Medan, Indonesia – In the early 2000s, the potential for terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia seemed radically different than it is today.
Indonesia was rocked by church bombings on Christmas Eve, December 24, 2000, which killed 18 people. Just six days later, Metro Manila, Philippines experienced similar bombings that killed 22 people.
In 2002, a series of bombings ripped through a popular nightlife spot in Bali, Indonesia, killing more than 200 people and injuring at least 200.
Over the next few years, the JW Marriott Hotel, the Philippine Stock Exchange and the consulate, all in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, were attacked, along with other sites in Southeast Asia.
The group responsible for these attacks, among others, was Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), whose members aspired to establish a hardline Islamic state in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia.
Often referred to by its initials, JI reportedly has members in Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines, and is linked to other groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. Mindanao Island.
Although the JI was responsible for a long list of atrocities and hundreds of victims in the early 2000s – its last recorded attack was the bombing of a police compound in West Java province in 2011 – the group and fear of terrorist attacks are largely forgotten. in the area now.
So how have the governments of Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries effectively contained a regional threat when the US-led “war on terror” has left entire countries shattered and regions of the world in chaos after the attacks of September 11, 2001 against the United States?
“The early 2000s certainly seemed dangerous at the time,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.
“But the Bali attack really shook Indonesia out of its complacency. The new terrorism law changed public perception of the perceived level of danger and the authorities were given carte blanche to do their work without political interference,” Abuza said.
“It broke JI’s back”
At the time of the Bali attacks in late 2002, Indonesia did not have specific, targeted counterterrorism legislation, although it was quickly drafted and enacted in 2003 and applied retroactively to some of the perpetrators of the attack on the island. popular vacation spot.
Three senior JI officials, Imam Samudra, Ali Ghufron and Amrozi, were quickly arrested, prosecuted and executed in 2008 for their role in organizing the bombings.
A fourth perpetrator, Ali Imron, was sentenced to life in prison.
In 2003, Hambali, a Malaysia-based JI member believed to be responsible for funding the group, was arrested in Thailand after spending months hiding in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh.
Surrendered by the United States, Hambali was tortured in CIA “black sites” before being transferred to the notorious US military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where he remains imprisoned to this day for his alleged role. in the Bali bombings.
Indonesia and other governments in the region have continued to strengthen ties between JI members and their leaders.
In 2007, Abu Dujana, the head of JI’s military operations, was arrested. In 2010, Abu Bakar Bashir, the “spiritual leader” of the organization, was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released in early January 2021.
“When people were arrested, JI’s back was broken,” Abuza said.
“But JI as an organization still existed and the government gave it enough space to exist, allowing it to run its madrasas (Islamic educational institutions), charities and businesses,” he said. he declares.
The Indonesian government officially declared the JI organization illegal in 2008, but authorities have taken a more measured approach by continuing to grant its members a degree of autonomy provided they do not engage in violence. .
“Jihad as a spiritual struggle”
According to Farihin, a JI member based in Indonesia, the organization remains active, although it has now changed its philosophy to a pacifist one and focuses on works such as religious education and other social causes.
“The focus is no longer on violence now,” he told Al Jazeera.
“Only about jihad as a spiritual struggle to guard against our personal sins as individuals,” he said.
“All religions have this concept in one form or another.”
Although Farihin still describes himself as a member of JI, he said the original group has fractured and divided several times over the years, due to people having different views and opinions.
These differences of opinion are regularly cited as another reason for the success of the regional approach to the so-called “war on terror” – a mix of internal political conflicts and external security operations.
By 2007, Abuza says, JI was “riddled with factionalism” as the organization’s remaining members jostled for power and clashed over how to create a plan for the future of their operations.
“Abu Dujana had different ideas about the organization and felt that bombing foreigners was not the way to achieve his goals,” Abuza said.
“Enough people within JI thought it was better to keep a low profile after the Bali bombing and that the attack had not been productive,” he said.
“Abu Dujana was not claiming that killing foreigners was morally wrong, just that it was not productive because with each attack and subsequent arrest the organization was weakened. »
The fight against terrorism continues
Indonesia has also come a long way when it comes to creating an effective counterterrorism framework that has significantly weakened potential attacker networks in the region, said Alif Satria, a researcher at the Department of Politics and Social Change at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia. .
“The first is the creation of Densus 88 in 2003 with the help of other countries. This helped ensure that Indonesia has a well-functioning counterterrorism unit equipped with the intelligence and operational skills needed to dismantle the networks,” Satria told Al Jazeera.
Densus 88 or Special Counterterrorism Detachment 88, was a unit created in 2003 under the National Police and was financed, equipped and trained in part by the United States and Australia.
Satria added that another important milestone was the establishment of the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) in 2010.
Police-led deradicalization programs in the early 2000s also played a crucial role in ensuring that those arrested did not re-enter extremist groups once released.
“As a result, Indonesia has managed to keep its recidivism rate at around 11 percent,” he said.
However, counterterrorism efforts led by the Indonesian authorities continue.
Who will emerge next?
Open source data collection shows that between 2021 and 2023, more JI members were arrested than members of other groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an ISIL-affiliated group responsible for recent attacks in Indonesia and the wider region.
Among the most recent incidents are the 2018 Surabaya bombings, in which three Christian churches were attacked in the city of Surabaya by a husband and wife and their four children, one of whom was only nine years. Fifteen people were killed.
The same group was also behind the bombings of the Jolo Cathedral in Sulu in the Philippines in 2019, which killed 20 people.
“Between 2021 and 2023, some 610 people were arrested, 42 percent of whom were from JI and 39 percent from JAD and other pro-Islamic State groups,” Satria said.
“To me, this shows that although it does not carry out attacks, the JI remains very active, whether it is recruiting, fundraising or preparing for its regeneration,” he said. he declares.
Abuza shares this cautious tone, saying the lack of clear global leadership for extremist groups has also contributed to a general sense of quintessence.
But that could quickly change.
“These organizations are living organizations and respond to the external environment,” Abuza said.
“Everyone is waiting to see what happens in the Middle East and to see who emerges as leader,” he said.
“Someone will do it,” he added.