Sidney Jones, a leading expert on Indonesia and its terror movements, says there are “solid links” between Osama bin Laden’s network and Jemaah Islamiyah (J.I.). But, she adds, “I am also very strongly of the opinion that al Qaeda doesn’t control J.I.” The Indonesia Project Director for the International Crisis Group and the author of a recent report on J.I., Jones says she was surprised to find that while the group had grown to at least several thousand, many Indonesians refuse to believe it exists. She also says that that the failure of prosecutors and judges to show “a bit more spine” in the case against Abu Bakar Bashir, the suspected former head of J.I., has produced sympathy for him and sharply undercut Indonesia’s war on terror.
Jones was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on September 4, 2003.
Is Jemaah Islamiyah a threat to the Indonesian government?
I don’t think it has any capacity to overthrow the government. Nor do I think it has any mass base support of any significance in Indonesia, although it certainly has some. For most Indonesians, it really is a radical fringe and one that most people would steer clear of. But it does have the capacity to engage in further terror.
How would you describe the government’s efforts to crack down on J.I. and on terror in general?
I would say that since the Bali attacks in October 2002 [that killed 202 people], the government and, in particular, the police have done a very creditable job. They have systematically pursued the network; there are now more than 90 people in prison. But the government doesn’t speak with one voice. The police and a couple of cabinet members are willing to take firm action. There is a reluctance on the part of other members of the cabinet and, to some extent, President Megawati [Sukarnoputri] herself, to call a spade a spade and actually say this is a nationwide network that needs to be eradicated. That reluctance makes it very difficult to go after those [Islamic boarding] schools where we know in effect bombers are being produced.
Why is President Megawati reluctant to act?
She has no Muslim credentials. She is seen by conservative Muslims as being almost tantamount to a Hindu. In order to maintain credibility as president, she had to get a hard-line vice president to, as it were, balance the ticket. Some of the conservative Muslim groups were raising concerns about a woman president, let alone a woman president with all these Balinese connections. She can’t do anything that would seem to be going against Muslim interests in Indonesia unless other hard-line Muslims in the cabinet follow suit.
What is the “Bali” problem?
The people in Bali are largely Hindu. Megawati is the daughter of Sukarno, the founder, in a sense, of Indonesia whose mother was Balinese. Megawati has strong support in Bali. She also not seen as a particularly devout Muslim, and right before the 1999 election, she made a highly publicized visit to a Balinese temple, which outraged the conservative Muslim community.
In your report, you say there are several thousand members of J.I. How did you get that number?
When I first started this research a year ago in August, I was convinced we were dealing with an organization that numbered probably in the low hundreds. The more I got into this, the more I was convinced that the organization was much larger than I had thought. And some of the most recent information we got suggested it is in the high thousands, but I am not sufficiently confident of the numbers to put a clear figure on it.
Are all of them graduates of the Islamic boarding schools— the pesantren— that operate in Indonesia?
No, they are not all graduates of the boarding schools and not all of them are people who would actually get involved in bombings. I think if we look at the people who are the real terrorists and take part in jihad operations, we’re talking about people who went through training either in Afghanistan or Mindanao [a predominantly Muslim island in the southern Philippines]. And that comes out to about 150 to 400 people, total. But there are a lot of foot soldiers around and many of those foot soldiers do indeed come out of religious boarding schools and many of them are in central Java.
What do you make of the September 2 decision by an Indonesian court to acquit the radical Islamic cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, of charges that he ordered a series of terrorist attacks in Indonesia and plotted to kill President Megawati, and instead sentence him to only four years in prison for the lesser charge of aiding and abetting treason?
It was a bad decision for a lot of different reasons. I think the evidence was certainly sufficient for convicting him at least of being the head of J.I., the group that carried out a string of bombings, including the one in Bali last October, for the period from 1999 to 2002. It looks as though he was replaced as the leader in 2002, but there was overwhelming evidence, not only from witnesses but also from interrogation depositions, that shows he was indeed the amir for this period.
The implications of acquitting him on those two counts is that now he is making the case that [the prosecution was the result of] foreign pressure, that in fact Australia and the United States are most concerned about his efforts to establish Islamic law and that they will undermine it at any cost. Because his lawyers have successfully focused on the foreign element in terms of putting pressure on the court to get him arrested in the first place, and have diverted attention away from J.I. and toward Bashir’s efforts to establish Islamic law, he’s gotten more sympathy as a result of this trial than he would have if both the prosecutors and the judges had had a little bit more spine.
I think that both the prosecutors and the judges proceeded with kid gloves because they were worried about a possible backlash, which I don’t think they needed to fear. But because they treated it so gingerly, Bashir’s own arguments and those of his lawyers are going to now carry more weight. And that’s got, I think, very serious consequences in terms of the willingness of the Indonesian public to believe that J.I. exists. Unbelievably, up to now, many people just don’t believe it does.
Many Indonesians doubt J.I.’s existence?
It’s hard for people outside of Indonesia to understand in the light of what has happened that there still could be doubts about J.I.’s existence, but what Indonesians are now willing to believe is that they do have a group of homegrown radicals who make bombs. And they are willing to believe that people like Amrozi bin Nurhasyim [sentenced to death for his role in the Bali attacks] and [others] arrested are indeed the people responsible for the Bali bombings. But there’s still skepticism about the idea of a nationwide network committed to bombings and the use of violence to establish an Islamic state and to fight against Islam’s enemies. They’re even more skeptical about the fact that J.I has links to al Qaeda.
Are there solid links between the two groups?
There are solid links. But I am also very strongly of the opinion that al Qaeda doesn’t control J.I. The links were established in Afghanistan, where the top leadership of J.I. was trained between 1985 and 1995. They worked very closely with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed [alleged 9/11 plotter who is now in U.S. custody] and a number of other people who subsequently became top leaders of al Qaeda. There were many personal bonds forged during that time. Secondly, there were money transfers. We don’t know if all the bombs planted by J.I. were financially supported by al Qaeda, but we know that some of them were, including the Bali bomb.
How certain are we?
[The evidence] is not yet hard enough to stand in a court of law on its own. I think if Khalid Sheikh Mohammed or Omar Farouk [a senior Qaeda operative in Southeast Asia, now in U.S. custody] were made available to testify, they could certainly attest to the fact that the money was transferred. But the circumstantial evidence is very clear, and there were a number of Qaeda operatives in Indonesia who were believed to be the conduit for that funding. I am convinced 100 percent that there was funding from al Qaeda for the Bali bombing. But as I say, it is not yet of sufficient clarity that it would hold up in court.
Hambali, the terror suspect arrested in Thailand recently and transferred to U.S. custody, is supposed to be closely aligned with al Qaeda.
Hambali, who was arrested August 12, is believed to be a member of the top council of al Qaeda and was a key operative for al Qaeda in Southeast Asia. He is a critical link, but he wasn’t the only link to al Qaeda. Even though he played a key role in both organizations, al Qaeda and J.I., I don’t think his arrest per se is going to stop J.I.
You wrote in an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune that Hambali should be put on trial in Indonesia. Why is that?
Unless he comes back for trial, the skepticism about J.I. links with al Qaeda will grow, and the notion that this is all an American conspiracy to discredit Islam and Indonesia is probably going to grow. The only reason that the conspiracy theories about the Bali bombing began to die off in the months that followed was that the arrests and trials of the Bali suspects were so transparent. There is no question that there is hard evidence against Hambali in terms of his links to al Qaeda and to the bombings that took place in Indonesia, but Indonesians need to hear that and they won’t so long as he remains in U.S. custody.
How will the Bashir trial affect U.S. relations with Indonesia?
It is clear that the United States was extremely disappointed by the lightness of the sentence, and an article in The New York Times [on the trial] quoted a senior Western diplomat expressing concern about the fact that the other charges did not stick. The United States is now giving a large amount of assistance to Indonesia for counterterrorism and it will be a little bit nervous about how much commitment there will be in the government, apart from the police, to pursuing this. One of the problems is that among the people under arrest are several known members of the J.I. organization who have not been implicated in acts of violence, including the man who is widely believed to have succeeded Bashir [as J.I. leader] in 2002, Abu Rusdan. If the judges were unwilling to stick it to Bashir, they may be even less willing to stick it to the other members of J.I. who they can’t prove were involved in acts of violence.
Will the prosecutor appeal to try to get a stiffer sentence on Bashir?
Now that Bashir has formally appealed, which he did yesterday, the pressure on the prosecutors to launch their own appeal is probably greater. But I understood that one of the reasons the judges gave such a light sentence was because they were terrified for their own safety. And yet, in the Indonesian press, the judges are being lauded for their courage in standing up to the United States.