Are religious doctrinal differences primarily responsible for stoking intercommunal fear and hatred? What roles have state, sub-state and transnational actors played in fomenting sectarian discord? And what could be done to avert sectarian violence, to foster tolerance and peaceful coexistence, and to promote reconciliation? The essays in this series tackle these and other salient questions pertaining to sectarianism in the MENA and Asia Pacific regions. Read more ...

Almost 12 years after the notorious Al-Qaeda-linked militant network Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) orchestrated the October 2002 terror attacks that killed 202 civilians in Bali, violent Islamist extremism continues to pose a real threat in Indonesia. The JI network originated and remains very much an Indonesian entity; it is an ideological offshoot of the Darul Islam (also known as Negara Islam Indonesia, or NII) separatist movement, which has violently sought to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia since the end of World War II. However, it has sprouted affiliates in other Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, and the southern Philippines.[1] Darul Islam/NII itself is also still active, despite having fragmented in the 1960s under pressure from the Indonesian military.

JI emerged as a splinter group of Darul Islam in the early 1990s under the leadership of the late clerics Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba‘asyir.[2] Many militant followers of Sungkar and Ba‘asyir were deeply influenced by the experience of training together and fighting alongside Muslim combatants from around the world against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. These Indonesian Afghan veterans returned home imbibed with a globally oriented violent Islamist extremism that regarded the United States, Israel, and a coalition of allied governments as committed to dominating the Muslim world.[3] In recent years, the stock narrative that Islam is being attacked by the Indonesian government and the economically powerful, assertive evangelical Christian community—as well as the global “Jewish-Crusader axis”—has made inroads into Indonesian extremist circles.[4]  The massive crackdown on JI militants by Jakarta after the 2002 Bali attacks failed to prevent further attacks, such as those in August 2003 on the Jakarta Marriott Hotel; in September 2004 outside the Australian embassy; in Bali on 1 October 2005; and on the Jakarta Marriott and nearby Ritz-Carlton in July 2009.[5]  Despite the loss of key operational leaders, the wider extremist milieu that berthed the JI network has not disappeared. Rather, the threat seems to be mutating to such an extent that JI itself appears to have been overshadowed by newer splinter networks. This gradual shift—apparent since about 2007—has prompted terrorism analysts to predict that the “biggest threat to Western targets and civilians is no longer from an attack sanctioned by the JI leaders but from the militant breakaway groups.”[6]

This has proven to be a prescient observation. In February 2010, Indonesian police disrupted a training camp set up by a new group called Al Qaeda in Aceh, which has ties to JI co-founder Ba‘asyir. This entity was apparently plotting to assassinate the Indonesian president and bomb hotels and embassies in Jakarta.[7] Since then, previously unknown smaller cells with varying degrees of JI affiliation have emerged within the violent Islamist milieu in Indonesia, targeting churches and police.[8]  At the same time, older movements such as the Darul Islam/NII—far from being moribund—have intensified recruitment of university students. In early 2011, a newly formed cell linked to Darul Islam/NII was implicated in the attempted bombing of a church in Serpong, on the outskirts of Jakarta, and was also accused of sending “book bombs” to leading figures in Jakarta deemed as anti-Islamic.[9]  In April 2011, moreover, a suicide bomber attacked a mosque in a police compound in Cirebon, West Java, killing himself and wounding 30 others.[10] The perpetrator, Mohammed Syarif, apparently possessed ideological connections with Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), a hard-line mass organization started by Ba‘asyir in 2008. Ba‘asyir himself received a 15-year prison sentence in June 2011 for funding the aforementioned Al Qaeda in Aceh training camp.[11]  Significantly, in February 2012, JAT was designated by the US government as a foreign terrorist organization, “responsible for multiple coordinated attacks against innocent civilians, police and military personnel in Indonesia.”[12]

Further violent extremist mutations emerged in 2012 and 2013. In eastern Indonesia, these included the Poso-based East Indonesia Mujahidin Commandos; a number of groups entered the scene in West Java, including Al Qaeda in Indonesia, the Sunni Movement for Indonesian Society (HASMI) network, and the West Indonesia Mujahidin. The targets of these new cells toggled between the local police and Western embassies, tourist sites, and business interests. Furthermore, as of 2014 the specter of Indonesian volunteers returning from the Syrian civil war armed with both bomb-making skills and violent global jihadist sentiments has surfaced. In addition, the persecution of the Rohingya and wider Muslim community in Buddhist Myanmar had resulted in violent Islamist targeting of Buddhist temples and the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta.  In sum, as long as the common ideological frame of violent Islamism—albeit idiosyncratically interpreted and operationalized by diverse cell leaders—continues to thrive, the threat of terrorism in Indonesia, and for that matter the wider region, will remain self-sustaining and resilient in the face of pressure from security forces.[13]

The Need for an Indirect Strategy focused on Countering Violent Extremism

At the height of the Cold War in the 1950s—when Communist-instigated national liberation movements confronted Western forces in various conflict zones—the great French strategist Andre Beaufre argued for the implementation of an indirect strategy that emphasized the primacy of nonmilitary measures, such as good democratic governance and socioeconomic reforms, over a direct military strategy in dealing with popular Maoist insurgencies.[14] A similar logic may well apply in Indonesia today, and an indirect approach toward Islamist terrorism that privileges  non-kinetic instruments over brute force is crucial.[15] As Ansyaad Mbai, head of the Indonesian National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) observed, “the more physical pressure” is applied to the various violent Islamist cells and networks, “the more militant and radical they become.”[16] Much criticism has erupted in Indonesia regarding the “alleged excessive force” applied by Western-trained counterterrorism police, as in December 2013 when six men were killed for belonging to a cell planning attacks on the U.S. embassy, a church, and multiple Buddhist temples[17]; the forceful response to extremism in may be inadvertently empowering the militants. 

More generally, while the calibrated use of force and law enforcement measures—such as better intelligence gathering, communication between domestic and international security agencies, efforts to cut off terrorist financing and weapons material pipelines, systematic improvements in prison management structures, and tightened border security—remain key elements of a comprehensive counter-terror strategy, they are by themselves insufficient. Neutralizing the violent Islamist extremist ideology that animates and sustains “rapidly evolving armed groups” and “new cells” that—like the proverbial hydra—somehow “keep sprouting”[18] remains key. This is why countering violent extremism (CVE), an indirect strategy that privileges counter-ideological efforts, is the most apt means to defeat violent Islamism over the medium to long term.[19] In this approach, the role of Muslim civil society—NGOs, religious organizations, and other non-state civil actors—in Indonesia is very important. Two things must first be identified for the CVE approach to be successful: the most suitable interlocutors, and the appropriate mechanisms for transmitting the counternarrative.

Civil Society in CVE I: Who?

It is widely accepted that progressive scholars and preachers from Muslim civil society are best equipped to expose the selective use of texts by violent Islamist ideologues.[20] In Indonesia, many such scholars and preachers exist within the ranks of the two biggest mainstream Muslim civil society organizations, the traditionalist Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the modernist Muhammadiyah, which together boast tens of millions of members. Both organizations play a key role in “cognitively immunizing” the wider society against violent Islamist extremist appeals.[21] In rural West Java, for instance, progressive preachers enjoy significant regional followings. This is because their messages, which contain authentic examples derived from daily experience, enable them to connect with the public in concrete ways.  One keen observer made the following comment about the popular moderate Muslim preacher Kiai al-Jauhari.[22]

I have often seen audiences transfixed by Al-Jauhari’s allegories and narrative accounts. He transforms Islamic messages into narrations made up of highly recognizable material, with no shortage of humour added to the mix. People are engrossed as he unfolds his creations. I have frequently asked village and mosque officials why they engage Al-Jauhari … The most common answer is that he is able to hold people’s attention for long periods of time.

It should be noted here that figures like Kiai al-Jauhari may be less effective in CVE efforts directed at violent extremists and their close supporters than they are among the wider Muslim community.  A senior Indonesian counter-terror official confirmed that moderate Muslim scholars were regarded by the militants as “working for the government.”[23] Indonesian civil society activist and founder of the International Institute for Peacebuilding, Noor Huda Ismail, likewise argued that while world-famous moderate Indonesian Muslim scholars such as Azyumardi Azra are “good for youth, NU, Muhammadiyah,” they are not as suitable for “those who come from Darul Islam.” Huda’s take was that for “DI, former DI members are better, who left and did different work.”[24] More generally, political scientist Cass Sunstein insists that if “you want people to move away from their prior convictions,” it is best to present them “with the views of people with whom they closely identify.”[25]  Consistent with this reasoning, the Indonesian police have made much-publicized use of key JI militant figures who have disengaged from violence, such as former JI regional leader Nasir Abas and the October 2002 Bali bombers, Ali Imron and Mubarok.  Abas, for instance, has written a book denouncing the Bali attacks as an illegitimate jihad.[26]  Most recently, new civil society-driven CVE efforts involving the victims of terrorist attacks have emerged, and have had some impact. One example of this new trend in Indonesia is the Victim’s Voices initiative, spearheaded by Jakarta 2009 Marriott bombing survivor Max Boon.[27]

Civil Society in CVE II: How?

What mechanisms should Indonesian Muslim civil society actors employ in CVE efforts? Several potentially promising ones have in fact been tried, including the moderated intra-faith debate. Top counter-terror police official Tito Karnavian pointed out that detainees should participate in moderated ideological contestation “between nominals, moderates, traditionalists, and Salafis,” adding that they should be encouraged to “discuss and debate.”[28]  The progressive Muslim academic Jamhari Makruf similarly argued that it is important “to get somebody who disagrees with you, so there is quarrel or debate (emphasis mine).”[29] Conceding that these were “not easy to conduct,” he revealed that he had actually tried this approach a couple of times at his university,[30] fostering a “huge debate” between the Jaringan Islam Liberal (JIL or Liberal Islam Network) and Front Pembela Islam (FPI, or Islamic Defenders Front). Jamhari emphasized that a controlled collision of viewpoints to generate greater understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of various views was the key. Hence, when Jamhari invited the Islamists to articulate their support for an Indonesian Islamic State, he ensured that the Catholics were also on hand to voice their objections—forcing the Islamists to “think about how to solve” the conundrum.[31]

A second mechanism that should be considered carefully by civil society in CVE work is the Internet, particularly Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. In Indonesia, Twitter is increasingly being exploited by “net-savvy radicals” to “lobby for their causes.”[32] JAT, for instance, uses several “internet and social networking sites,” and its material appears on YouTube.[33] More than a quarter of Indonesia’s 240 million people are on Facebook, “thanks in large part to cheap and fast Internet-capable phones,” and young people are being targeted for terrorist recruitment via social media.[34] Still, the keen observer of Indonesian extremism Sidney Jones insisted that, “although terrorists groups' Internet use is growing, they still do most of their recruiting face-to-face at traditional places such as prayer meetings.”[35] Noor Huda Ismail likewise opined that “Facebook, Internet, Twitter, and Blackberry” come into play more often as a means of information dissemination, rather than indoctrination. He says that “you can post, ‘a Christian group is coming to this area, please be on the alert.”’[36] Like Sidney Jones, his assessment is that “follow-up via personal face-to-face contact is crucial.”[37]  Thus, while there is room for civil society activists to debunk violent extremist narratives online, the face-to-face meetings that bring together former and current extremists to discuss sensitive issues—such as the ability of Muslims to practice their faith in a secular political system, the status of non-Muslims in an Islamic State, and the meaning of jihad—should not be ignored.[38]

A third and final mechanism that Muslim civil society can employ in CVE efforts is effective engagement with the creative industries and social enterprises. The 137-page graphic-novel biography of Nasir Abbas (I Found the Meaning of Jihad)[39] and the award-winning documentary Prison and Paradise—a locally produced film detailing the lives of children of the perpetrators and victims of the October 2002 Bali attacks—stand out as particularly impactful efforts to utilize the creative sector with a low-key but potent CVE focus.[40] Perhaps the strongest civil society CVE mechanism, though, lies in the social enterprise sector. Noor Huda Ismail observed in April 2011 that the social enterprises he started for former Islamist militant detainees—such as working on prawn farms or in restaurants—has helped them keep busy and make ends meet, thus decreasing their availability to engage in violence.  More profoundly, such enterprises have also given these men a sense of alternative meaning and even pride in their lives. Stressing the value of developing what he calls “multi-layered identities,” Huda recalled that in the past, most militants thought that “to be a good Muslim means to be a good JI member.” However, he now subtly impresses upon these men that to be “a good Muslim also means to be a good duck seller and a good father—and not just to be a good JI member.”[41]

Interestingly, Huda added, of the programs his Institute has developed for “convicted terrorists,” the restaurant approach is “the most effective because it encourages participants to engage with a broad cross-section of society.” Huda noted that “in the restaurant business, you cannot choose your customer,” and his charges have little choice but to “have an intense interaction with a number of different types of people, from Christians who come here for breakfast to girls without veils.”  The end result has been that some former extremists began to appreciate the common humanity they shared with ordinary non-Muslims. It could thus be argued that such “social interaction” with non-Muslims afforded by the restaurant business was an important—if low-key and relatively indirect—CVE initiative.[42] No surprise, then, that Huda feels that such types of social enterprises offer much promise and that the government should consider replicating them to prevent recidivism among released militants.[43]


Countering the constantly mutating, hydra-like threat of violent Islamist extremism in Indonesia demands more than a kinetic approach.  The Indonesian experience suggests that an over-reliance on hard power may actually be counter-productive, inadvertently strengthening rather than weakening the violent Islamist extremists. What is needed, therefore, is an indirect strategy in which calibrated hard power is subordinated to and supplemented by softer measures aimed at diminishing the underlying conditions that give rise to violent extremism. Within the indirect strategy domain, aside from good political and socio-economic governance, a counter-ideological or CVE approach is very important in countering the virulent ideological frame that sustains the constantly evolving violent Islamist militant threat. Finally, as part of this CVE effort, the vast potential of Muslim civil society should be fully exploited, both in Indonesia and elsewhere.  In this respect, one would do well to heed the timeless advice of the ancient Chinese warrior-sage Sun Tzu to think creatively in confronting threats: “Let us fight with wisdom, and not just force alone.”[44]

[1] Z. Abuza, Militant Islam in Southeast Asia: Crucible of Terror (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2003).

[2] K. Ramakrishna, Radical Pathways: Understanding Muslim Radicalization in Indonesia (Westport and London: Praeger Security International, 2009).

[3] Ibid.

[4] International Crisis Group, Indonesia: Jihadi Surprise in Aceh (Jakarta/Brussels: Asia Report No. 189, 2010).

[5] S. Rekhi, “JI’s Ability to Launch Attacks Curbed; Terrorist Group Has Lost Top Leaders But Threat Remains,” The Straits Times, 13 October 2007.

[6] N. O’Brien, “JI Splinter Group Now Threatens Australians,” The Australian, 8 October 2007.

[7] A. K. Sen, “Indonesia Arrests Militant Cleric Again: Ba’asyir Linked to Al Qaeda in Aceh,” The Washington Times, 9 August 2010.

[8] S. Jones, “Three Strategies for Jihad—and More Prevention Needed,” Tempo, 12 April 2011.

[9] F. Arnaz, Z. Pawas, and N. Osman, “Church Bombing Suspect ‘Was NII’” The Jakarta Globe, 25 April 2011.

[10] “Indonesia Arrests Six over Book Bombs: Police,” Herald Sun, 21 April 2011.

[11]  F. Arnaz, “Bashir Has No Ties to Cirebon Bomb Attack: Assistant,” The Jakarta Globe, 21 May  2011; “Cleric Sentenced to Prison,” United Press International, 16 June 2011.

[12] H. Widhiarto, and M.S. Aritonang, “US Officially Brands JAT a Terrorist Organization,” Jakarta Post, 25 February 2012.

[13] Kumar Ramakrishna, “Islamist Terrorism and Militancy in Indonesia: The Power of the Manichean Mindset,” unpublished manuscript, 2014.

[14] Andre Beaufre, Strategy of Action (London: Faber and Faber, 1967).

[15] Kumar Ramakrishna, “Countering the New Terrorism of Al Qaeda Without Generating Civilizational Conflict: The Need for an Indirect Strategy,” in The New Terrorism: Anatomy, Trends and Counter-Strategies, ed. by Andrew Tan and Kumar Ramakrishna (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002), pp. 207-232.

[16] A. Mbai, “Police-Military Co-operation in Countering Terrorism: An Indonesian Perspective.” Lecture at the International Seminar on Countering Terrorism, Bali, Indonesia, 19 October 2010.

[17] ‘Terrorist Planned to Attack US Embassy in Jakarta,’ The Straits Times, 4 January 2014.

[18] O. Rondonuwu, and S. Grudgings, ‘Bali Attack Plot Shows Indonesia Terror Threat Evolving’, Reuters, 22 March 2012.

[19] Kumar Ramakrishna, “Trumping Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia with an Indirect Strategy,” paper presented at the 2002 Pacific Symposium on Addressing Transnational Threats in the Asia-Pacific Region, organized by the National Defense University, Washington, DC, 20-21 February 2002.

[20] K.A. El Fadl, The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists (New York: HarperSanFrancisco), 2005, pp. 152-53.

[21] Kumar Ramakrishna, “Educating People to Counter Terrorism: “Cognitive Immunization” against Violent Extremism in Indonesia,” in Countering Terrorism: Psycho-Social Strategies, ed. by  Updesh Kumar and Manas K. Mandal (New Delhi: Sage Publications, 2013).

[22] J. Millie, ”’Spiritual Meal’ or Ongoing Project? The Dilemma of Dakwah Oratory,” in Expressing Islam: Religious Life and Politics in Indonesia, ed. by G. Fealy and S. White (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2008), pp. 82, 91-92 (emphasis mine).

[23] Tito Karnavian interview, London, 9 November 2007.

[24] Noor Huda Ismail interview, Jakarta, 6 April 2011.

[25] C.R. Sunstein, On Rumours: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done (London: Penguin, 2010), p. 52.

[26] Ramakrishna, Radical Pathways, p. 175.

[27] International Center for Counter-Terrorism, Victim’s Voices. The Hague, 2014.

[28]  Tito Karnavian interview, Jakarta, 11 April 2011.

[29]  Jamhari Makruf interview, Jakarta, 5 April 2011.

[30] The prestigious State Islamic University Sharif Hidayatullah in Jakarta.

[31] Ibid.

[32]  Z. Nazeer, “Indonesia Faces Rising Intolerance,” The Straits Times, 5 March 2011.

[33] International Crisis Group, Indonesia: The Dark Side of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid (Jakarta/Brussels: Asia Briefing 107, 2010), p. 5.

[34] N. Karmini, “Facebook Broke Indonesia Terror Case,” Associated Press, 22 June 2013.

[35]  Ibid.

[36] Noor Huda Ismail interview, Jakarta, 6 April 2011.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Al Chaidar interview, Singapore, 8 January 2006.

[39] R. Mcdowell, “Captain Jihad: Ex-Terrorist is Now Comic Book Hero,” The Jakarta Post, 9 September 2011.

[40] D. Nurhayati, ”’Prison and Paradise’ Gives a Voice to Terrorism Survivors,” The Jakarta Post, 12 October 2011.

[41] Noor Huda Ismail interview, Jakarta, 6 April 2011.

[42] K. Lamb, “In Indonesia, Former Terrorists Swap Firearms for Fried Duck,” GlobalPost, 28 June 2011.

[43] D. Cassrells, “How Kebabs and Coffee Help Turn Inmates From the Path of Terror,” The Australian 23 May 2011.

[44] General Tao Hanzhang, Sun Tzu’s Art of War: The Modern Chinese Interpretation, translated by Yuan Shibing (New York: Sterling, 1987).

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