The changing face of JI
It is plugged to wider global terror network, loyalties remain strong
By Zakir Hussain
9 May 2009
SINGAPORE, May 9 — The capture of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) leader Mas Selamat Kastari on the outskirts of Johor Baru once again raises the question of just how alive and vibrant the JI terror network is in the region.
The arrests and incarceration of key JI leaders in recent years, the absence of a major terror attack in Southeast Asia since 2005, and the unrelenting efforts of regional governments have crippled the JI network considerably.
But the JI has also adapted.
So in spite of the region's persistence in weeding out the terror menace, the danger is far from over.
That Mas Selamat was able to stay under the radar in Johor for over a year after he escaped from the Whitley Road Detention Centre suggests that there is a surviving JI network in the state and it remains committed to the organisation and its struggle.
Members may not be up to much by way of terror plots, but the indoctrination and loyalties remain strong.
“It suggests the JI network in Malaysia may be less destroyed than we thought,” said International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Sidney Jones.
Mas Selamat's arrest occurred around the same time that Malaysian authorities captured three others for JI-related activities.
Agus Salim, a 32-year-old Indonesian, was arrested in March and two Malaysians, Abdul Matin Anol Rahmat and Johar Hassan, were detained on April 1.
The wider JI network — scattered around the region — also remains plugged into the wider global terror network.
And it has not been quiet.
Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday said Mas Selamat was “planning a lot of things in Singapore”.
“His main focus at the time was Singapore,” he added.
So while Mas Selamat's capture may have dealt a blow to the JI's plans, the group is far from being snuffed out.
After all, the JI movement has deep roots in this part of the world, and has proven time and again its ability to morph with the times.
While JI as an organisation came to light only eight years ago, when the authorities in Singapore and Malaysia disrupted several active cells, its roots stretch way back to the Darul Islam movement which emerged in the 1940s in Java with the aim of creating an Islamic state in Indonesia through armed struggle.
Successive crackdowns by the Indonesian government over the years only intensified members' resolve.
Several radical elements went into exile in Malaysia in the 1980s and there formed the JI, which went on to send batches of youth — including several Singaporeans — to train for battle in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
As security clampdowns after the 2002 Bali bombing made it harder for these groups to operate in the open, a number of ideologues have turned to new media to gain and retain support for their cause.
A recent study by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) and the Australian Strategic Policy Institute found that some of these sites no longer confine themselves to celebrating terrorist victories in places like Afghanistan and Iraq and to spreading material from Al-Qaeda and JI.
A few are using the Internet to share know-how on hacking into websites, bomb-making and use of firearms, the study said.
Another report by the ICG in March 2008 noted that as the organisational JI weakened, several of its members have taken to a profitable publishing industry.
Among them is the Ar-Rahmah media company, chaired by Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman, a former member of JI's Al-Ghuraba cell which was set up by JI operations chief Hambali — now in custody in Guantanamo Bay — to groom future JI leaders.
During school vacations, some were sent to train with the militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba, while others were trained to handle weapons and explosives at Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan.
The cell, which was based in Karachi, Pakistan, was dispersed in 2003 after a security crackdown there. Some of those who returned home have been detained, but others have not.
The Ar-Rahmah company went on to pioneer the sale of VCDs from Al-Qaeda and other militant groups, to whip up sentiment against the West.
Last year, the Jakarta-based company launched a glossy magazine, Jihad Magz, which gives widespread coverage of militant acts in other parts of the world.
These media efforts may be an attempt to focus on outreach and recruitment to rebuild the weakened JI, the ICG added.
Other elements of the JI have also argued for a shift in focus to political and social activity in place of violence, in order to win more grassroots support in bringing about the Islamic state they yearn for.
Dr Tim Huxley, executive director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies-Asia, said this adjustment in JI doctrine arose because the many civilian casualties in JI attacks had caused “a real revulsion” against JI among ordinary Indonesians.
In a recent article, Boston-based analyst Zachary Abuza described JI's engagement in the political process, through groups like the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, as a cynical short-term tactic in its longer-term strategy to eradicate democracy.
Elements in JI remain committed to linking up with Al-Qaeda for funds and equipment to launch acts of terror.
The trial of Indonesian JI leaders Agus Purwantoro and Abu Husna, who were caught in Malaysia last year and sentenced to nine years' jail in Indonesia in February, showed that both men were on their way to Iraq to seek funds from Al-Qaeda leaders.
They were carrying a laptop that had a detailed funding proposal for explosives and operating expenses.
Several JI members are also seeking refuge in the southern Philippines, a situation Huxley says indicates the extent to which they are harassed elsewhere.
Still, while JI is on the defensive, it is far from out, if its support base and militant rhetoric are anything to go by. — Straits Times