Lessons From the Near-Defeat of a Once-Feared al Qaeda Affiliate in Indonesia

Once called "al Qaeda's Southeast Asian wing," Jemaah Islamiyah is a shadow of its former self

A member of an elite Indonesian antiterrorism unit leads a hooded suspect off a plane.

A member of an elite Indonesian antiterrorism unit leads a hooded suspect off a plane.

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Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant Islamist group based in Indonesia, was once called "al Qaeda's Southeast Asia wing" and regarded by many as Osama bin Laden's most dangerous ally. In 2002, 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed reportedly tried to recruit JI members to crash airplanes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles. That plot was foiled. But later that year, JI bombers killed more than 200 people in Bali.

Now, after three years of intensive counterterrorism efforts, and a modest injection of American aid, much of the core leadership of JI has been killed, captured, or marginalized, while the remnants of the organization are increasingly divided over the use of terrorism as a tactic. U.S. intelligence agencies believe that its key links with al Qaeda, based largely on personal relationships, have been severed. "We can see the possibility of the end of the JI threat," says a senior U.S. intelligence official. Sidney Jones, an Indonesia expert with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, goes further when asked about the threat from JI. "For this generation," she says, "it's almost gone."

Success story. There are some caveats to those assessments, chiefly the perpetual fear that a new terrorist attack could set back the progress. JI itself will very likely endure, in diminished form, for many years. Still, in the counterterrorism world, Indonesia is widely seen as a success story and an emerging model of how terrorist groups abandon violence. Intelligence agencies are now sorting through what lessons can be gleaned from the Indonesian experience. They point to several factors, including arrests, a deradicalization program aimed at co-opting militants, and a relatively lenient and transparent judicial process for trying suspected operatives.

Counterterrorism has not always been a top priority for the government in Jakarta, which has long struggled to deal with rampant poverty, public health problems, and natural disasters. In addition, JI did not start out as a particularly violent group. Formed in the 1970s, the group was initially more focused on opposing the repressive Suharto dictatorship.

But by the 1990s, JI was turning increasingly violent, in part because of its deepening links to al Qaeda. Its operatives followed the deadly 2002 Bali bombing with a series of other attacks, including a strike on the Jakarta Marriott hotel in 2003, one on the Australian Embassy in 2004, and another Bali attack in 2005.

Initially reluctant to admit the scope of its terrorism problem, Jakarta finally launched a more serious crackdown. The most important tactical shift was the creation of Detachment 88, a special Indonesian police unit bolstered by millions of dollars for training and equipment from the U.S. government. This elite squad, equipped with sniper rifles and assault vehicles, utilizes powerful intelligence networks and its own SWAT teams to stage raids that have broken up terrorist cells, swept up more than 400 militants, and uncovered weapons and explosives caches. JI is estimated to have shrunk from a peak of several thousand in 2000 to a few hundred active members today, including only a dozen or so of its most capable operatives.

Why was Indonesia so successful? For starters, JI turned out to be less coherent than many first believed. It was organized like a corporation with regional divisions, complete with councils and subcouncils, all answering to a single leader. The problem was that none of JI's leaders, particularly the group's alleged spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, could both manage day-to-day operations and maintain ideological unity. Some of the bombings attributed to JI, intelligence officials suggest, may have been carried out by partially rogue factions within JI that were acting independently.

Jakarta's decision early on to assign police, rather than the military, to take the lead gave crucial legitimacy to the terrorism crackdown, says Peter Chalk, an analyst with the Rand Corp. think tank. Indonesia's notorious military has a history of backing dictators, murdering political opponents, and massacring civilians.