Indonesia’s ISIS Fight: How is a Jailed Bin Laden Ally Still Preaching?

Amid an upswing in Islamist terror attacks in Indonesia, we investigate the system that has enabled a jailed terrorist to wield extraordinary influence from behind bars.

Abu Bakar Ba’asyir personifies the changing shape of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

The surviving co-founder of Indonesia’s local Jemaah Islamiyah jihadist movement, Ba’asyir has denied any personal ties with Osama Bin Laden. Yet he also openly voiced support for the dead Al Qaeda leader and his group has collaborated closely on training.

Jemaah Islamiyah’s military leader, Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali, lived in the same Afghan compound as Bin Laden in the early 1990s. Ba’asyir accepted Bin Laden’s request to ally Jemaah Islamiyah in waging war against Christians and Jews in 1998. That same year, Hambali organized for Jemaah Islamiyah members to receive training at one of Al Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan.

The two groups went on to collaborate on deadly attacks: Jemaah Islamiyah would do reconnaissance and locate raw bomb materials while Al Qaeda would provide explosives expertise and underwrite the operations.

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Hambali is thought to have been both the originator and central planner of the 2002 Bali bombings, and to have aided in the 9/11 attack on New York’s Twin Towers.

Densus 88

It was only when the Indonesian government began counter-terrorism operations in response to the Bali attack that Jemaah Islamiyah’s extensive network was finally challenged. In the years that followed, hundreds of group members were jailed or killed, and training camps were shut down, in operations led by a special-forces counter-terrorism group called Densus 88. At the same time, the US-led international coalition focused on taking down al-Qaeda.

Jemaah Islamiyah leaders were forced to rethink the group’s strategy. When the consensus appeared to be moving toward a non-violent orientation, Ba’asyir left and created his own organization in 2008 called Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, or the Community of the Helpers of Monotheism.

Initially, Ba’asyir showed no indication of wavering in his support for Al Qaeda. He was arrested in 2011 and given a prison sentence of 15 years for alleged financing and support of a militant training camp in Aceh.

Illustrating the loyalty of his followers, Ba’asyir was still able to function and maintain regional influence. Lax prison standards throughout much of his detainment meant visitors and smart phones would come and go freely, giving Ba’asyir a voice.

Free rein

Then, in August 2014, from his prison cell, Ba’asyir switched sides, pledging allegiance to Islamic State. Many members of Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, including Ba’asyir’s sons, refused to follow, and consequently split to form Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah.

Despite losing nearly half of his organization’s membership, Ba’aysir still managed to exert influence by utilizing the over-crowded Indonesian prison system as a platform to preach his support for ISIS. Without direct action taken against his prison activities until February this year, Ba’aysir has had free rein to preach his radical ideology to inmates.

Now 77 years old, and with another 10 years to serve, Ba’aysir’s influence will probably end in prison. It’s unlikely though that he will cease his calls to jihad.

Sunday, the 3rd part of Indonesia’s ISIS Fight, looks at the danger of President Widodo’s government legitimizing Islamic extremists.

The authors are Mark Burke, Blake Herzinger and Phill Hynes, analysts at ISS Risk, a frontier and emerging markets political risk management company covering North, South and Southeast Asia from headquarters in Hong Kong. 

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