On Saturday, a number of media outlets reported on a jihadist plot uncovered by Indonesia security authorities to stage a coup in the country and replace the current government with an Islamic state. It was also alleged that, as part of the plot, the group were planning to assassinate President Obama.
The group, dubbed “the Aceh al-Qaeda” due to its roots in the northern Sumatran region of Aceh, is thought to be an offshoot of the Jemaah Islaamiya (JI). JI gained world recognition after their involvement in the Bali bombings of 2002 and reproduced below is my recent analysis of them for the Hudson Institute:
The recently uncovered Indonesian jihadist plot to kill the President of the United States upon his next visit to the country, as a precursor to the establishment of an Islamic state, is yet another reminder of the reality of the threat and the motivations of global terrorists.
Between May 12-13, Indonesian security forces conducted a number of raids in Jakarta and other parts of the island of Java, killing five militants and arresting around twenty. This was the latest in a number of such operations since the discovery of a new Jemaah Islaamiya (JI) offshoot based on the Island of Aceh. Dubbed as the ‘al-Qaeda Aceh’, intelligence gathered from the raids uncovered the group’s plan to stage an attempted coup on August 17, the day of Indonesia’s Independence Day. The plan involved assassinating a number of high ranking Indonesian officials, including President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and declaring the establishment of an Islamic state. According to national Police Chief Bambang Hendarso Danuri:
They planned to target the Indonesian president, state officials and foreign guests.
Killing all the state officials would have accelerated the transition from a democracy to a state controlled by Islamic Shariah law.
Their plan was also to launch attacks in Jakarta against foreigners – especially Americans – and attack and control hotels, imitating what happened in Mumbai [in November 2008]
Although not yet officially announced by the Indonesian police, numerous outlets are also reporting that the group planned to kill President Obama upon his upcoming visit to the country next month. Most of these reports seem to be relying on the testimony of a single source said to be close to the investigation, Indonesian intelligence expert Mardigu Wowi Prasantyo.
The plan may seem somewhat far-fetched – it is highly unlikely that it could have succeeded – but nonetheless, as with many other overambitious jihadist attacks, innocent people would have been killed during its execution. It also demonstrates that al-Qaeda and its regional affiliates will continue to plan and carry out acts of extreme violence in pursuit of an ideological devotion to the establishment of an Islamist super state, no matter how impossible that aspiration may seem to any rational actor.
Since the Bali bombings of 2002, Indonesian security measures have, on the whole, been quite successful in disrupting the JI network. However, as highlighted in a July 2009 paper by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, a number of the group’s offshoots and splinter groups still retain the capability to carry out mass casualty attacks. Indeed, on 17 July 2009, weeks after the paper’s publication, twin suicide attacks in the Jakarta J.W. Marriot and Ritz Carlton hotels killed seven and injured over fifty people. Indonesian authorities strongly suspected this was the work of al-Qaeda for the Malay Archipelago, a JI splinter group headed by Noordin Mohammed Top, a former JI recruiter. On the 29th of July a group calling themselves Tandzim al Qaeda Indonesia, released a statement signed by Top taking responsibility for the attacks. As well as claiming the attacks were in response to supposed US aggression against Muslims Top also said that they were planned on the basis of the Salafi-jihadi interpretation of al walaa wal bara (loyalty to the Muslims and rejection of the unbelievers), a key pillar of the al-Qaeda ideology :
[the attacks were carried out] As a lesson for the Islamic umma about the reality of Wala’ (Loyalty) and Baro’ (Enmity), especially upon the arrival of the MANCHESTER UNITED (MU) football club to the Hotel. The players are from amongst the Crusaders, so it is not appropriate for the umma to give their Wala’and honour to the enemies of Allah.
This admission that the hotel was targeted because it was hosting non-Muslim soccer players is consistent with the highly sectarian elements of al-Qaeda’s ideology. The statement also offered the common explanation that the operation was a step toward re-establishing of the Caliphate:
[The attacks] will become a motivator of the spirit for the umma and rekindle the duty of Jihad which becomes the one and only way to re-establish the Khilafah[…]
Going back even further, to the aftermath of the Bali bombings, we see clear ideological connections with both the recently foiled plot and the July 2009 attacks. The founding charter of the JI – the Pedoman Umum Perjuangan Al-Jama’aj Al-Islamiyah (PUPJI) – or ‘General Guide for Islamic Groups’ was first discovered two months after Bali and provides some valuable insights into the inspiration for the attack. Making extensive use of the Quran and Hadith and identifying the group as part of the Salafi-jihadi programme, the charter explains the necessity of establishing an Islamic state in order to restore the past pride and glory of Islam, while also specifying the importance of cleansing the world of polytheism and anyone who opposes the application of sharia law.
Two of the four main themes of the PUPJI are “the Principles for the Methodology to Establish the Religion” (Ushulul Manhaj Al-Harakiy Li Iqomatid Dien) and “the Methodology to Establish the Religion” (Manhaj Al-Harakiy Li Iqomatid Dien). In order to establish the religion the PUPJI lists three main principles:
The emphasis on Daulah Islamiyah [Islamic state] as a stepping stone towards the restoration of the global Islamic Caliphate; The process of preparing Daulah Islamiyah [Islamic state] through a persistent and patient molding [sic] of the individual, the family, and the Jama’ah [group] as Islamic entities; The prominence of military training and jihad musallah [armed struggle] as the final outcome and the ultimate test of success for JI’s long preparations.
The ideological underpinning of the JI (and its offshoots’) mission is clear, with their final objective being, according to their founding charter, “to ensure that the administration of Jama’ah Islamiyah is organized in order to establish the Caliphate in accordance with the way of the Prophet, which guarantees the implementation of the sharia in a comprehensive way.” Grievances, such as the plight of Muslims worldwide at the hands of western powers, were also mentioned by the JI, but appear as something of an incidental sideshow rather than the main event.
Last week’s foiled plot will not be the last we hear of Southeast Asia’s al-Qaeda affiliates. They have clearly retained their organisational capabilities as well as a core group of followers intent on wreaking havoc in the region. Their rigid and unflinching ideological motivations remain in place, and it is now down to the Indonesian state to continue what has overall been an effective counter-terrorism strategy since the Bali attacks.
For more on jihadism in Southeast Asia see Zachary Abuza’s Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror