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.
The Indonesians also received welcome help from abroad. The capture of al Qaeda leaders like Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and others in Pakistan helped to sever the key personal links between JI and al Qaeda's top leadership. Publicly, Bashir has always denied any links to al Qaeda, even while expressing support for bin Laden. "While al Qaeda and JI have similar ideologies," says one American counterterrorism official, "JI's leadership appears to understand that a formal alliance would elicit even more pressure from the Indonesian government."
The remnants of JI have largely split into two factions since 2005. The first is a smaller group of primarily younger die-hards and a few first-generation leaders. More willing to accept the collateral deaths of Muslims, this is the group most likely to pursue spectacular, al Qaeda-style attacks. The second and far larger group sees localized violence as necessary only on occasion. Officials say this group, having concluded that terrorist operations bring unacceptable levels of police attention, has basically returned to recruiting, political, and educational activities.
Fringe players. Jemaah Islamiyah could bounce back under the right leader. "JI has experienced some setbacks but is resilient," says a senior U.S. counterterrorism official. "JI has been able to regenerate leaders after such arrests are made." Indonesia's success has also created a new problem: Leaders like Bashir are losing their ability to rein in the most radical cells. The disorganization makes it even more difficult for security forces to track fringe players who might still be able to pull off small-scale attacks.
Over the past few years, the government has staged very public, prompt terrorism trials that have been closely watched by a citizenry unaccustomed to such transparency. Western intelligence officials credit the trials with helping to persuade many in Indonesia, which has a mostly moderate and secular Muslim population, that their country was facing a serious domestic threat, not just carrying out an effort imposed from abroad.
Indonesian police also made progress with an informal program to co-opt or deradicalize captured militants, similar to a controversial effort in Saudi Arabia. The program, which ignores the most committed militants to focus on JI's less fanatical members, is remarkable for just how modest it is in scope and budget—and how easily some of the militants can be bought. "Deradicalization is probably a misnomer," says Jones. "It's about countering militancy and committing to renouncing violence through economic perks." Often, the incentives amount to little more than the police paying the travel expenses of prisoners' wives for conjugal visits or funding children's schooling or family trips to Mecca, in exchange for the men abandoning terrorism.
The deradicalization program, the Indonesians say, has helped, if only by taking the deadly edge off extremist rhetoric. That's because former radicals often become more credible voices with the extremist community than moderate clerics.
Critics charge that trying to reform terrorists may undermine the rule of law. They point to an episode in which one of the men convicted in the Bali bombings, Ali Imron, was spotted by reporters in 2004 at a Jakarta Starbucks with one of the senior Indonesian generals investigating the attacks. Imron had avoided the death penalty and received a life sentence instead by expressing regret at his trial and providing information about the group. Australian victims' families were livid, but the Starbucks incident provoked little outrage in Indonesia, a country that is "far less puritanical" about law and order than the West, as one senior U.S. intelligence official puts it.
Indonesian officials are hoping the voices of moderation prevail even as they push to punish some of the most unrepentant offenders. Three men convicted in 2003 for their role in the Bali bombings have been sentenced to death, but their executions have been delayed by legal maneuvering.
Supporters are planning a high-profile convoy to retrieve the bodies of the men and transport them to a burial site if the sentences are carried out. With protests and perhaps even scattered violence possible along the route, the executions and their aftermath will be just the latest test of the country's tough balancing act in battling the militants.