Aris Sumarsono, also known as Zulkarnaen, the military commander of Jemaah Islamiyah. Photo: Indonesian Police

JAKARTA – He was the terrorist leader who gave the final go-ahead to carry out the devastating 2002 Bali nightclub bombings that killed 202 people, but when judgment day came this week Zulkarnaen was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment instead of the life term demanded by prosecutors.

As head of the military wing of the extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Afghan war veteran had been on the run for 15 years before he was captured in Sumatra in late 2020, 18 years after the worst terrorist outrage since the 9/11 attacks in the United States.

Although the 59-year-old former biology student is the last figure directly involved in the plot to face prosecution, the East Jakarta District Court threw out the charges related to the bombing itself because the statute of limitations had run out.

Instead, despite his alleged involvement in subsequent attacks, he was jailed on a lesser charge of aiding and abetting terrorism by lending money to a terrorist organization, giving shelter to a terrorist suspect and withholding information on an act of terror.

Zulkarnaen did not take part in assembling the bombs or in the operational details, but he did meet beforehand with Amrozi Nurhasyim, Huda bin Abdul Haq and Imam Samudra, the three men executed for the crime in 2008, and in a post-blast assessment.

He appears to have shared the responsibility for approving the attack with JI’s then-operations chief Riduan Isamuddin, alias Hambali, one of 39 terrorist detainees still held at Guantanamo Bay, and the group’s alleged founder, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir.

“Ba’asyir was approached and told something was being planned,” says terrorism expert Sidney Jones, who has chronicled JI from its early beginnings. “He said ‘Do what you need to do,’ which was interpreted as a sign of his approval.” 

Muslim militant cleric Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (C-in white) is guarded by Indonesian elite commandos as he leaves the police headquarters to undergo cataract surgery in Jakarta on February 29, 2012. Photo: AFP / Adek Berry

Now 82, the extremist cleric was jailed for five years in 2005 for his role in the bombing, which killed 88 Australian tourists. But to the chagrin of the Australian government and the families of the victims his conviction was overturned on appeal.

In 2011, Ba’asyir was hit with a 15-year prison sentence for funding terrorist training camps in Sumatra’s northern province of Aceh; he was finally released in January 2020 after receiving the judicial system’s customary remissions for good behavior.

Zulkarnaen, whose legal name is Aris Sumarsono, was also suspected of playing a role in the 2003 and 2009 Marriott Hotel suicide bombings in Jakarta that claimed 21 lives, and the 2005 Bali blasts in Kuta and the nearby Jimbaran seafood strip that left 23 people dead.

Intelligence sources at the time said they had few doubts Zulkarnaen was behind the string of attacks that put Jakarta and Bali on edge and led to tough new security measures at all hotels and public buildings, which continue to this day.

The perpetrators of those attacks, Malaysian bomb-makers Azahari bin Husin, 47, and Noordin Mohammad Top, 41, quickly became targets of an intensive manhunt across the length of Java.

Azahari, 47, was killed in the siege of his mountain hideout near Malang, East Java in November 2005. Noordin, 41, and three other terrorists blew themselves up after being surrounded in a village near the Central Java city of Solo four years later.

It is still unclear how Zulkarnaen managed to elude the attention of the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit for so long. Formed with US and Australian assistance after the 2002 tragedy, it has continued to round up militants all through the coronavirus pandemic.

Zulkarnaen was eventually captured after police tracked down the man who was hiding him, fellow fugitive Upik Lawanga, wanted for making the explosive devices suicide bombers used to kill nine people at the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels in July 2009.

A government worker removes ISIS flags painted on walls near Veteran Street in Surakarta City, Indonesia, in an attempt to discourage the promotion of the jihadist group in the region. Photo: AFP Forum / Agoes Rudianto

Pushed into the background by a concerted government crackdown and the emergence of the Islamic State (ISIS), Jones says JI has continued to survive, not so much as a terrorist organization but as a culture whose family roots go back to the Darul Islam movement of the 1950s.

Adherents inter-marry, their children go to the same schools, they organize sporting and other social events – and over the past five years they have taken part in political demonstrations when they serve the purpose of furthering the cause of an Islamic state. 

That was JI’s original aim, but after establishing contacts with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, the ultimate goal changed to that of fighting for a caliphate in Southeast Asia that would also appeal to extremists in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines.

It didn’t last long, however. Then came ISIS, an organization JI was strongly opposed to, but whose advances in Iraq and Syria led JI leaders to conclude that the only reasonable goal was a universal caliphate, which an Islamic state in Indonesia could eventually be part of.

Jones says the Indonesian militants also came to the conclusion that violence was not the way to achieve their objective, shown by the fact that the only terrorist incident in recent years was the ISIS-inspired Surabaya church bombings in 2018.

“They (JI) decided that what needed to be done was to think through how to gain power in Indonesia,” she says. “It soon became clear that the more effective way, and they looked at above-ground organizations as a model, was to operate as a coalition with a division of labor and use local elections and local regulations to try and move the country towards a more Sharia-influenced polity.”

Beyond that, the JI leadership decided it had to be prepared to take advantage of any political instability, even sending followers to Syria for military training to prepare for the possibility of armed intervention if the country descended into chaos.

Muslim protesters display flags with Arabic writings that read “There’s no God but Allah and Muhammad is His messenger”, during a rally in Jakarta, Indonesia, October 26, 2018. Photo: AFP

During the closely-fought 2019 presidential election campaign, JI supporters were given the green light to join forces with demonstrators protesting over purported voting irregularities in President Joko Widodo’s victory over opposition leader Prabowo Subianto, who was subsequently appointed defense minister. 

JI’s future as a viable security threat remains unclear. Although it is an organization that has always survived and regenerated, the Widodo government’s latest crackdown has been deeper and more extensive than any in the past.

“This is a culture that is not going to die out any time soon,” says Jones, pointing to the close-knit family connections. “What may happen is that a new organization appears with a new name, but it will still be JI.”