Sunday, March 19, 2006

Suicide Terrorism in Indonesia

Eric Koo Peng Kuan
Freelancer based in Singapore

Suicide terrorism has become a phenomenon following the rise of Islamic radicalism in South East Asia which emerged in 1998 during the fall of President Suharto's regime. These groups ascribe to a more severe and harsh form of Islamic practice emanating from Pakistan and the Middle East.

On 12 October 2002, Iqbal walked into Paddy's bar in Kuta, Bali Island in Indonesia, and blew himself up, one out of three simultaneous explosions which contributed to the infamous Bali bombing incident that killed 202 people and injured over 300. Iqbal became the first suicide bomber belonging to a notorious terrorist network operating in South East Asia linked to Al Qaeda, known as the Jemaah Islamiah (JI) or "Islamic Community". The JI went on to launch two other suicide bombings - an explosion that occurred at the Mariott Hotel on 5 August 2003, killing at least 12, and another outside the Australian embassy on 9 September 2004, killing at least 9. Both events involved car bombs driven by suicide bombers and took place in Jakarta, the capital city of Indonesia.

JI seeks to oppose western interests particularly that of Australia, as well as the current Indonesian government that it considers as being corrupt and apostate. JI places much emphasis on the "jihad" element in his teachings, with a stress on the need to defend Islam by an armed conflict against its enemies. Hence, followers of JI, in imitation of their Middle Eastern brethren, consider 'martyrdom' operations, or suicide attacks, as the ultimate act of faith and piety. The next possible JI terrorist attacks are also likely to involve suicide bombers.

State Response

The Bali bombing jolted the Indonesian government into action, as Jakarta realized that the JI radicals posed a direct threat to Indonesia's tourism industry and economic interests. The alarm raised from the possibility of other terrorist attacks from the Jemaah Islamiah had also galvanized other regional governments into implementing effective police response over the recent years. Since 2001, South East Asian states had responded to the JI threat by enthusiastic crackdowns, arresting scores of suspects, uncovering and confiscation of weapon caches and the elimination of JI training camps.

Objectives and goals

However, if the stated goals of this clandestine group are examined closely, the JI's political ambitions are not confined to Indonesia alone. The White Paper published by the Ministry of Home Affairs stated that the JI seeks to establish a 'Daulah Islamiah', or 'Islamic State', encompassing Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Brunei. What if the JI succeeds in its goals? It would have spelt the doom of all the secular governments in South East Asia, with the erasing of national boundaries. Socially, it will also mean the end of the present way of life, with respect and tolerance for different races, cultures and religious practices.

Failure of the JI

In spite of much media attention and publicity, the JI ultimately failed to gain a large following in Indonesia or elsewhere. The Bali bombing was the turning point in the Indonesian government's past lenient attitude towards militant forms of political Islam. Tourism and commercial interests were directly threatened resulting in many Indonesians losing their jobs. The Indonesian police acted swiftly to arrest the culprits and accomplices involved in the bomb incidents.

A second factor leading to the JI's eventual decline lies in the lack of professionalism of its operatives, and the lack of an anarchic environment necessary for a terrorist or guerilla group to thrive in Indonesia. The publicized fact of numerous successful arrests of JI cadre removed the sheen of these so-called 'Jihadis' among the potential sympathizers. In contrast, most of the Islamic militants in the Middle East who engage in suicide terrorism preferred death in shoot outs with security forces when cornered while Indonesian JI members have seldom achieved such iconic status.


The Jemaah Islamiah's effectiveness and capacity to strike has indeed declined after Bali. This is evident by the Mariott Hotel and Australian embassy bombings which produced less than spectacular results than Bali, resulting in a mere 21 deaths in contrast to Bali's 202 casualties. Nevertheless, the pervasive and self-destructive belief of religious martyrdom continues to hold a magical spell in the Muslim world. Such radical deviation from the more moderate seems to find fertile grounds in Muslim populations or communities with politico-social scenarios of discrimination, poverty or social oppression, giving rise to both individual and communal grievances that can then be easily exploited by terrorist groups. This is likely to continue, if Jakarta does not remain vigilant in watching the activities of its non-state religious organizations.


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