State prosecutors demanded last week to put Islamic State (ISIS) spiritual leader Aman Abdurrahman to death over his role in a January 2016 gun and bomb rampage in central Jakarta and four other attacks points to a tougher approach to those who seek to inspire terrorism in Indonesia.
Abdurrahman was behind bars at the supposed maximum security Nusakambangan island prison when he allegedly issued video instructions to an ISIS gathering in East Java to launch a terrorist strike similar to that in Paris that claimed 130 lives in November 2015.
According to testimony at Abdurrahman’s ongoing trial, detailed directives were then passed on by fellow militant Iwan Darmawan Muntho, 41, who was already on Nusakambangan’s death row for his active role in the bombing of the Australian embassy in Jakarta in 2004.
Originally planned for central Jakarta’s Sabang shopping center, but later switched to a major intersection nearby, the first ISIS operation in Indonesia left eight people dead, including four militants, and even brought the army out on the street.
“We couldn’t find anything that might soften his sentence,” said a statement from prosecutors, pointing to Abdurrahman’s status as a recidivist who has twice been jailed for terrorist offenses and describes Indonesia as a nation of kafirs, or unbelievers.
Legal experts note that the death sentence is only a prosecution recommendation, but it carries a message that hate speech and those that provide the ideological justification for bloody terrorist acts are not immune from capital punishment.
The 46-year-old cleric is the founder and spiritual leader of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), or Partisans of the State Group, an ISIS affiliate formed in March 2015 from among seven main jihadi factions, including Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jamaah Anshorut Tahid (JAT), which fragmented in 2014 over his declared support for ISIS.
The only time Indonesia has executed convicted terrorists was in 2008 when Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants Imam Samudra, Ali Gufron and Amrozi Nurhasyim died before a firing squad for their roles in the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, including 149 tourists from 22 countries.
Although Ba’asyir, 79, was accused of being the spiritual force behind the now-defunct JI, he avoided charges that linked him directly to that and other bombings in the 2000s and is currently serving 15 years for organizing a terrorist training camp in Aceh in 2010.
In recent years ill health and advanced age has seen Ba’asyir’s influence wane, with Abdurrahman taking over as the leading purveyor of ISIS propaganda, smuggling translations and commentaries out of prison and even publishing several books from behind bars.
A May 9-10 prison uprising at Jakarta’s Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) headquarters and subsequent suicide bombings in Surabaya involving three families has triggered a nationwide manhunt for followers of JAD.
The terror organization has no known formal structure, but is thought by police to have a sleeper cell presence in 18 of the country’s 34 provinces.
President Joko Widodo and ordinary Indonesians were shocked that radicalized mothers would use their children to detonate pipe-bombs at three Surabaya churches, the provincial police headquarters and a suburban apartment block, killing 12 civilians and the 13 bombers.
But apparently not Abdurrahman, who was in an isolation block at the mobile brigade compound when 155 prisoners staged the prison riot, murdering five counterterrorism officers and seizing a massive weapons cache in a 36-hour stand-off.
Although he denies urging his followers to conduct jihad, Abdurrahman promotes the ISIS concept of takfiri, under which Muslims who do not share extremist views are the same as any other non-believers and therefore deserve to be killed.
For Abdurrahman, Ba’asyir and like-minded ideologues, secularism, liberalism and pluralism are devious strategies the West has deliberately sought to impose on Muslims as part of a new crusade to weaken and defeat Islam across the globe.
He sees democracy as an insult to god and rejects Pancasila, the state ideology, for promoting freedom of religion; after joining the Sharia-based Justice and Prosperity Party (PKS) in 1998, he soon left in disgust, accusing its members of being infidels.
A father of four, the West Java-born cleric was educated at Jakarta’s Saudi-funded Islamic and Arabic College of Indonesia (LIPIA), long considered a fount of puritanical Salafist teachings, but reportedly turned down an offer to further his studies in Saudi Arabia.
His radical sermons, knowledge of Islam and fluency in Arabic soon won him an extremist following, although in 2000 he was dismissed as a lecturer from several Islamic institutions for his rigid views that allowed no room for debate and saw the government as a sworn enemy.
Like Ba’asyir, he has never taken part in a terrorist operation. But in May 2004 he was arrested and sentenced to four years’ imprisonment after a bomb accidentally went off while he was giving a sermon in a house in the south Jakarta suburb of Depok.
In prison he met Ba’asyir and after their release the two clerics collaborated in the establishment of the Aceh training camp, which helped to unite different jihadi factions in the wake of the government’s gradual decimation of JI.
When the camp was discovered the following year and police rounded up all its participants, instructors and financiers, Abdurrahman received a nine-year jail term. But prison served only as a way station.
Indeed, the emergence of ISIS in 2013 enabled his takfri doctrine to gain wider acceptance in Indonesia’s jihadist community and led two years later to the formation of JAD, whose thousands of followers stretch from North Sumatra to Maluku in eastern Indonesia.
Abdurrahman was released from Nusakambangan on August 17 last year, Indonesia’s independence day, but was immediately re-arrested for his alleged role in orchestrating the 2016 Jakarta attack for which he may now pay the ultimate price.