Islamic Defenders Front leader Rizieq Shihab arrives at the International Soekarno-Hatta Airport in Tangerang, Indonesia, on November 10, 2020. The group has now been banned. Photo: AFP/Anton Raharjo/Anadolu Agency

JAKARTA – The Indonesian government’s year-end decision to ban the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) crowns a relentless campaign against the militant group since this October’s tumultuous return from exile of its firebrand leader Rizieq Shihab.

Chief security minister Mahfud MD said the FPI had been officially disbanded on June 21, 2019, after failing to renew its permit as an officially registered mass organization, but it had continued to carry on unlawful activities since then.

Those reached a peak in early October when more than 50,000 supporters turned out to greet the white-robed Shihab’s return from Saudi Arabia, his refuge since fleeing Indonesia in mid-2017 to avoid a charge of sex-texting on the internet.

Already upset over the unruly airport scenes, President Joko Widodo was furious at the way police and local authorities facilitated a subsequent series of mass gatherings, including the wedding of Shihab’s daughter, which attracted 10,000 mask-less guests.

That led to the unprecedented sacking of the police chiefs of Jakarta and West Java and Shihab’s arrest on December 13 for violating health protocols, only days after six of his bodyguards were shot dead in a still-unexplained incident on a Jakarta expressway.

The Human Rights Commission says it could find no evidence of what the FPI described as an “extrajudicial killing,” and the lack of a public outcry has clearly encouraged the government to pursue the case against Shihab, who now faces six years’ imprisonment.

Emboldened by the apparent strength of his support, Shihab hasn’t held back since his return, announcing that he was embarking on a “moral revolution” and warning the president and government leaders not to alienate religion and religious leaders from politics and the state. 

Critics say banning the FPI may turn out to be counter-productive. “They will find another outlet,” says one senior diplomat. “This simply feeds the narrative that the government is against Islam. It would have been better to contain them and manage them down.”

Former Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who was jailed on blasphemy charges. Photo: AFP/Mahendra Moonstar/Anadolu Agency

A political irritant

Some analysts say the crackdown on the FPI could also bring back to life the so-called 212 Movement, the coalition of conservative Muslim groups responsible for the 2017 downfall of Jakarta governor Basuki “Ahok” Purnama, a Christian and ethnic Chinese later jailed on blasphemy charges.  

But Widodo appears set on removing the FPI as a political irritant, highlighted by the purge of its members and sympathizers from the Indonesian Ulema Council and the sacking of religious affairs minister Fachrul Razi, 73, in the December 22 Cabinet reshuffle.

Already a surprise choice when he was appointed to Widodo’s second-term Cabinet, the retired army general was replaced by Yaqut Choilil Qoumas, the former head of the youth and paramilitary wing of the mass Muslim organization Nahdlatul Ulama.

“We will reject movements that want to make religion a source of conflict and division,” Qoumas, 45, said in a pointed opening statement. “Let us prove that the Ministry of Religion is the ministry of all religions. There should not be any discrimination.”

The move will restore Widodo’s relations with NU, which was disappointed at not being given the religious affairs post after playing a decisive role in his re-election in October last year, particularly among voters in populous Central Java.

With Razi proving to be surprisingly ineffective, the new minister is likely to take a more active part in the government’s de-radicalism campaign, aimed primarily at the four million-strong bureaucracy and the nation’s youth. 

By all accounts, the FPI has been in Widodo’s cross-hairs since it played a leading role in the massive demonstrations that doomed Purnama, the president’s deputy when he served as Jakarta governor between 2012 and 2014.

“This is all part of the realization among the political elite that they weren’t in full control of the situation,” says one political analyst. “Whether Rizieq is a major figure is beside the point. He has the ability to mobilize a lot of people, and that is enough.”

The December 30 decree detailing the legal basis for the ban was signed by Home Affairs Minister Tito Karnavian, Justice Minister Yasonna Laoly, Communications Minister Johnny Plate, Attorney-General Burhanuddin and police chief Idham Azis.

Jemaah Ansharut Daulah leader Zainal Anshori is escorted by Indonesian armed police for a court hearing in Jakarta on July 31, 2018. Photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

Implicated in terrorism

The presence of a fifth signatory, National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) director Boy Rafli Amar, reflected the government’s determination to link the FPI to the Islamic State (ISIS) and other active terrorist groups.

Newly-appointed Deputy Justice Minister Edward Omar Sharif Hiariej referred to a list of 37 FPI members or former members allegedly implicated in terrorism, including 29 who have been convicted.

But seasoned analysts dismiss the attempt to paint the FPI as a gateway to terrorism, noting that while it has engaged in extortion and violence against nightclubs and religious minorities, it has never been known to use guns and bombs. 

The only FPI branch to establish institutional links to a terrorist organization has been in the East Java district of Lamongan, the birthplace of executed Bali bomber Amrozi bin Nurhasyim, which became part of the ISIS structure there in 2015.

The FPI’s Jakarta headquarters had already expelled the branch in 2010 when extremist FPI leader Zainal Anshori, now serving a seven-year jail term on terrorism charges, accused Shihab of being “an idolatrous servant of an infidel state.”  

Anshori and another local FPI leader, Siswanto, are devotees of pro-ISIS Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) founder Aman Abdurrahman, 48, who was sentenced to death in June 2018 for the 2016 gun and bomb attack in downtown Jakarta which left eight people dead.

The 37-man list, which began circulating in mid-November, was given credence by highly-respected investigator Benny Mamoto, an original member of the elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit and now chairman of the Police Commission.

The second floor area of the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta on July 18, 2009, a day after two explosions tore through the JW Marriott and the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotels killing at least nine people and wounding dozens. Photo: AFP/Romeo Gacad


In an online discussion on December 13, he said many of those on the list had used firearms and explosives, which suggested the FPI was not as far removed from terrorism as it claimed.

But few were still active members at the time of their arrests and many had passed through other organizations before joining the FPI, which they subsequently deserted because of their dissatisfaction with its lack of militancy.   

The FPI is the second hardline group to be banned during the Widodo presidency. In July 2017, the government disbanded Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia for threatening national unity and failing to recognize Pancasila, the state ideology.

It came a week after Widodo signed a controversial government regulation in lieu of law (Perppu) that expanded the powers of the Justice and Human Rights Ministry to dismantle mass organizations deemed a threat to national security and unity.

It was claimed then that the government had consulted mass Muslim organizations, prominent clerics and community leaders before taking the decision, which raised concerns among human rights groups that it was leading to a decline in democratic values.