Charting the evolution of Jemaah Islamiah

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 07 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 September, 2006, 12:00am

Soon after attacking Afghanistan and toppling the Taleban regime, the United States opened 'the second front' in the global war against terrorism, Southeast Asia. That was February 2002.

The first target was Abu Sayyaf, a tiny Filipino group. But it soon became apparent that the real threat was the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah, (JI) a regional group that fights to unite most of Southeast Asia into a Muslim state.

Back then, JI's operative structure was divided into four districts. These spanned from Malaysia to northern Australia and included southern Thailand, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore and the southern Philippines. Each consisted of several branches that operated almost autonomously under JI's leader. The first leader was Abdullah Sungkar, who was purportedly succeeded at his death by cleric Abu Bakar Bashir.

Five years on, JI's chief is Abu Dujana, and more than 300 arrests in the region have drastically altered the organisation, which is now deemed less dangerous but still capable of deadly attacks.

'The structure has been weakened; it is a much more fragmented organisation, operating almost exclusively in Indonesia. There is a deepening split between those who follow al-Qaeda's lead and those who do not,' said Sidney Jones, director of International Crisis Group Southeast Asia, and an expert on regional terrorism.

'But the group is still deadly. The security services must remember that JI is a very adaptable organisation,' she said, singling out Malaysian-born Noordin Mohamed Top as the most glaring example of JI's fragmentation.

'Basically, Noordin acts alone, and it is believed that many within JI do not agree with his tactics and indiscriminate attacks,' she said.

Noordin, who became involved with JI in the mid-90s, recently announced the establishment of his own group, Tanzim Qaedat al-Jihad, the original name of al-Qaeda. Experts are divided on whether it is a separate entity from JI or just its most radical part.

Noordin is thought to have been behind some of the deadliest attacks in Indonesia, which, following al-Qaeda's lead, have used suicide bombers and attacked mainly western targets.

Yet, Ms Jones underlined that JI maintained a core structure and was not relying on 'freelance' terrorists.

'There is a part of JI that is intact and trying to rebuild its structure. This is mostly the part that refers to the identity of the organisation, which lives on even if, let's say, the administrative terminals are no longer there,' she said.

JI's identity is rooted in Darul Islam, Indonesia's first Islamic group, which fought for an Islamic state well before the country gained independence.

Commenting on the most important factors that have shaped JI's change and breakup, Jakarta-based terrorism expert Ken Conboy mentioned as significant the arrest of Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, and the death of Azahari bin Husin.

'The arrest of Hambali in 2003 was significant because it made it far more difficult to channel al-Qaeda money to Southeast Asia,' said Conboy, the author of The Second Front: Inside Asia's Most Dangerous Terrorist Network, a book chronicling the rise of JI.

Al-Qaeda is believed to have contributed US$130,000 to JI's cause. Now JI is believed to solicit money from its members and resort to petty crime.

'The death of Azahari last November deprived JI of their most skilled electronics expert, and now, aside from Mindanao-based Dulmatin, there are no other JI members who are capable of making sophisticated bombs,' he added.

The changes have also led to a switch in JI tactics.

'JI has apparently moved to smaller, knapsack bombs, because they are cheaper and easier to construct, yet just as effective in inflicting casualties to expatriates,' Conboy said, mentioning the triple bombing in Bali that killed 26 people in October last year.

Previously, JI had carried out several attacks in Indonesia, using car bombs of 100kg or more, comprised mainly of ammonium nitrate and diesel. These attacks cost about US$30,000 each.

What has not changed noted both Ms Jones and Conboy is the way JI recruits. It works slowly, via family networks, business associates and through a small network of private Islamic colleges.

In describing the recruitment process, former JI leader turned state witness Nasir Abas once said: 'It's done slowly through Islamic speeches, courses and classes. It's all done to get close to society and also to make them understand more about Islam. In one or two years they will offer membership to the ones who are thought suitable'