Shortly after the Taliban captured Kabul, an offshoot of South-east Asia’s most notorious terror network Jemaah Islamiah (JI) congratulated the Afghan group for its “victory in freeing Afghan soil from the clutches of the American coloniser and puppet government”.
The Aug 17 statement by Jamaah Ansharusy Syariah (JAS) was signed by the group’s spokesman Abdul Rochim, who is the son of convicted radical cleric and JI’s former spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir.
“We urge Muslims from all over the world, especially Indonesian Muslims, to celebrate this victory for Islam,” the statement said.
JI, an affiliate of Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda, was behind some of the deadliest attacks in Indonesia, including the 2000 Christmas Eve bombings against churches and priests and the 2002 nightclub blasts on Bali that killed 202 people, mostly Westerners.
Sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2011 for funding a militant camp and freed in January, Bashir also founded other extremist groups in Indonesia such as Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia and JI’s splinter cell, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT).
But JAT has split into JAS and Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) after Bashir pledged allegiance in 2014 to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the slain leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
While JAS maintains that it does not subscribe to extremism, the pro-ISIS JAD morphed into the country’s leading terror organisation, blamed for, among other attacks, the church bombings on Sulawesi island in March this year and on Jolo island in the Philippines in 2019.
Indonesia’s anti-terror outfits are now on alert, said a top official.
Whichever group or its affiliation, law enforcers will stay alert against potential threats, including a possible resurgence of attacks following the Taliban’s success, said Brigadier-General Eddy Hartono, a spokesman for the National Counter Terrorism Agency.
“We should be careful with the euphoria surrounding the Taliban’s victory… The worry is it could inspire supporters in this region,” he told The Straits Times.
He noted that JAS, which has not committed any violence so far, has put out a statement in support of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda’s long-time ally.
“Terrorism is born out of intolerance, which is dangerous,” said Brig-Gen Eddy, a sentiment widely shared by leaders and officials around South-east Asia.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the Philippine News Agency on Aug 27: “Taliban or no Taliban, we have always considered local extremism as a big concern. Afghanistan is not the only country that could provide encouragement or inspiration to local terrorists.”
He noted that the Philippines had agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia on protecting its southern borders and sharing information on the movement of terrorists.
Security analysts have warned that events in Afghanistan could encourage militant Muslims elsewhere to take up arms to topple their own governments.
“Some of them have expressed their desire to go to Afghanistan to learn military strategies from the Taliban. When they return to Indonesia, they want to use the military expertise they have acquired in Afghanistan to overthrow the legitimate Indonesian government,” senior researcher Muh Taufiqurrohman from Jakarta-based think-tank, Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies, told The Straits Times.
Such statements cannot be taken lightly, he said.
After all, militants from terror groups from around the region, including JI, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines, and Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia went to military camps in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s.
There, they trained with guerilla fighters known as the mujahideen, learnt bomb making and infantry tactics, and established international connections.
Some of the militants mounted attacks when they returned home, and were a potent security threat to their governments and people.
The deaths of key figures and arrests by anti-terror police have weakened JI, but the organisation continues to exist.
Last month, Indonesian police arrested 53 militants, mostly from JI, suspected of planning attacks on Independence Day on Aug 17. Weapons, ammunition and donation boxes used to raise funds were seized.
In recent years, pro-ISIS groups have gained prominence and many, like JI, sent their members to train and fight overseas, namely in Syria and Iraq, particularly when ISIS held sway over large parts of Syria.
ISIS lost the last vestige of territory in 2019, but there is little doubt the group remains active, clearly evident when it claimed responsibility for an Aug 30 rocket attack on the airport in Kabul.
Analysts are convinced that, in the short term, pro-ISIS groups would likely pose the bigger threat.
Mr Taufik Andrie, a terrorism expert from the Peace Inscription Foundation, said: “In terms of small-scale attacks, ISIS will be more dominant than JI. The pro-ISIS groups like JAD may not be too structured, but they are more spontaneous and quick in building strength such as in logistics.”
He added that these attacks, however, are more easily managed by well-trained anti-terror units.
JI, for now, has not shown interest or has the capacity, including trained militants, to commit terror acts, said Mr Taufik.
However he does not rule out physical attacks in the future, saying: “JI is in a period of idad (preparations), and when it is ready, which we don’t know when, it could create momentum to strike.”
More ominous, though, is that JI appears to have shifted its focus from armed militancy to becoming a more open organisation involved in religious outreach and democratic activities, such as participating in elections and lobbying the government and Parliament.
Dr Noor Huda Ismail, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said JI has begun to exert its influence in “subtle and incremental” ways.
“JI provides services that the government cannot provide yet. If school fees are expensive, they say, ‘Why don’t you come to my school?’, or if you are a hopeless romantic, they may say, ‘I can find a spouse for you’.
“In politics, they could make a push for policies which support their ideology such as imposing syariah law.”
Balinese Nyoman Gede Suma Artha is among those who hope the events in Afghanistan will not come to haunt them again. The 52-year-old social entrepreneur was only 50m away from where the blasts occurred in Bali in 2002.
He said: “I heard blasts which sounded like a gas container exploding. The situation was chaotic, dead bodies lying around, people were panicking and looking for their lost relatives. I hope terror attacks will never happen again.”
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