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Is the Jemmah Islamiyah still a security threat to Asean Essay

The Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) is a militant Islamic group responsible for the deadly Bali bombings in October 2002. Despite numerous arrests of JI members over the years, the JI still constitutes a potent security threat to the ASEAN region.3 The current political, socio-economic, and socio-cultural conditions that is present in countries in the region, as well as the ability of the JI organisation to survive through its recruitment program and through its extensive links of support, all account for the potential security threat that JI poses.

This body of work holds the view that JI is still a major security threat to the Southeast Asian region. This view will be augmented in the course of this essay beginning with the JI’s background and history in the region. Following that, the reasons why the JI remain a threat will be expanded upon and discussed. Finally, recommendations to remedy the situation would be made along with the summary of the main arguments of this paper.

Definitions

Before initiating any further discussions, it is inherently important to undertake a conceptual analysis that would aid in the understanding of key ideas that will be present in this essay.

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The concept of “security” as mentioned in the topic question, hinges on JI’s capacity to spread terror and engage in terrorist activities as witnessed in the Bali bombings. There is a tendency thus after Bali and September 11 to equate the notion of “security” to terrorism. However, there is a deeper and more significant level towards understanding the term “security” in this day and age.

In academic circles, the term “security” has gone through a fundamental shift in terms of what it means and represents notably after September 11. Buzan’s view that “security” was no longer simply about the military-political complex, but about larger issues of securitization has been generally accepted and adhered to. Securitization here denotes the condition of an “inter-subjective establishment of an existential threat with a saliency sufficient to have substantial political effects.”4

What this means is that there has been a widening of the term “security” to encapsulate political, economic and socio-cultural dimensions. To understand “security” would entail understanding values, norms, traditions, class, the list goes on, of the dimensions mentioned above. As such, this calls for a different approach to tackle the new forms of threats. It requires comprehensive measures, coupled with urgency, within and outside of the political realm in order for the threat to be taken down.5

Taken in context of this paper, the economic, political and social dimensions of both the JI, ASEAN states, as well as the region as a whole must be considered in the assessment of the security threat that JI possesses.

The Origins and Background of JI

The JI finds its roots in the Indonesian militant movement of Darul Islam (DI) of the 1950’s. The DI was formed to fight against the Dutch imperialists and despite Indonesia’s independence, they continued their revolutionary struggle for the establishment of an Islamic state. The Indonesian government of the ’80s under Suharto took a hard-line stance towards members of the DI, forcing them to flee to neighbouring Malaysia to avoid being arrested. 6

It was in Malaysia that DI alumni Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Bashir founded the JI based upon radical Islamic ideologies from the Middle-East.7 Eventually they both returned to Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998 and with the death of Sungkar in 1999, Bashir took over the reins of the JI.

In the meantime, there has been growing accounts of a larger influence and movement within the JI played by Al-Qaeda-the global terrorist network bent on waging jihad or a holy war with America and its western allies. The relationship between both entities stem back to the Afghan War in the 1980’s where there was a call for Islamic fighters-Mujahideens, to engage in jihad with the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Many key JI members were found to have undergone military training in Afghanistan and fought alongside Al-Qaeda leaders. More importantly, JI’s Afghan veterans retained the ideological fervour of jihad which was shared by Al-Qaeda. It is through this contact made in Afghanistan that JI’s Afghan veterans, on returning back to Southeast Asia, spread its virulent strand of militant Islamism to this region. This has led to an “Al-Qaedaization” or infiltration by Al-Qaeda into the local JI-the latter transforming from a theopolitical Islamic group to a militant Islamic outfit.8

The close ties forged in Afghanistan have also led to a mutual correspondence even after the Afghan War. Al-Qaeda has provided funding, external operatives and training bases for the JI, rendering the latter a partner and proxy in this region towards Al-Qaeda’s global agenda.9

JI’s goal is towards the creation of a pan-Islamic state in Southeast Asia that encompasses Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mindanao Island of the Philippines, Brunei and even Cambodia.10 This will be undertaken by the overthrowing of local governments by radical Muslim warriors in the region.

This vision for a greater Islamic region is also reflected in JI’s organisation and structure. There are four mantiqis or regions that JI is divided into.11These mantiqis were further divided into wakalahs (districts) and fiahs (cells).12

Each wakalah consists of 5 different areas of responsibilities, namely an economic wing that takes care of funding, an operations wing that planned and carried out attacks, and three other wings that took care of security, missionary work and communications.13

The JI’s Singaporean and Malaysian operations cells were inspired by events of September 11 to mobilize. Its regional leader, Riduan Isamuddin a.k.a. Hambali, had a grand vision of overthrowing the Malaysian government by sowing the seeds of terror. He planned to attack Singaporean targets in hope that it would provoke “mistrust” between Singapore and Malaysia.14 He believed that Singapore would view the attacks as “acts of aggression” and invoke Malaysian Muslims to rally under the banner of Islam against the predominantly Chinese city-state.15

JI’s operational plan was discovered by American soldiers through a video-tape found in Afghanistan that highlighted Yishun MRT as a potential target as American military personnel were frequenting that area. Further plans on using truck bombs to destroy the American and Israel embassies and a naval attack on the city-state were discovered after the detention of JI members by Singaporean authorities in December 2001.

Is the JI Still Alive and Kicking?

The short answer is yes, the JI still constitutes a very relevant threat in this region. Despite arrests of key JI leaders like Hambali and Omar Al-Faruq as well as its field operatives (31 detained in Singapore), the JI still remains a latent threat; some top leaders have not been caught yet; 300 kilograms of explosives are still thought to be in JI hands; up to US$75,000 in “donations” are unaccounted for.16 The Far East Economic Review succinctly comments, “The capture of Hambali showed yet again that cutting off the head is not enough… the roots of terrorism is too diverse and resilient.”17

In answering this question at a deeper level and to address the problem of securitization, it requires us to look at the two actors involved-the state and the JI.

Conditions for JI’s Survival at the State Level

The Geographical Context

The geographical conditions in Southeast Asia make it conducive for JI to continue to fester and grow. The large expanse of this region, especially in island Southeast Asia comprising of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines-with its numerous islands, makes it very difficult for governments to keep track of the JI and its movements. This is especially true in the case of Indonesia’s vast archipelago with more than 13,000 islands.18

The region’s porous borders also allows for an easy movement of JI members from one country to another. The borders between Malaysia-Thailand, Indonesia-Philippines, Indonesia-Malaysia are relatively extensive and lax in terms of security. This makes it easy for JI to engage in an intra-region movement of personnel.19

The Socio-Economic Context

The socio-economic condition of the region has indirectly created a situation of instability and thus a hotbed for JI activities. The poverty and widespread unemployment that have plagued this region, especially the rural Muslims living in Southern Thailand, Mindanao, and much of Indonesia have become platforms for JI exploitation.

The economic situation in Indonesia after the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis coupled with widespread corruption has frustrated the locals so much that JI’s doctrine begins to appeal to them. With 40 million unemployed in its population, Indonesia has become a major recruiting base for the JI. As a result, this situation further substantiates the close link between poverty and terrorism.20

The Socio-Cultural Context

The socio-cultural traditions and ideological bent that is present in some Southeast Asian nations have become ubiquitous with JI’s survival. The tradition of Muslim brotherhood and “Islamic solidarity” where one must aid other Muslim brethren in times of need have allowed for JI personnel on the lam to find refuge in sympathetic Muslim communities and homes.21

In addition, there has been a growing appeal of conservative Islam that has become a defining tool for many Muslims in the region. The events of September 11 and Bali has led to a perceived “demonization” of Islam towards the Muslim communities. By and large, the counter-reaction of Muslims has been towards creating religious solidarity. Hence, a greater practice of conservative Islam has taken place in the religious mainstream, cumulating in a struggle between the moderate and conservative branches of Islam.22 What this means for JI is that there is a growing pool of believers who are ultra-conservative in orientation and can be more easily indoctrinated with JI’s ideology.

Coordination Issues

There have been problems of coordination at the intra-state and regional level. This has allowed for JI to capitalize on the lack of understanding and sharing of intelligence at both the state and regional capacity.

Mistrust and long-standing feuds between Southeast Asian nations have created an unwieldy situation for regional cooperation in curbing terrorism. Tensions between the governments of Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia, where most JI activities have been carried out are noticeably present.23 An illustration of this was in Indonesia’s repeated refusal to believe in JI’s presence in Indonesia after Malaysia and Singapore “fingerpointed” Indonesia as the terrorist base for JI. Indonesian authorities cited that there was no conclusive prove since they were denied access to JI detainees in both countries.24

Likewise, the ASEAN policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of any member state gives rise for further complications for cooperation at the regional level. This leads to a lack of sharing intelligence as well as minimal intra-state cooperation in tracking JI members, making it much harder to weed out terrorism.25

At the domestic level, there has been a glaring lack of coordination between the government and local officials. Fathur Rahman Al-Ghozi, a convicted member of JI, and three other militants escaped from a maximum security prison in Philippines causing a major embarrassment to President Arroyo’s administration.26 This incident signalled the likelihood of an “inside job” either by prison guards sympathetic to JI causes, or that they were bribed-none of which give assurances and credibility to the institutional capability of the Philippine government.

The Question of Governance

Finally, but by no means less important, is the issue of governance in dealing with the JI. At the international level, there have been a gamut of treaties being signed-the July 2002 ASEAN-US joint declaration against terrorism and the November 2002 agreement towards the establishment of a regional counter-terrorism centre-just to name a few.27

Unfortunately, these agreements have not been followed through at the domestic level. This could be explained by a lack of political will and differing capabilities in the governance within individual countries, thus creating the view of uneven measures between governments pertaining to terrorism in this region. 28 An example of this can be seen in the way Singapore and Malaysia have dealt with terrorism, deciding to cultivate public awareness through disclosure of the “JI problem” in their respective countries and hence demonstrating the will to fight terrorism. This stood in stark contrast to Indonesia’s denial of the JI problem entirely, refusing to believe in the existence of JI in their country.

Indonesian President Megawati has been largely seen to be slow to crack down on terrorism even after the aftermath of the JI-led Bali bombings and a new internal security act that allows for detention of suspects. Analysts believe that this is due to Megawati’s need to secure support from radical Islamic parties in her coalition government.29 By taking a hard-line stance towards the JI and other extreme Islamic movements, Megawati risks her party’s votes and consequently, her presidency.30

As a result of governmental inaction in Indonesia, the general public has not been convinced of the presence of JI terrorists in their midst. Hasyim Muzardi, chairman of the Nahdlatul Ulama-Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization comprising of 40 million members-reflects this view, stating that there has been no evidence of JI’s existence in Indonesia.31

All this has created a political situation that JI has been keen to exploit for recruitment and funding purposes. The lack of political will on Jakarta’s part has also allowed JI’s spiritual leader, Bashir to be freed from prison earlier with the halving of his jail term from 3 years to 18 months.32

Internal Conditions for JI’s Survival

Hoffman likens terrorist outfits like the JI to a “shark in water”- always deadly and moving forward to survive, “always finding ways to carry on their struggle”.33

Thus, the JI still possess the ability to be a threat in this region because of certain “shark-like” qualities present in its organization. These qualities can be seen to consist of its unique structure, recruitment capability and linkages to external groups.

JI’s Organisational Ability

JI’s organizational structure makes it very difficult for authorities to eradicate it simply because it is so loosely organized and spanning across countries in the region,

JI’s organization and structure seems to be modelled after that of Al-Qaeda, with an emphasis on operatives working within cells (fiahs) that are associated at a higher level to districts (wakalahs).34 This creates a situation whereby top JI leaders at the district level, even when they are arrested, are not aware of operations being carried out at the cell level. Interrogations carried out by authorities on Hambali showed that he does not know details of future plots to be carried out by operatives.35

Another characteristic of JI is in the nature of its fiahs. These networks of “sleeper” cells can remain dormant and carry out work “surreptitiously” for years till activation.36 These cells are patient and can play the waiting game even as long as 5 years as demonstrated in the Singaporean JI cell’s target of Yishun MRT. Cell members typically shun “mainstream Muslim organisations and activities”, making it extremely difficult for authorities to monitor them.37

Funds, “the terrorist’s lifeblood”, as are obtained by JI under the auspices of charity.38 JI has traditionally used charities to receive money from its backers including Al-Qaeda. Despite efforts to shut down and track some of these charities, authorities have found it an uphill task to cut off financing, simply because of the magnitude of charities in this region and a lack of political will to see it through.

The extensive pan-Southeast Asian network that JI operate in allows for the transfer of personnel and assets across countries quickly and with relative ease.39 JI are thought to have operatives not only in the Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, and Thailand-where most JI operations have been carried out, but also in Cambodia, Vietnam and even Australia, where it is widely believed that smaller cells operate.40 This implies that JI members can resist arrest from authorities by fleeing to another host country to hide out and regroup; only surfacing when the situation becomes less hostile.

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