mohamed Iqbal), with whom they established a clone of the al-Mukmin pesantren, the Luqmanul Hakiem in Ulu Tiram, Johor state, as a base for indoctrination and operations. In Malaysia, Sungkar and Ba’asyir linked up with another Indonesian veteran of the Afghan war and al-Qaeda operative, Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali. Hambali, the only non-Arab member of the shura or central council of al-Qaeda, provided a critical link between the indigenous Indonesian radicals of the Ngruki network and bin Laden and the al-Qaeda organization. Hambali was also the operational chief and conduit for funds from al-Qaeda to Jemaah Islamiyah.

In this formative period of the organization, Sungkar met with bin Laden and personally recruited Southeast Asian fighters from the camp of the radical Afghan mujahidin commander Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.11 In 1996 JI shifted the training of recruits to Camp Hubaidiyah, a camp for foreign fighters located within Camp Abubakar, headquarters of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. When Camp Abubakar was overrun by the Philippine Army in the summer of 2000, JI moved its training to a facility near Poso, Central Sulawesi.12 Access to training camps is critical to the transmission of operational tradecraft to the next generation of jihadists, but the camps also have an equally important role in facilitating the diffusion of ideology and the indoctrination of recruits.

Sources of Jemaah Islamiyah’s Ideology

As with all jihadist organization, religious study is an integral part of the training and indoctrination process in Jemaah Islamiyah. The Singapore Government’s White Paper describes this process in the case of JI recruitment: the first stage involves religious classes organized for a general audience. JI teachers would employ the tactic of inserting into their lectures quotations from the Quran and hadith discussing jihad and the plight of Muslims. The second stage involved identifying those who wanted to find out more about the plight of Muslims in other areas, such as Bosnia, the Moluccas, and Mindanao. Those would be engaged in more intense and focused discussion circles and those who were deemed suitable were invited to join the organization. Esoteric language and code names were used in the indoctrination process, which helped to create a strong sense of group identity and commitment.13

It was during the Malaysian period that the organization and ideology of the Jama’ah Islamiyah coalesced. According to the JI manual “Pedoman Umum Perjuangan Jemaah Islamiyah” (“General Guidelines of the Struggle of Jemaah Islamiyah”), the group’s objective is the creation of a transnational Islamic state (Daulah Islamiyah) comprising Indonesia, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines.14 The sources of the Jemaah Islamiyah’s ideology were both local and international. The first source was the Darul Islam’s vision of an Islamic state in Indonesia and of armed struggle as the means of attaining that end—in contraposition to the mainstream Sala. method of gradually Islamizing the society through dakwah (Arabic dawa, meaning “call” or “Islamic propagation”). Sungkar had served as an officer in Darul Islam leader Sekarmadji Maridjan Kartosuwirjo’s Islamic Army of Indonesia (Tentara Islam Indonesia) and Ba’asyir, although he did not participate in the rebellion, accepted the Darul Islam’s agenda.

In 1976 Sungkar and Ba’asyir affiliated their earlier network of Islamic communities with the existing Darul Islam structure in Central Java. Both men swore allegiance to the Darul Islam regional leader, Haji Ismail Pranoto, alias Hispran. However, in 1992 Sungkar had a falling out with a Darul Islam associate, Ajengan Masduki. Sungkar accused Masduki of Shiite and Sufist tendencies and asked the recruits in Sayyaf’s Afghan training camp to choose between him and Masduki. This rift marked the emergence of JI as a distinct organization from Darul Islam.15

A second source of ideology was Middle Eastern Islamic radicalism. Contacts with al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, a terrorist splinter group of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood could have influenced the Indonesian radicals to move beyond the goal of an Islamic state in Indonesia to the concept of a pan-Islamic caliphate.16 The third and most decisive source of ideology was the Afghan Jihad and the influence of Afghan war veterans, of whom Hambali was the most prominent, but by no means the only one.17 The Afghan connection infused the organization with the al-Qaeda concept of the global jihad and its method of terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western targets.

The legitimacy and obligation of armed jihad against the West and “apostate” Muslim rulers—a central theme of the teachings of Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Faraj, and taken by al-Zawahiri and other ideologues of modern radical Islam and assimilated by al-Qaeda—is the ideological intersection of Jemaah Islamiyah with the global jihadist movement.18 According to the Singaporean investigation of JI terrorist cells broken up in 2001 and 2002, JI members were taught that Muslims who did not subscribe to the group’s ideology were to be considered infidels, as was anyone who left the group. Those who remained enjoyed a sense of exclusivity and commitment and believed that they were closer to Allah and in possession of the truth. Militants were promised martyrdom if they died while engaged in jihad.19 In adopting this worldview, JI members departed not only from the teachings of mainstream Southeast Asian Islam, but from the mainstream Sunni view that Muslims are not permitted to rebel against a Muslim ruler, and that armed jihad (except when strictly defensive) is not lawful in the absence of a caliph to legitimize it.

The JI’s commitment to the global jihad is tied with intense feelings of hatred for the United States and the West. Bali bombing mastermind Imam Samudra, defended the Bali terrorist attack as “a manifestation of Islamic solidarity between Muslims not limited by geographic boundaries.” He said that he wanted to carry out God’s order to defend the weak so that “American terrorists and their allies understand that the blood of Moslems is expensive and valuable.” Another Bali defendant, JI operations chief Mukhlas, stated during his trial that all Westerners were “dirty animals and insects that need to be wiped out.”20 A violent Islamist website provides a justification for the Bali bombing, purportedly from files recovered from Samudra’s computer. Entitled “Why Was Bali Our Target?,” it lists the following arguments:

It is a gathering place for all the nations of imperialists, terrorists, oppressors, and destroyers of the virtue of Indonesian women—who, it should be noted, are Moslems. Are there Moslems who do not know that Bali is a centre for dealing in narcotics? Bali is one of the world’s largest and most popular places for sex outside marriage, in a country where the majority of the population are Moslems, in a country with many Religious Scholars, Preachers, Proselytisers, and Islamic harakah activists. This is an irony which shames us in the presence of Allah, the Almighty and most worthy of praise. Particularly in Jalan Legian Kuta, there are substantial gangs of Jews (May Allah curse them), who use Bali as an intelligence conduit and a place to rendezvous, [in their efforts] to destroy the Islamic community.

It was a relatively soft target for striking against citizens of countries who proudly, arrogantly and grandiosely trample on the honour of Moslems by involving themselves in the crusade under the leadership of America (cursed by Allah alaihim), especially by raining thousands of tonnes of bombs on weak men, Moslem women, and innocent babies in Afghanistan.21

It is striking that the reasons alleged for the atrocity are of a moral and social order—Westerners bringing corruption to a Muslim country, with U.S. foreign policy (the “crusade under the leadership of America”) almost as an afterthought, after some tactical considerations (“a relatively soft target”). It could be that from the jihadist standpoint, violence is its own justification.According to JI expert Zachary Abuza, the concept of purifying violence is central to the JI ideology. Religious violence is seen as an act of cleansing of sins, particularly important in the case of JI members who were formerly criminals and are seeking redemption.22

The militants’ commitment was strengthened by having them take an oath of allegiance (bayat) to their emir or spiritual leader (also an al-Qaeda practice). Although as the group’s emir, Ba’asyir is not believed to have been directly involved in operations, the interrogation of captured JI terrorists reveals that they took care to seek religious sanction for operations from Ba’asyir.23 (Senior al-Qaeda operative Omar al-Faruq, captured in Indonesia in 2002, reportedly alleged that Ba’asyir approved the Christmas 2000 church bombings in Indonesia, in which 18 persons were killed and over 100 injured.)24

According to the International Crisis Group’s Indonesia analyst Sidney Jones, a rift developed within the Jama’ah Islamiyah between two factions. One faction—the terrorists—was associated with former JI operations chief Hambali (captured in Thailand in 2003 and now in U.S. custody), and included most of the people involved in the Bali and J.W. Marriott bombings.This faction had been most influenced by bin Laden’s 1998 fatwa declaring war on Jews and Crusaders. The second faction, according to Jones, favored a longer-term strategy of building a mass base through religious work (dakwah) to carry out an Islamic revolution when the time was right.25 The role of Ba’asyir in this internal debate is disputed. In one view, he is said to have sided with the latter faction and to have opposed the Bali bombing for tactical reasons. On the other hand, a regional intelligence source places Ba’asyir with the more violent faction.26

Jama’ah Islamiyah introduced into Southeast Asia the hitherto unknown practice of suicide bombing and mass-casualty terrorist attacks. In the bombings in Bali on October 12, 2002, one of the bombs was carried in a backpack into a club by a suicide bomber named Iqbal. The Bali bombing, comprising three separate bombings in the tourist area of Kuta, was the first mass-casualty terrorist attack in Southeast Asia, as well as the worst terrorist incident in Indonesia’s history. It left over 180 dead and 300 injured, the majority Australian tourists. It was also the first suicide bomb attack in modern Indonesian history and represented another step in the introduction of Middle Eastern terrorist techniques into Southeast Asia.27 Two other major recent terrorist attacks in Indonesia, the August 2003 vehicle bombing of the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta and the September 2004 car or truck explosion outside the Australian embassy both involved suicide bombers (although there are indications that the bomb at the J.W. Marriott hotel might have been triggered remotely).28

Current Trends

After the fall of Suharto and Ba’asyir’s return to Indonesia, Ba’asyir concluded that the more open political environment in Indonesia offered opportunities to pursue the JI’s objectives through overt as well as clandestine means. Consequently, together with other Muslim activists, in August 2000 Ba’asyir convened the founding congress of an above-ground front organization, the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (Majlis Mujahidin Indonesia MMI), composed of people who hold dual membership in JI and MMI, as well as members of other radical Indonesian Islamist groups. The founding meeting was attended by representatives of virtually every group committed to the implementation of Islamic law in Indonesia, as well as of international groups such as the Hizb ut-Tahrir. Ba’asyir was chosen as emir of the governing council, with a mandate to lay the foundations of a new international caliphate.29

Since the Jemaah Islamiyah came to the attention of the outside world in 2001, about 250 militants, including much of the leadership, have been arrested across Southeast Asia. The arrests have damaged, but not destroyed the ability of the organization to conduct terrorist operations. As noted earlier, a faction associated with Hambali is committed to continuing terrorist attacks against Western targets, but a second faction—one that was closer to the JI’s original Darul Islam roots—gives priority to re-involvement in armed jihad in eastern Indonesia. Some regional authorities believe that the two tracks are not incompatible, and that the JI is in fact pursuing simultaneously both a strategy of mass-casualty attacks against Western targets and participation in local jihads against indigenous Christians.30 In any case, as Southeast Asia terrorism expert Zachary Abuza points out, all JI members have the same ultimate goal and view sectarian violence as the means to achieve it.31

Participation in these jihads is an important element in the group’s ideological consolidation. It provides new members with a “rite of passage” which is the functional equivalent of the founding generation’s experience in Afghanistan. Moreover, as Sidney Jones points out, many in JI saw Poso as fertile ground for the kind of intensive proselytizing that could expand the community prepared to live in accordance with the group’s religious and political ideas. Given the history of communal strife in the area, the Indonesian government’s tenuous control, and the receptivity of some local Muslim community leaders to the JI’s strict Salafi message, JI leaders apparently believed that Poso could be transformed into an Islamic community—a place where Islamic law could be applied—as well as a secure base for the organization, much as Medina after the Prophet Muhammad’s fight from Mecca.32

The consensus of analysts is that JI is now in the process of consolidation and rebuilding that involves greater emphasis on religious training and on political activity through its political arm, the MMI. Religious training is critical to the organization’s rebuilding activities. The JI seeks not only fighters, but also people steeped in religious understanding. Thirteen younger JI members (known as “al-Ghuraba,” Arabic for “the foreigners”) were sent to study at a Laskar-e-Toiba madrasa in Pakistan. The group was reportedly formed on Hambali’s orders and many of its members were related to JI leaders —they were, in effect, the next generation of leadership. The group itself was set up by Ba’asyir’s son Abdul Rahim. One of the members of the group, an Indonesian named Muhammad Saifudin, said senior JI leaders “saw the urgency of regeneration in the movement” and sent their sons and their students to Pakistan to study to become ulama.33 The implication of this is that ideologized religion is central to the persistence of Islamic extremism and violence. This phenomenon is difficult to understand, much less address effectively, by the post-religious societies of Western Europe or one such as the United States that insists on the separation of religion and state. But it is a phenomenon that must nonetheless be confronted squarely if radical and violent Islamism is to be effectively countered.

Keywords: Southeast Asia, Jihad, radical Islam, Jemaah Islamiyah, Bali terrorist attack