Indonesia’s Veteran Jihadis Disapprove of the ISIS Generation

Indonesia’s Veteran Jihadis Disapprove of the ISIS Generation

Indonesia’s Veteran Jihadis Disapprove of the ISIS Generation


6 min read

A man holds up a sign during the 2008 funeral for one of the executed Bali bombers.

When Dian Yulia Novi was arrested in December for her role in a plot to bomb the presidential palace in Jakarta, Indonesians were enthralled by the discovery of what could have been the country's first female suicide bomber. The involvement of women as suicide bombers in Islamist extremist groups, increasingly commonplace in the Middle East and in sub-Saharan Africa, was hitherto a novel development in the world's most populous Muslim state.

General Tito Karnavian, chief of the Indonesian Police, cautioned that Dian was only one of several women under surveillance in connection with terror cells across the country. It was another Indonesian woman - Tutin Sugiarto, alias Ummu Absa – who had introduced Dian to Muhammad Solihin, the man she would eventually marry in order to facilitate her involvement as a jihadi suicide bomber. The match was made via the messaging app beloved of Islamist extremists, Telegram. What further captivated observers were Dian and Solihin's intricate descriptions of the plot. Soon after their arrest, both appeared in exclusive, no-holds-barred interviews with major Indonesian news agencies.

Indonesians may have been glued to their screens, but the media frenzy drew the ire of an older generation of jihadis, particularly members of transnational Islamist extremist group, Jemaah Islamiyya (JI).

Indonesians may have been glued to their screens, but the media frenzy drew the ire of an older generation of jihadis.

Dian's plot had been thwarted with the cell's discovery by Detachment 88, a special forces counter-terrorism squad formed in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombing, which was perpetrated by JI. Following that attack and the 2003 Marriot Hotel blast in Jakarta, also by that group, Indonesia moved to put in place a concerted counter-terrorism framework. Detachment 88, and later the National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT), were established to police terrorism. The legal framework, in the form of the Law on Combating Criminal Acts of Terrorism, was rapidly passed in 2003. Among other things, this allowed for suspects to be detained for up to six months in ongoing investigations.

Since the January 2016 attacks in Jakarta by ISIS supporters, the government has been pushing for a revision of the legislation to enable greater pre-emptive powers for security forces. Tighter surveillance, expanded police detention, and greater coordination between security services has meant the space in which Islamist extremist groups could operate freely is diminishing. As a result, they have needed to evolve to using less typical perpetrators of terrorism, such as women and children. They have also needed to move to looser networks of association to avoid detection, such as 'lone wolves' and 'wolf pack' cell structures, as is evident in other parts of the world.

In a number of conversations, older jihadis seemed to appreciate the need for newer extremist networks to operate in this manner. What they objected to in Dian's case, and in other self-radicalised ISIS supporters, was a supposed lack of clarity over the jihad for which they claimed to be fighting. In their eyes, this younger generation treated jihad as a means to satisfy their desire for adventurism and attention. JI members who had trained in Afghanistan and the southern Philippines were quick to point out that this younger generation were more social media personalities than jihadis. They saw them as having little established jihadi credentials or expertise, but plenty of Facebook updates.

The older militants also criticised what they see as empty tactics, not a true adherence to Salafi-jihadi ideology. In the run up to demonstrations in Jakarta against the candidate for governor Basuki Tjahaha Purnama ('Ahok') for his alleged defamation of the Quran for instance, Indonesian jihadis in Syria jumped onto the anti-Ahok bandwagon. Militants who had shown little interest in Indonesian politics before were suddenly calling for the candidate's death on Facebook and Instagram. Yet, these posts were tactical - a bid to gain attention by using a popular issue that was trending across social media. Despite fears the matter would snowball, the demonstrations passed without much incident.

Abu Hurairah, JI member who fought in Afghanistan, scoffed at the eagerness of the young to boast about their jihadi credentials. Both him and his peer Abu Tholut, another veteran and JI member, apparently the two foremost explosives experts among Indonesia's radical Islamists, honed their craft after months of intensive training in Afghanistan. They were quick to reflect that, in contrast, these young ISIS supporters were embroiled in the jihadi cause without proper preparation, let alone sufficient understanding of Islam or the objective of the struggle. The credentials had to be earned through sweat, and even blood, not through likes on Instagram.

A digital native generation

A digital native generation

This evolution of Islamist extremist groups reflects the society from which they emerge, even when allied with a transnational jihadi brand. According to Global Monitor, Indonesia is the third largest country of Facebook users (after the US and India) and up to 15 per cent of the world's Tweets originate there.

Earlier channels of recruitment relied heavily on face-to-face interaction and personal connections, most particularly family ties. It is now easier for those with no previous jihadi affiliation to be involved. Dian's own experience highlights this. While working as a domestic helper in Taiwan, Dian was attracted to radical Islamist teachings, which she accessed through her personal mobile phone, on her own initiative. Her interest was piqued and she continued her education by trawling jihadi websites, blogs and Facebook accounts. Through her interaction with others on Facebook, she was eventually put into contact with Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian extremist allegedly based in Syria associated with another attack in Indonesia in July 2016, and the alleged plans to launch a rocket at Singapore's Marina Bay last year. He brokered Dian's involvement in the plot, bypassing the need to tap into local networks built by older jihadis.

Perhaps the younger extremists – notably ISIS supporters - penchant for social media, is understandable in the context of a digital native generation. But this behaviour makes the older generation nervous. The older jihadis had thrived on secrecy. The young's heavy reliance on social media, particularly their readiness to publicise activities, has baffled their predecessors. They fear drawing attention to themselves and suffering recrimination from the security services. Dian and Solihin's media interviews to them seemed counter-productive. Fresh in the minds of these veteran Indonesian Afghan mujahideen were the difficulties of having all financial assets frozen and their every moved watched. In fact, their aversion to being associated with this group of younger jihadis has kept them from providing assistance, even when approached.

This points to a generational divide and a possible fragmentation among Indonesian Islamist extremists, with the expertise of the older generation not available to the young. The lack of sophistication of attacks by Indonesia's ISIS supporters has been well noted, and can partly be explained by this divide. The lack of sophistication is evident in comparison with past JI attacks, including the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, and the JW Marriot Hotel bombing in 2003 and 2009, which resulted in close to 300 deaths and over 500 casualties. By contrast, ISIS-linked attacks in Indonesia have thus far claimed nine lives.

In private conversations, some of these older jihadis have shared how easily attacks such as that in Jakarta in January last year could have been modified to ensure greater impact. Yet, individuals like Abu Hurairah, who has allegedly been contacted by Indonesian ISIS supporters to provide bombmaking training, have continued to refuse to assist. Their main reason for this was a lack of affinity with the purpose and principle of the attacks, and a disdain for the tactics employed.

This younger generation of jihadis should remain starved of the local expertise and the networks needed to carry out a larger attack. Most observers have focused on the threat posed by returning foreign fighters. An often-missed aspect is the need to ensure the older generation, with its expertise and experience, remains unwilling to lend support to the next one.

The views expressed by this author remain solely their own and are not to be taken as the view of the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.

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