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Islamist Militancy in Indonesia and the Philippines: Domestic Lineage and Sporadic Foreign Influence

15 Sep 2021

Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks in the US, the impact of jihadist organisations abroad continues to loom in Southeast Asia. The Islamic State energised a resurgence of militant activity in Indonesia and the Philippines from the mid-2010s, and the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan appears to have sent a psychological boost during a period of downturn.

To be sure, violent extremists in archipelagic Southeast Asia have been inspired or abetted by terrorist groups and events overseas for decades, but they are not passive recipients of ideology and tactics, nor lackeys for broader transnational goals. This Perspective traces the history of this foreign influence on Islamist militancy in Indonesia and the Philippines. Looking back through time suggests that developments abroad may well continue to impact the enthusiasm and strategies of extremist networks in Southeast Asia’s islands. But it will be the indigenous origins of these Islamist rebellions that ensure their resilience in some form for generations to come, regardless of global episodes and evolutions.

Analysts are pondering the implications of the Taliban’s recent success for terrorist networks in different parts of the world. This Perspective contends that for Indonesia and the Philippines, it is important to view the development in the context of regional history and the current status quo.

Indonesia: post-colonial conflict and foreign partnerships

When subsequent bomb blasts killed over 200 people in a night-life district of Bali exactly one year, one month, and one day after September 11, 2001, speculation immediately pointed to al-Qaeda’s global reach. Investigations did uncover links between the Indonesian terrorists and Osama bin Laden’s organisation. However, the more significant story was of a multi-generational militant Islamist movement in Indonesia that had long sought foreign assistance and inspiration, but had its own goals and unique roots in the nation’s fight for independence.

Amid the post-World War II unrest that saw the Japanese ousted and the Dutch colonial presence gradually recede, Indonesian nationalist leaders drew up a vision for the new nation, which ultimately abandoned specific mention of Islam or the Shari’a. When a diplomatic agreement was signed in 1948, and the Netherlands maintained occupation of West Java, a vanguard Islamist militia known as Darul Islam declared an Islamic State (Negera Islam Indonesia, or NII) and proceeded to wage insurgencies against both colonial and nationalist adversaries until the early 1960s.

While the active rebellion was eventually quashed, its aspirations were entrenched, and in the 1970s, remnants of the movement reconnected – this time from the underground. The resurgence involved strategic calculations from Indonesia’s national intelligence agency, but also the beginnings of international outreach and impact. Darul Islam leaders sought material support for terrorism from the Libyan government and the subversive writings of ideologues such as Sayyid Qutb reached Indonesian bookshelves, initiating evolutions in the movement’s views and strategy.

Global connections became more tangible in the 1980s, when Darul Islam began sending small batches of men to train with the Mujahideen along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The Indonesians (alongside counterparts from Malaysia and the Philippines) received military training and studied the Salafi-Jihadism of Abdullah Yusuf Azzam and others. When Pakistan finally eradicated the camps in the early 1990s, training moved to the Southern Philippines, before the Indonesian ‘Afghan alumni’ found opportunity in sectarian conflicts back home, which had erupted in the vacuum of post-authoritarian transition. 

A far-enemy splinter

While a small range of ideological groups had Darul Islam roots, the major player was now called Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which had a deliberate structure, a degree of expertise, and soon began waging a new campaign of terrorism. In late 2000, assailants attempted to assassinate the Philippine ambassador in Jakarta with a car bomb that killed two people and injured twenty-one others. A few months later, coordinated bombings hit thirty-eight churches across Indonesia on Christmas Eve, killing nineteen and injuring over one hundred worshippers.

These initial attacks appeared to be in revenge – particularly for Christian attacks on Muslims during the communal conflicts in Sulawesi and Maluku. The devastating bomb blasts in a busy tourist zone of Bali two years later were the first to target the so-called ‘far-enemy’ associated with Osama bin Laden’s 1996 call for global jihad. Some of the leaders had met with al-Qaeda leadership, who were interested in supporting attacks in Southeast Asia for mutual benefit.

Overseas influence had once again impacted Indonesia’s subversive Islamists, but the ‘far-enemy’ attacks during the early days of the War on Terror also brought international assistance to the nation’s law enforcement and security services. These constructive partnerships eventually established capabilities and success that arguably outweigh any backing or benefit the Indonesian jihadists received from abroad.

The new counter-terrorism: cooperation and capacity building

Following 9/11, the Indonesian National Police (INP) and Australian Federal Police (AFP) signed an agreement in June 2002 to combat transnational crime and develop cooperation. When the first Bali attack took place four months later, Australian police responded to a request from their Indonesian counterparts and were quickly on the scene, providing forensic input and various other support. The operation soon became a multi-national response. A combination of forensic analysis and Indonesian police legwork led to a key arrest within one month of the attack, while intelligence-sharing and further collaborative operations captured the remaining assailants over subsequent weeks. In 2004, these partnerships led to the establishment of the Jakarta Centre for Law Enforcement Cooperation (JCLEC), which builds capacity among regional police. The training centre has now seen over 32,000 police personnel pass through its doors, facilitating knowledge-transfer and the development of countless informal relationships that are crucial for cross-border (and inter-agency) information sharing. More immediate and targeted training had also taken place the previous year. In mid-2003, the US’ Antiterrorism Assistance Program (ATA) sponsored an intensive fifteen-week counter-terrorism investigation course for thirty experienced Indonesian police officers. Activities involved forensic analysis, response techniques, hostage simulations and weapons exercises. According to a 2004 State Department document, graduates became “core members” of Indonesia’s new counter-terrorism police, known as Special Detachment 88 (Densus 88). With dedication built on the success of post-Bali investigations, and enhanced capacity through international partnerships, Indonesian police gradually dismantled JI and associated networks through the mid to late 2000s. Hundreds of extremists were prosecuted and imprisoned or killed in operations, which eventually included masterminds behind the bombing attacks on Western symbols.

Recalculation and fresh inspiration

Similar to the post-NII rebellion in the early 1970s, militants who evaded capture or emerged more recently began forming small autonomous cells in the 2010s, which involved a strategic recalculation. Through translations of influential jihadist thinkers such as Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and Abu Musab al-Suri, the ‘far enemy’ was side-lined in preference for targeting the ‘near enemy’. As Indonesian counter-terrorism law enforcement had become so successful, the new strategy was also fuelled by revenge and police officers bore the brunt. But Indonesia’s jihadist organisations were splintered and suppressed through the early 2010s – until the rapid rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014. The declaration of a caliphate and global call to action represented perhaps the most direct influence from overseas developments on Indonesian militant networks since their inception in the 1940s. Similar to others throughout the world, Indonesian jihadists were energised. Over a thousand  attempted to travel to the Levant, and those who couldn’t were encouraged to stage operations at home. In early 2016, a high profile (but largely unsuccessful) attack in central Jakarta marked the beginning of a string of ISIS-inspired operations over the next few years. The strategy of targeting police did not wholly change, but attacks on Christian churches re-emerged, including a shocking day of suicide bombings in May 2018 involving perpetrators with children in tow. In direct response, the Indonesian government pushed through long-stalled updates to anti-terrorism legislation, providing the police and security agencies with greater powers of surveillance, detention, and additional avenues for prosecution. Police also began developing additional Densus 88 counter-terrorism task forces at the regional level, which appear to have generated further success and efficiency. Since the new legislation was passed in mid-2018, hundreds of suspected ISIS-supporters have been arrested and prosecuted in Indonesia, while terrorist ‘operations’ have often been limited to ambushing vulnerable police officers on the street. There is ongoing concern about the way imprisoned terrorists are managed, particularly given the numbers now involved. But the effective accommodation of high-risk inmates in Indonesia has also seen improvements in recent years, which is a crucial step before any serious evaluation of potential disengagement or de-radicalisation takes place. So with the demise of the ISIS ‘caliphate’ in 2019 and the crackdown on ISIS-inspired violence in Indonesia, the early 2020s are turning into another trough for jihadist activity in the archipelagic nation. ISIS reignited a movement that had decades of foreign connections and occasional partnerships, but also deep domestic roots connected to the early days of Indonesia’s modern history.

The terrorism-secession dichotomy in the Philippines

In the Philippines, various local violent extremist (VE) groups seem to change their superficial ideological moorings to whatever global brand is popular. But a scan of the history of political violence in the southern Philippines suggests the long history of conflict. Mindanao refers to both the Philippines’s second-largest island and the larger region populated by 13 Filipino Muslim ethnolinguistic groups. The distinction between secessionist and terrorist is inherent when dealing with the history of conflict in Mindanao. Spanish colonial authorities referred to Filipino Muslims they encountered in the 16th centuries as “Moro”, conflating their identity with Spanish Moors. While initially a pejorative exonym, the idea of the Moro was appropriated by Filipino Muslims, linking it to the concept of nationhood – the Bangsa Moro (alternatively spelled as Bangsamoro) or the ‘Moro Nation’. Even today, the Bangsamoro concept is a badge of identity and highlights the existence of their communities long before the establishment of the modern Philippine state. From 1903 to 1913, Moro resistance was focused against the Americans in the Sultanate of Sulu on Jolo Island, off the coast of western Mindanao by the Tausug ethnic group. The Tausugs were accomplished seafarers and carved out a prosperous sphere of influence—the Sulu Zone—that overlapped with American colonial ambitions. Muslim dissent in the Philippines was catalysed after the 18 March 1968 Jabidah Massacre, where Filipino Muslim paramilitaries were massacred by their Philippine Army (PA) training cadre. The massacre occurred after a mutiny by the trainees, reportedly to protest poor living conditions in camp. The Jabidah trainees were preparing for a subversion campaign against Malaysian-occupied North Borneo, or Sabah. Filipino Muslim youths, angered by the massacre, found their champion in Nur Misuari, a political science professor and founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Misuari’s lofty goal of using the Bangsamoro discourse to unite everyone who identified themselves as Filipino Muslim was not wholly successful. Clans of central Mindanao, who trace their genealogy to the pre-Spanish sultanates, re-emerged to challenge the dominance of Misuari, who hailed from the Tausug ethnic group. Hashim Salamat, a member of the Maguindanao ethnic group, decried how Misuari’s MNLF appeared to mimic the secular strategy of the communist insurgency waged by the New People’s Army. In 1984, Salamat renamed his MNLF faction the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Opportunistic branding by violent extremists in the Philippines

In the southern Philippines, specifically Muslim Mindanao, terrorism is most associated with extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). After returning from the Afghan-Soviet conflict in 1989, Abdurajak Janjalani founded the ASG, and sought to differentiate his group from other mainstream ethnonationalist organisations like the MNLF and the MILF. Abu Sayyaf grabbed international headlines in 1991 when they bombed a Christian missionary ship - M/V Doulos - in Zamboanga City in Western Mindanao, deliberately targeting foreign nationals. In that same year, AQ operative Ramzi Yousef travelled to the Philippines, serving as the liaison for both groups. An accidental fire in a Manila led authorities to pre-emp a plot to kill Pope John Paul II who was due to visit the Philippine capital in January 1995. This severed the nascent operational links between the ASG and AQ. By 1998, the ASG’s ideological development and robust transnational links would end with the killing of Janjalani in a police raid. His death ultimately led to the fragmentation of the ASG. The group would, however, regain international notoriety in 2000 as an international kidnap-for-ransom group. It started with the high-profile Sipadan Island kidnapping, involving ten Westerners. This would be followed by the kidnapping of Malaysians and several Americans in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom. These post-Janjalani events saw the use of jihadist discourses as a superficial cover for organised criminal activity. It would be the secessionist MILF that would take the pragmatic step of building camps for AQ militants as Philippine security forces applied pressure on the ASG. Permanent presence for foreign jihadi in Central Mindanao have historical precedents. In 1994, the MILF built training camps for foreign jihadists with seed funding from AQ. The camps trained hundreds of Southeast Asians, mostly from Indonesia, before they were dismantled after the 2000 “all-out war” against the MILF by the Philippine President Joseph Estrada.

Overstating foreign terrorist fighters’ influence in Mindanao

It would take several decades, specifically the emergence of the so-called Islamic State (IS), before Filipino militant groups tried to link up to another brand of global-scale jihadism. IS represented a modern, and online media-savvy jihadism, distinct from the AQ brand. In 2014, Isnilon Hapilon, one of the faction leaders of the post-Janjalani ASG, pledged allegiance to IS. However, instead of being declared a wali or governor of an IS wilayah or province, Hapilon was designated as a mere emir or leader as reported in the fifth issue of Dabiq. His pledge was more an attempt to gain legitimacy and funding from the IS core, rather than a demonstration of actual control. The 2017 Battle for Marawi was arguably Hapilon’s last attempt to demonstrate control over a significant area in Mindanao. Lasting five months, the incident displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed thousands of combatants on both sides. But contrary to views espoused by some foreign reporters and academics, the presence of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) was not impressive in terms of improving the combat capability of local fighters such as the Maute Group (MG) from Central Mindanao and the ASG. Without prior grounding in the history of the Mindanao conflict, it was easy to subscribe to the belief that IS had grafted itself into the southern Philippines. Visual similarities between two urban battlefields, Marawi, Philippines and Mosul, Iraq are often juxtaposed together. But such superficial analyses tell little of the underlying factors that led to the persistence of conflict in the city. One civilian hostage held for months by Isnilon Hapilon’s forces recalled that there were probably no more than a dozen foreign militants, mostly preoccupied with combat support duties—very different from the image of battle-hardened FTFs IS seeks to promote. On the military side, one member of a special operations unit interviewed expressed surprise to find only one “foreign-looking” cadaver during his five-month long stint in Marawi’s ‘Main Battle Area’. The protracted fighting can be attributed more to the inexperience of the AFP to fight in urban terrain. Had IS wanted an operational role in Marawi, it would have likely deployed its Emni operatives, as seen in the 2016 Paris attacks. The Emni is the de facto IS intelligence service that provides support for local cells or even directly conducts attacks overseas. If they had been on the ground in Marawi, it is very unlikely that IS would have failed to capitalise on the propaganda value of successfully deploying its Emni operatives to Southeast Asia.

Holistic approaches to assess conflict in Mindanao

The trajectory of Filipino militant groups, especially their attempts to link up with foreign jihadist brands, demonstrates the need to look at underlying drivers of the conflicts. This would prevent overemphasis on superficial markers of purported ideological alignment. There must be efforts to identify other indicators to detect and then subsequently confront violent extremism. Measures to detect the lack of effective governance and the occurrence of clan conflict appear to be the most promising indicators to forecast other future ‘Marawis’. Specifically, it could entail monitoring non-traditional measures that may not be directly related to countering violent extremism (CVE) or security initiatives. Statistics on municipal or even village-level economic inequality, out-of-school-youth, and even incidents of financial fraud can be brought together as early-warning indicators. It may also be more productive to look at other indicators such as the responsiveness of local governments, poverty levels, and the effectiveness of educational institutions. The success of the Bangsamoro sub-region in bringing quality-of-life changes could be the more reliable indicator of how extremism is diminished in the southern Philippines, rather than fluctuations in the influence of jihadist movements overseas.

Moving forward while looking back   

The recent fall of Kabul to Taliban control has triggered conversations regarding the impact on the jihadist milieu in Southeast Asia. It is probably too early to assess whether the Taliban will nurture its relationships with transnational terrorist organisations. Pro-IS cells in Khorasan Province have an adversarial relationship with the Taliban. As for AQ, it is unclear whether its presence in Afghanistan in 2021 will be analogous to how the late Mullah Omar welcomed bin Laden before 9/11. At this point, domestic conditions in Southeast Asia will probably mitigate the regional impact of developments in Afghanistan. Indonesia’s counter-terrorism police appear well prepared for any near-term spike in activity. It will be important to develop these capabilities further to address the next resurgence in what has become an almost cyclical phenomena. In the Philippines, it is doubtful that militants will take any direct ideological benefit from the Taliban’s recapture of Afghanistan. Rather than direct causal links, such high-profile global events will provide an inspirational narrative for some VE groups in both Indonesia and the Philippines. The collapse of the Afghan government will likely be used to fuel the narrative that even the US can be defeated. The Philippine military, organised and trained largely along American lines, is a perfect surrogate target for messaging and propaganda by local VE groups in the Philippines. But aside from narratives and messaging, operational realities, and the difficulty in conducting terrorist attacks will likely see VE groups fixate on dynamics closer to home rather than ideological developments overseas. While global jihadist groups may surge or fade, it will be the indigenous roots of the Islamist extremist movements in Indonesia and the Philippines that will confirm their resilience.

Image Credit: "2002 bali bombing monument" by yesy belajar memotrek is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0