January 29th 2005

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY: Lessons of the tsunami tragedy

TAX REFORM: Time to abolish income tax?

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Labor needs new direction as well as new leader

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor after the Latham experiment

WA ELECTIONS: Labor's Geoff Gallop looking at defeat

FREEDOM OF SPEECH: The perils of vilification laws

EDUCATION: Deconstructing 'Critical Literacy'

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Ockham's Razor ... or Jack the Ripper? / Hogarth's Melbourne / Victoria's ailing hospitals

RUSSIA: Putin, Communism, and Santamaria's hopes for Russia

INDONESIA: Jemaah Islamiah's threat to regional security

Swifter response needed (letter)

Labor misrepresented (letter)

WW2 Allied air raids (letter)

CINEMA: Behind the Kinsey legend

BOOKS: BIOEVOLUTION: How Biotechnology is Changing the World, by Michael Fumento

BOOKS: EICHMANN: His Life and Crimes, by David Cesarani

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Jemaah Islamiah's threat to regional security

by Dr Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, January 29, 2005
Islamist extremism has been developing in Indonesia and Southeast Asia for over half a century. In the 1940s, Darul Islam was fighting for an Islamic state, but Sukarno declared Indonesia to be Panchsila, which meant Islam would have no special status over other religions in Indonesia.

Two leaders, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, carried on the aims of Darul Islam, which were to redraw the political map of Southeast Asia and create a pan-Islamic republic that would include Indonesia, Malaysia, Southern Thailand and the Southern Philippines. Sharia law, based on the Wahhabi Islamic sect, was to govern the region.

Jemaah Islamiah (JI) was officially founded in 1993-94 in Malaysia while Bashir and Sungkar were in hiding from the Indonesian authorities because of attacks they had carried out in the mid-1980s. With Bashir as spiritual leader and Sungkar as operations leader, the two were able to indoctrinate young Indonesians and Malaysians who shared their fundamentalist Islamic objectives.

Significant future leaders emerged here, including Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, who established contacts with the Al Qaeda network while fighting with the Mujahidin in Afghanistan in the 1980s against the Soviets.

The fall of Suharto in 1998 and Indonesia's attempt at building a democratic system of government allowed both Bashir and Sungkar to return to Indonesia. The organisation has carried out many terrorist acts since 2000 in pursuit of its goal, which has made JI a threat to the security not only of Indonesia but of the region in general.

JI has continued to grow in Indonesia due to the poverty of the people and the political grievances of many Muslims, a network of madrassas (Islamist schools) and a weak government.

JI's terrorist acts in Indonesia have been directed chiefly against symbolically Western targets. This attacks have a two-fold effect, as they weaken the Indonesian government and the economy, while also conveying a frightening message to prosperous foreigners.

Some of the most recent and well-known terrorist acts include the Bali nightclub bombing (October 12, 2002); the Jakarta Marriott Hotel bombing (August 5, 2003); and the Jakarta Australian Embassy bombing (September 9, 2004).

Soft target

The first of these attacks forced the Indonesian government to acknowledge JI's existence and the threat it posed to their country and to foreigners within Indonesia. Bali was chosen because it was a soft target.

Other JI attacks included the October 2002 bombings of the US Consulate in Denpasar, Bali, and the Philippines Consulate in Menado, North Sulawesi; the April 2003 bombings of the United Nations building and Soekarno-Hatta International Airport, both in Jakarta; and the July 2003 bombing of the Indonesian Parliament compound, Jakarta.

Jemaah Islamiah has been weakened since the Bali bombings, due to action by the Indonesian government. JI's existence was finally acknowledged by Indonesia, and Abu Bakar Bashir arrested in April 2003. Indonesia had previously ignored intelligence from Singapore and Malaysia that detailed his illegal activities.

Sungkar's death in 1999 and Hambali's arrest in 2003 created a void in JI's leadership. Hambali's arrest in particular severed JI's links to some of Hambali's many international financial contacts. According to Zachary Abuza, Hambali was a member of Al Qaeda's regional advisory council (Militant Islam in Southeast Asia, 2003).

The arrests have also created policy splits in individual cells, while assistance from the Australian government's technology in tracking mobile phone signals has hindered 51 operations in the region. Nevertheless, continued attacks demonstrate it is still operating and threatening regional security.

Many factors contribute to this threat and allow it to thrive.

The 1997 Asian economic crisis devastated Indonesia's economy and the country has still not recovered. Foreign investment has diminished and the mining industry has suffered. Forty million Indonesians are currently unemployed or subsisting on US$2 a day. The public has no confidence in the corrupt bureaucracy and weak judiciary.

Anti-Western sentiments are exacerbated by the International Monetary Fund's harsh policies, local elites exploiting the poor, the US military presence in Iraq and the ongoing conflict between Palestine and Israel.

The Indonesian government has tried to tread carefully to avoid alienating moderate Muslims.

Indonesia's lack of government finances has had further serious consequences as it has had to cut funding to schools, the police and the army.

The decline in public schools has seen an increase in the number of privately-owned madrassas - schools which will continue to breed future terrorists and provide ready recruits for JI. In Indonesia, only 3,226 madrassas out of 37,362 are state-run, which means 5.6 million students are attending these private ones.

Lack of funding for law enforcement has seen competition between police and military organisations for scarce resources and has hindered their willingness to share important intelligence.

The military has engaged in illegal activities to maintain their finances. Government weakness has seen Indonesia become a country of convenience, where front organisations can launder money for the cause of JI. It has been estimated that 15 to 20 per cent of Islamic charity funds in Indonesia are siphoned into terrorist activities.

Indonesia has so far taken a softer approach to JI and suspected terrorists. Indonesian intelligence's past failure to co-operate with Malaysia and Singapore, led to delay in the arrest of Bashir. Although senior JI leaders are now being arrested, the organisation has been able to exist under its new leader, Abu Rusdan. Other important leaders remain at large in Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

Southeast Asian governments and organisations, such as ASEAN, will have to cooperate on a higher level and trust that each country is working together for the region's interest.


Indonesia must combat Jemaah Islamiah, both at a regional and national level.

On a regional level, Jakarta needs to be prepared to share intelligence and information with other states. ASEAN has taken steps to counter terrorism in the region since the signing, on November 5, 2001, of the Declaration on Joint Action to Counter Terrorism and its attempts to standardise laws governing transnational crimes.

Indonesia must also be prepared to cooperate in sub-regional and bilateral agreements. It is encouraging to see that Indonesia under its new president has already started co-operating with Malaysia, Singapore, the Philippines and Australia to combat Islamic terrorism in Southeast Asia.

On a national level, the Indonesian government needs greater co-operation and intelligence-sharing, not competition, between the country's military, state intelligence agency, national police and ministry of justice.

Indonesia needs to continue to engage with the United States and the World Bank to create a more favourable climate for investment and economic growth.

The Indonesian government needs especially to eradicate the root causes of local Muslim grievances, such as high unemployment, low wages and endemic poverty - grievances which help supply foot-soldiers for JI.

It must also persist in promoting civil society, human rights and fair legal processes, because political repression can only create a breeding ground for terrorism.

  • Dr Sharif Shuja

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