Buildings and cars are on fire after a bomb blast in tourist site of Kuta, Bali 13 October 2002.  At least 53 people including 10 foreigners, were killed when a bomb exploded in a popular nightclub on the Indonesian resort island of Bali.  AFP PHOTO/ DARMA / AFP PHOTO / DARMA
The fiery aftermath of the 2002 Bali bombing that killed 202, mostly foreign nationals. Photo: AFP/Darma

In a major setback to Islamic State (ISIS) in Southeast Asia, a top court in Indonesia has sentenced to death a cleric reckoned as the de facto supremo of ISIS apologists in Indonesia, an extraordinary judgment that emphasizes a stiffening tone against terrorists in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation.

The judgment against Aman Abdurrahman (pictured in court above), founder of Indonesia’s most barbarous pro-ISIS group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, came after national grieving over family suicide bombings in Surabaya last month and enactment of an anti-terrorism law that gave police extended power to confine terror suspects. More than 100 suspected terrorists have been taken into custody since the recent bombings.

But Abdurrahman declined to acknowledge the jurisdiction of the court, which is part of his non-acceptance of secular government in Indonesia and desperation to supersede it with sharia law. Capital punishments in Indonesia, a country that has faced incessant terror from armed jihadist groups since 1998, are carried out by firing squad.

Abdurrahman was first jailed in 2004 after a bomb he made was prematurely detonated at a house in West Java, and again in 2011 for his role in establishing a jihadist breeding camp in Aceh province. He has also been found culpable for masterminding the first ISIS-linked terrorist attack in Indonesia, which left four dead in Jakarta in 2016.

In spite of being jailed since 2011, he has recruited a lot of newbie militants to join ISIS, is assumed to have been in touch with leaders of the jihadist group, and is the chief interpreter for ISIS propaganda in Indonesia, according to Indonesian authorities. Because of the insufficient management of militants in Indonesia’s crowded prisons, Abdurrahman had a free hand to disseminate radicalism, and interacted with his followers in the outside world through visitors and video conferences.

Adhe Bhakti, an analyst at the Center for Radicalization and De-radicalization Studies in Jakarta, has said it is possible that militants will respond to Abdurrahman’s death sentence with reprisal plots.

“His words alone have been able to incite followers to carry out terrorism,” he said. “The security forces must raise awareness and all intelligence services in Indonesia must coordinate well.”

According to Bhakti, there were seven ISIS attacks and three foiled plots in Indonesia in 2017, compared with no attacks in 2015.

Ridwan Habib, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia, says the death sentence for Abdurrahman will just spark retaliations from his followers and the best punishment for him would be a life sentence. Besides, he argued that capital punishment was considered to be ineffective in deterring jihadi terrorists, since dying for their cause has been one of their end goals all along.

Indonesia has mostly restrained the terrorist menace since the heyday of al-Qaeda-linked attacks in the early 2000s, but with the advance of Islamic State – considering the group’s potential to assert territorial dominion as demonstrated last year by the five-month seizure of Marawi in the neighboring Philippines – has left Indonesian authorities fearful that a new phase is in the offing.

The evident growth of small terrorist groups – including, distressingly, family groups – indicates that Indonesia will be dealing more and more with sleeper cells that are mostly self-directed and even more difficult to keep under surveillance or infiltrate than in the past

ISIS’ incessant rise has brainwashed about 700 Indonesians to travel to Syria and join the fighting alongside jihadis. Indonesian authorities fear that many of these people could return home from the Syrian battlefields and help finance domestic terrorist groups. The evident growth of small terrorist groups – including, distressingly, family groups – indicates that Indonesia will be dealing more and more with sleeper cells that are mostly self-directed and even more difficult to keep under surveillance or infiltrate than in the past.

Furthermore, Indonesia, with an immense population of young Muslims, many of whom have a presence in social media, will have to grapple with significant numbers of people with radical perspectives. And the troubles do not only come from Indonesians falling victim to ISIS commands from the Middle East. Research in Indonesia has shown that dynamics in some local religious groupings favor those who condone the ISIS reorientation of the world.

President Joko Widodo, who has already sensed the present threats and future challenges, has backed a new policy configured to forbid youth from coming under the influence of radical views. Indonesia is on the path to developing numerous educational programs and materials aimed at furthering the country’s motto of “unity in diversity.”

However, massive monitoring by counterterrorism forces also advances the probability of human-rights violations, and grave concerns that the new educational programs could endanger freedom of expression. Indonesia, like many other countries, finds itself in the dilemma of trying balance democratic ideals with the war against terrorism. These are challenging issues for Widodo.

Support for terrorism among Indonesian Muslims is marginal. After all, Muslims comprise a huge number of those killed in jihadist attacks. But there are many on the radical Islamist side of Indonesian politics who have criticized the consolidation of the anti-terrorism regime – if only to find shortcomings in Widodo.

There is no doubt that if Aman Abdurrahman is finally executed, he is likely to be acknowledged as a martyr by his followers, which could inspire more terrorist attacks in the near future. But with presidential elections coming closer, it is unlikely that Widodo will wait long to send him to the firing squad. Even if Abdurrahman begs for clemency from the state, there is no chance of a pardon for his heinous crimes.

If there is to be a genuine development over the long term, Widodo will also have to pay heed more attentively to the old remedies: working with the Islamic schools for interfaith cooperation, enacting new prison reforms, and retaining Indonesia’s highly effective de-radicalization programs. He will also have to develop new strategies to deal with terror systems that are constantly adapting.

Abhishek Mohanty

Abhishek Mohanty is currently studying Masters in Political Governance at the Russian Presidential Academy, Moscow. He was previously associated with the Centre for Vietnam Studies, New Delhi as a Junior Researcher and a former Indian delegate at BRICS International School 2018 held in Moscow. His areas of research interests include critical analysis of foreign policies and global issues of Eurasian and Indo-Pacific countries, international and regional organizations, world political history, religion...