Q&A: Indonesia’s Terrorism Expert on the Country’s Homegrown Jihadis

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The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia
NewSouth Books

Indonesia has endured terrorist attacks targeting churches, embassies, nightclubs and luxury hotels for over a decade. While much focus has been on the link between Indonesian terrorist groups and al-Qaeda, terrorism expert and author Solahudin argues that the jihadist movement actually has local origins, dating back to the early years of the country’s independence. In the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing, the former journalist and press activist spent years doing research — interviewing jihadists, reading court documents and scouring religious sources — for a groundbreaking book. The English translation, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jema’ah Islamiyah, was published this month. Solahudin, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, talks with TIME from Jakarta.

Why do you say that Indonesia’s jihadism was homegrown and not imported?
The ideology of Darul Islam [or DI, an Islamist group that launched an armed revolt in 1949 to set up an Islamic state] didn’t originate from overseas. It came from the political genius of its leader [Sekarmaji Marijan] Kartosuwiryo. From 1947 to ’49, he and his supporters fought in the independence war against the Dutch. Kartosuwiryo wanted an Islamist state because he saw Indonesia as an infidel nation. He was captured and executed in 1962. [The revolt was crushed and DI went underground.]

From 1985 to the early ’90s, DI sent people to Afghanistan to undergo military training. When they met the international jihadists there, they realized they shared the same beliefs. DI members easily embraced al-Qaeda ideology. When these Afghanistan alumni returned, they brought home Salafist jihadist ideology and Wahhabi religious practice. It created a stir among the DI members at home because they were essentially traditionalist Muslims in the Indonesian sense — they also believed in mysticism. Kartosuwiryo was an abangan [a Javanese Muslim who practices a syncretic version of Islam that integrates pre-Islamic traditions], and he couldn’t even read Arabic. The Afghanistan returnees, who thought the local practice was heretical, split from DI and in 1993 set up Jemaah Islamiah [or JI, the group responsible for the Bali bombing of 2002 and implicated in the Bali bombing of 2005]. JI carried out terrorist acts in the first decade of this century, but it’s not too active now. In contrast, out of the 77 cases uncovered between 2010 and 2013, 50 involved members or ex-members of DI.

(MORE: Jakarta Bomb a Warning That Burma’s Muslim-Buddhist Conflict May Spread)

How has Indonesia fared in combating terrorism?
It’s has done a great job. Since 2010 alone, Densus 88 [the government’s antiterrorism squad] has arrested more than 300 people and killed nearly 70. The problem, however, is the deradicalization program, run by the National Counterterrorism Agency. Their strategy relies on using religious figures who aren’t respected by the terrorists. Clerics from the traditionalist school, whose Islam is seen as imperfect, are invited to talk. Or they organize a show or a soccer match for the prisoners, activities that are irrelevant for deradicalizing terrorists.

The most effective way is to organize a meeting between convicted terrorists and victims. Let them see how their acts affect the victims’ lives and their families’. One example: last year, [jailed JI member] Umar Patek met a man who was badly injured in the 2003 Marriott Hotel bombing. It was an emotional encounter. The terrorist was so shocked that he couldn’t say much, apart from telling the victim, “Please tell others how sorry I am. If they can’t forgive me, I can’t go to heaven.”

Indonesian terrorists nowadays mostly target the security forces, especially the police, instead of foreign embassies and entities. What caused the shift?
Since 2010, almost all victims of terrorism have been police officers, who are blamed for the arrests and killings of jihadists; there were fatwas justifying the attacks on police. It’s a shift in ideology, mixed with revenge. But it doesn’t mean the so-called distant enemy won’t be targeted anymore. Last year, there were plans to attack the American embassy and the offices of [U.S. mining giant] Freeport because of the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims. In May, the police intercepted a plan to bomb the Myanmar [Burmese] embassy, which was linked to the Rohingya issue. As long as there is an international issue deemed to be harming the Islamic community, jihadists will target foreigners.

Also, terrorist attacks are now carried by many smaller, amateurish groups. They are not funded by al-Qaeda, but through robberies or cybertheft.

(MORE: 15 Years After the Fall of Suharto, a Mixed Picture of Indonesia’s Minorities)

Should Indonesia be worried about a spillover of Burma’s Buddhist-Muslim tensions?
We should be worried. Last April, [jihadis] planned an arson attack on the Glodok market [in Jakarta’s Chinatown] because they said the ethnic Chinese were Buddhists. There was also a list of Buddhist temples that could be targeted going around on the Internet, and this month, the Ekayana Buddhist temple [in Jakarta] was bombed. Another conflict we should be worried about is the Syrian conflict. Some groups have sent people for “humanitarian assistance” there. There is also jihadi propaganda, quoting sayings of the Prophet that Armageddon will happen in Syria. If the trend continues, I am afraid the Shi‘ite minorities in Indonesia could be a target.

Are you optimistic that Indonesia’s terrorist movement can be eradicated?
They will always be there. They can weather all sorts of changes. They will be there as long as there are people who dream of imposing Shari‘a and people who can be easily recruited. Terrorism relies on these three ingredients: a disappointed people, a justifying ideology and an organization. The challenge is how to prevent it from getting big.

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