Bali in the Shadow of Terror

Smoke and fire from the terror attack on the island of Bali

Smoke and fire from the explosions outside two popular nightclubs on the island of Bali, Indonesia on October 12, 2002. (Photo: /AFP-Getty Images)

Shortly before midnight on October 12, 2002, a devastating terror attack was launched at the beachside town of Kuta on the island of Bali, Indonesia. Two bombs exploded in quick succession in Paddy's Irish Pub and outside the Sari Club. The blast and subsequent fires left more than 202 people dead and several hundred injured, most of them young vacationers from Australia and other Western countries.

It has been exactly two years since the Bali bombings, an event that introduced the world to al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the pioneer vanguard of Islamic militants in Southeast Asia. The question now is, what has become of JI and what are its prospects?

With the arrest of many senior JI operatives, it might appear that the group's capacity and capability to mount large-scale coordinated operations aimed at destroying multiple domestic and foreign targets within the region have been dented. However, this is clearly not the case. The JI network in Southeast Asia remains intact and retains the capacity and capability to mount another operation of Bali's scale, as was made clear by last month's attack on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta.

JI Network Resilient and Robust

There are many reasons for believing that the JI threat in this region will continue to exist. Even with the arrest of senior JI operatives such as Hambali in Thailand, the JI network has proved to be resilient and robust. One regional intelligence agency has estimated that there are about 400 JI members in Indonesia alone, of whom only 80 have been arrested.

Moreover, JI's cell structure has become more streamlined, without the different layers of communication that once characterized the outfit and made it more vulnerable to intelligence infiltration. There is now no longer a regional shura (an assembly that meets for mutual consultation). Nor are there the mantiqis, districts or territories, made up of several branches, or wakalahs, that once composed the JI organization. The whole outfit has been reconfigured, making it harder for intelligence agencies to keep track. Now JI is a loosely defined network of independent cells playing the most predominant roles under the leadership of several key individuals in the JI central command.

There are also indications that JI is breaking into smaller independent splinter groups. Last December, Malaysian marine police detained a small boat off the coast of Sabah and detained the crew. Under interrogation last month, one of them, an Indonesian named Ahmad Said Maulana, said he was involved in a plot to drive an explosives-laden vehicle into the national police headquarters in Jakarta, officials say. The attack was planned for early July, to coincide with Indonesia's national Police Day celebrations. Ahmad, now in custody in Malaysia, told his interrogators he was a member of a previously unknown radical group called Republik Persatuan Islam Indonesia ­ a splinter group of JI. Apart from Republik Persatuan Islam Indonesia, regional security agencies also are observing the activities of another JI offshoot, Batalion Abu Bakar.

Senior JI Members Still Active

A number of senior members in the JI central command are also still active in the region, among them Dr Azahari Husin and Abu Hanifiah, the leaders of JI's Malaysian cell. Yasin Syawal, who is JI founder Abdullah Sungkar's son-in-law and the current head of Laskar Jundullah, the militant wing of the Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), is also still at large. Another important individual on the run is Zulkarnaen, believed to be the head of Laskar Khos, an Arabic phrase meaning "special force", whose members are prepared to die in their attacks.

It is also likely that one of the two Singapore JI members who were not apprehended by Indonesian authorities will replace Mas Selamat Kastari, the alleged head of the Singapore branch of JI who was arrested in February 2003, as the chief of JI's Singapore operations. Other senior members who have been on the run include Zulkifli Marzuki, JI's chief financier; Noordin Din bin Mohammed, aka Top, a top explosives expert; and Zulkifli bin Hir, the current leader of Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM), who is suspected to be hiding in Mindanao.

In addition, while the arrest of Hambali in September 2003 in Thailand has hurt JI's capability, the al-Qaeda-JI nexus will remain, as many senior JI operatives formed links with higher-ranking al-Qaeda agents while serving in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation. For example, both Yasin Syawal and Zulkarnaen were the first batch of Indonesians who were trained in a camp led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the Afghan mujahideen commander, a close aide to Osama bin Laden. As such, the capture of Hambali will provide an opportunity for other individuals from the central command of JI to take control of al-Qaeda operations in Southeast Asia while also maintaining close contacts with senior al-Qaeda operatives.

Laskar Khos and Suicide Bombing

Laskar Khos also adds a new dimension to JI's military capabilities. Known as the elite "special forces" in the network, the unit emerged as early as 2000 in Poso, on the island of Sulawesi. Though it is difficult to ascertain how many people there are in the group, given that it is even more shadowy than JI, the members are drawn from individual terrorist cells. Under the stewardship of Zulkarnaen, Laskar Khos's objective is to carry out assassination and bombing operations.

In addition, JI remains a threat in that the group has added suicide bombing to its attack capabilities. Both the 2002 Bali bombings and the JW Marriott Hotel blast in August 2003 involved suicide bombers. So did the 2002 McDonald's blast in Makassar, South Sulawesi, committed by Laskar Jundullah, a JI associate group. Unfortunately, because of the "effectiveness" of suicide bombing, it is likely there will be more attacks of this nature.

While regional security agencies are working tirelessly to combat terrorism, JI is working to rebuild its own capabilities to launch another attack. Like al-Qaeda, JI places great emphasis on training, and currently is refocusing its efforts on mounting large-scale operations in the region. JI is rebuilding its capabilities on the fringes of the archipelago, especially in East Kalimantan, the Riau islands and conventional strongholds such as Sulawesi and Maluku, where several of its members have bloodied their hands in sectarian and religious conflicts in recent years. Some JI members have even reportedly regrouped and have been lying low in Bangladesh and Pakistan preparing for another attack in Southeast Asia.

No Plans to Stop Funds

Security agencies have yet to come out with a coherent plan to stop funds being channeled to terrorist groups such as JI. Though countries in the region have clamped down on illegal money laundering activities, it must be noted that funds used in the financing of terrorism do not necessarily derive from criminal activity, which is a requisite element of most existing money laundering offences. Currently in Indonesia, it is estimated that 15-20% of Islamic charity funds are diverted to various politically motivated groups, and even some terrorist groups. For example, Laskar Jundullah has receive funding from Kompak, the largest Islamic charity organization in Indonesia, as well as from the Al Haramain foundation, an international charity based in Saudi Arabia. Therefore, successful participation in this fight by the financial sector requires global cooperation between governments and financial institutions. The latter can assist governments and their agencies in the fight against terrorism through prevention, detection and information sharing. They can also prevent terrorist groups from accessing their financial services; assist governments in their efforts to detect suspected terrorist financing; and promptly respond to governmental enquiries.

Another related point is that some countries have yet to confront the issue of terrorism head-on. Though JI cells were successfully thwarted and neutralized in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, Indonesia continues to be the proverbial stick in the mud. The Indonesian government has been far too cautious in confronting the JI problem. Even after Bali, Jakarta has only gone after JI members directly connected to the Kuta Beach bomb blast, not JI as an organization and not its political wing, the MMI. For example, any individual in Indonesia who is known to be a JI operative cannot be arrested unless he commits or attempts to commit an unlawful act. As a result, JI will be able to operate inside Indonesia and continue to use Indonesia as a launching pad for attacks on its neighbors.

Last but not least, the international environment has become more favorable for Islamic militants. The worsening of the Israel-Palestine issue and the ability of al-Qaeda to survive and retaliate in Middle East, East Africa and Southeast Asia have unleashed a torrent of support. The US occupation in Iraq will only compound the problem and swell the flow of recruits and other forms of support to Islamic militants and radical Islamic political groups pursuing an aggressive agenda based on terror in the near future.


Despite regional security agencies' success in disrupting the JI network in Southeast Asia, JI remains a threat and will continue to be a scourge in the region for the foreseeable future. So long as the factors discussed above exist, the JI network will remain intact. JI operatives are indeed currently moving across borders, establishing lines of communication among themselves, and maintaining their operational capability.

The "war on terrorism" in Southeast Asia will be long and arduous. Governments in this region must work together if they are to have any chance of eliminating the JI threat. The JI specter is still with us and it is essential to exorcise it before more innocent lives are lost.