- Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.
This publication is now archived.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) is a militant Islamist group active in several Southeast Asian countries that seeks to establish a pan-Islamic state across much of the region. Jemaah Islamiyah ("Islamic Organization" in Arabic) is alleged to have attacked or plotted against U.S. and Western targets in Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. JI’s most notorious attack occurred in 2002 when three bombs were detonated on the Indonesian island of Bali, a beachfront city and international tourist destination. The most recent attack believed to have been carried out by JI operatives came on October 1, 2005, when a series of suicide bombings killed twenty people and wounded 129 in Bali. After the 2002 Bali attack, the United States-which suspects the group of having ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network-designated Jemaah Islamiyah a foreign terrorist organization.
When was Jemaah Islamiyah founded?
The name Jemaah Islamiyah dates to the late 1970s, but experts aren’t certain if the name referred to a formal organization or an informal gathering of like-minded Muslim radicals-or a government label for Islamist malcontents. The group has its roots in Darul Islam, a violent radical movement that advocated the establishment of Islamic law in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country and also home to Christians, Hindus, and adherents of other faiths. Darul Islam sprang up as the country emerged from Dutch colonial rule in the late 1940s, and its followers continued to resist the postcolonial Indonesian republic, which it saw as too secular. Some experts say JI was formed by a small handful of Indonesian extremists exiled in Malaysia in the late 1980s. In its early years, JI renounced violence, but the group shifted tactics in the late 1990s because of suspected links with al-Qaeda figures in Afghanistan.
Who is the leader of Jemaah Islamiyah?
Abu Bakar Bashir, an Indonesian of Yemeni descent, is thought to be the group’s spiritual leader-and, some speculate, an operational leader as well. Bashir joined Darul Islam in the 1970s and was imprisoned in Indonesia for Islamist activism. In 1985, after a court ordered him back to prison, Bashir fled to Malaysia. There, he recruited volunteers to fight in the anti-Soviet Muslim brigades in Afghanistan and sought funding from Saudi Arabia while maintaining connections with former colleagues in Indonesia.
After the Indonesian dictator Suharto stepped down in 1998, Bashir returned home to run a pesantren-a Muslim seminary-in Solo, on the Muslim-majority island of Java. He also took up leadership of the Indonesian Mujahadeen Council, an Islamist umbrella group. Bashir has denied involvement in terrorism. Following the October 2002 Bali bombing, Indonesian officials demanded Bashir submit to questioning about that and earlier attacks. In 2003, he was convicted of treason, but the charge was soon after overturned by the Jakarta High Court and, in April 2004, Bashir was released from prison. Citing new evidence, Indonesia authorities rearrested Bashir the same day. On March 5, 2005, he was acquitted of charges that he participated in the 2003 attacks in Jakarta but was found guilty of conspiracy for the 2002 Bali bombings and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison, which the U.S. and Australian governments criticized as too lenient. Bashir’s jail term was cut as part of the tradition of remissions for Indonesia’s Independence Day, and he was released in June 2006.
Who are the other leadership figures?
Among Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorists were Azhari Husin and Mohammed Noordin Top, both Malaysian-born members of Jemaah Islamiyah. Husin, a Britain-educated engineer and explosives expert, and Top, a former accountant, are thought to have been the masterminds behind an August 2003 attack on the Marriott and a September 2004 car bomb outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Husin was killed in a police raid in 2005, while Top is believed to still be in hiding.
Until his arrest in 2003, Hambali played the most important leadership role in Jemaah Islamiyah, according to U.S. and Asian intelligence officials. He was the group’s operational chief, they say, and was closely involved in several terrorist plots. U.S. officials announced August 14, 2003, that he was arrested by Thai authorities in Ayutthaya, about sixty miles north of Bangkok, and handed over to the Central Intelligence Agency. The U.S. State Department says Hambali was the head of Jemaah Islamiyah’s regional shura, its policymaking body, and suspected of being al-Qaeda’s operations director for East Asia. The State Department in January 2003 froze Hambali’s assets and the assets of another suspected terrorist, Mohamad Iqbal Abdurraham, also known as Abu Jibril. The department said that, until his arrest in Malaysia in June 2001, Abu Jibril was "Jemaah Islamiyah’s primary recruiter and second-in-command."
What prior attacks has Jemaah Islamiyah been linked to?
The group-or individuals affiliated with it-is thought to be tied to several terrorist plots. Among them:
- The October 2005 suicide bombings in Bali that killed twenty people and injured 129.
- The September 2004 suicide car bombing outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta that killed three people and left more than 100 wounded.
- The August 2003 car bombing of the J.W. Marriott hotel in Jakarta that killed twelve people.
- The October 2002 bombing of a nightclub on the predominantly Hindu island of Bali that killed 202 people, most of them foreign tourists from Australia and elsewhere. Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, a forty-one-year-old mechanic from East Java, was convicted on August 8, 2003, for buying the vehicle used in the main explosion and buying and transporting most of the chemicals used for the explosives. He was the first of thirty-three suspects arrested for the bombings to be convicted.
- A December 2000 wave of church bombings in Indonesia that killed eighteen.
- A December 2000 series of bombings in Manila that killed twenty-two people.
- A 1995 plot to bomb eleven U.S. commercial airliners in Asia.
Have authorities pursued Jemaah Islamiyah?
Authorities in the region have arrested more than 300 JI operatives since the 2002 Bali bombing though many have since been released. Before the 2002 Bali bombing, Indonesian authorities had not aggressively investigated the group, though Singapore, Malaysia, and the Philippines had cracked down on it. Anti-terror authorities struck a blow against JI when they arrested its operational chief, Nurjaman Riduan Ismuddin, also known as Hambali, in Thailand August 2003. In June 2007, authorities in Jakarta arrested JI’s leader, Abu Dujana, and seven other group members. Three out of four main suspects behind the 2002 attack were executed in Indonesia in 2008.
Has Jemaah Islamiyah targeted Americans or American interests?
Yes. State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said in January 2003 that "information indicates that Hambali was involved in a 1995 plot to bomb eleven U.S. commercial airliners in Asia and directed the late-2001 foiled plot to attack U.S. and Western interests in Singapore," referring to Jemaah Islamiyah’s plans to attack the U.S., British, and Israeli embassies in December 2001. In the 2005 Bali attacks, six Americans were reportedly injured, and seven Americans were killed.
Why hadn’t the United States designated Jemaah Islamiyah a foreign terrorist organization before the 2002 Bali bombing?
Because of reluctance to anger Indonesian public sentiment. While Singapore and Malaysia would have supported adding the group to Washington’s list earlier, the United States had been trying to secure Indonesia’s cooperation on the war on terror without alienating its Muslim political parties or undermining its then-moderate president, Megawati Sukarnoputri. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, a former general who was elected Indonesia’s president in October 2004, has done more to clamp down on JI and other Islamic extremist groups than his predecessor, experts say. The first Bali bombing also spurred Indonesia to acknowledge the extent of its terrorism problem, and the U.S. designation followed. Listing Jemaah Islamiyah as a foreign terrorist organization restricts the group’s finances and its members’ travel.
Does Jemaah Islamiyah have links to al-Qaeda?
Experts disagree on the extent of the relationship. Some U.S. officials and terrorism experts refer to JI as al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian wing and say the group is capable of opening a second front against U.S. interests in the region. Other experts argue the two terrorist groups are not that closely linked and add that Jemaah Islamiyah’s regional goals do not fully match al-Qaeda’s global aspirations. Abu Bakar Bashir, JI’s alleged spiritual leader, denies the group has ties to al-Qaeda, but has expressed support for Osama bin Laden. A Qaeda operative arrested in Indonesia reportedly told U.S. investigators that Bashir was directly involved in Qaeda plots.
At the very least, a few individuals have been linked to both groups. Hambali, now in extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay, is the Jemaah Islamiyah leader thought to have been most closely linked to al-Qaeda. He allegedly has been involved in several terrorist attacks and plots in the region. Some experts say he may have delegated some of his operational responsibilities while he was being pursued by Indonesian and other intelligence services. Other individuals with suspected ties to both al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah have been detained in the region, and some have been turned over to U.S. investigators.
What is the size of Jemaah Islamiyah?
It’s unclear. Experts say the group has cells operating throughout Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and possibly the Philippines, Cambodia, and Thailand. Weak central authority, lax or corrupt law enforcement, and open maritime borders in some of these countries ease JI’s ability to operate throughout the region. It is unclear how crackdowns in several countries since the Bali bombings have affected the group. The U.S. State Department estimates total JI membership to varies from the hundreds to one thousand.
How have Southeast Asian countries dealt with Jemaah Islamiyah?
It varies. Singapore and Malaysia, two countries with strong central governments, have outlawed the group and arrested suspected members. Singapore, for example, foiled a JI plot to attack U.S., British, and Israeli embassies in Singapore. The Philippines, which has struggled to contain Abu Sayyaf, another local Islamist militant group with suspected Qaeda ties, has also pursued Jemaah Islamiyah. These three countries have shared intelligence with the United States and sometimes turned over suspects. By comparison, Indonesia had done little until the Bali bombing.
How has Indonesia dealt with Jemaah Islamiyah?
Following the September 11, 2001, attacks, the government spent months resisting pressure from its neighbors and the United States to detain alleged JI leaders. Many Indonesian authorities questioned whether the group even existed. Indonesia also resisted U.S. and Asian government requests to arrest Hambali, then JI’s suspected operations leader, and he eventually went underground.
Some Indonesian officials said that targeting the extremist group could generate public sympathy for it and help build a following for Bashir and JI in the otherwise largely moderate Muslim country. Indonesia watchers said the government was also worried about appearing to cave in to U.S. demands and so antagonize Islamic political parties. Following the Bali bombing, however, Indonesia changed its tune, passing new antiterrorism legislation and ordering Bashir’s arrest.
Have these security measures had any effect on Jemaah Islamiyah’s operations?
It’s unclear. According to the U.S. State Department, JI is fully capable of its own fundraising; however, many question the group’s ability to secure money for operations. Some experts say the 2002 attacks in Bali, which consisted of three bombers strapped with ten kilograms each of tightly packed explosives and steel ball bearings, were considerably smaller in scale and less sophisticated than previous attacks by JI. These experts believe the smaller scale may be due to a lack of funding. Other experts say security crackdowns and arrests of key JI leaders have created a schism within the group between a radical branch that advocates violent jihad and a more mainstream one that favors more peaceful means to achieving its aims.