Indonesian Islamists to isolate pro-Laden radicals

Published: Sunday, November 12, 2006, 10:29 [IST]
 

Jakarta, Nov 12: Southeast Asia's biggest militant organisation is apparently seeking to rein in its radical wing and invoke Islamic law against the indiscriminate anti-Western attacks demanded by Osama bin Laden.

Analysts say Web sites and other forums affiliated with the Jemaah Islamiah network now feature religious tracts that call into question a 1998 decree from bin Laden that Muslims must hit Western targets worldwide in defence of their faith.

The new trend, they say, follows a split within the movement into mainstream and pro-bombing factions that dates at least from the first Bali resort blast in 2002 and picked up speed through three subsequent suicide attacks.

But opinions are divided about how far-reaching any change may be.

JI's radical wing, led by fugitive Noordin Top, used the so-called bin Laden fatwa to justify the four bombings -- two in Bali and two in Jakarta. It also relied on al Qaeda for some initial financing, but how the relationship developed after that is in dispute.

A total of 253 people were killed in the blasts and hundreds more were hurt.

''It is my view that JI has split and that the evidence for that is mounting,'' Greg Fealy, of the Australian National University, said by telephone from Canberra.

Now, said Fealy, the network's clerics were trying to isolate the bombers by undercutting support for violent attacks.

''The ulama within JI wants to reimpose a classical understanding of Islamic law. The divergence of views on the (bin Laden) fatwa is greater than it was,'' he said.

Zachary Abuza, a U.S. expert on Southeast Asia, is more cautious about any change in the secretive organisation. ''This is what they say in public. But what are they saying in private?'' he said by telephone from Boston.

Mixed Motives?

Founded around 1993, Jemaah Islamiah -- the name means the Islamic Group, or Islamic Community -- had its roots in the Darul Islam movement, which fought for decades to establish religious government in Indonesia. Today it operates throughout Malay-speaking Southeast Asia, with the stated goal of creating an Islamic 'superstate' across the region. Its exact structure and membership remain murky.

Fealy points to one text circulating online that urges Muslims not to enlist in a global struggle before addressing matters closer to home.

Other tracts assert the traditional religious view that bombings are unlawful unless there is immediate danger to the Muslim community of believers, a circumstance that they say does not apply today.

Testimony from captured JI operatives dates the split within the network to the aftermath of the bin Laden decree calling for attacks on ''Americans and their allies -- civilian and military''.

That energised radicals who were impatient with JI's gradualist approach.

While the first Bali bombing had at least the tacit approval of senior JI figures, it appears the radicals increasingly ignored the leadership in the next attacks, according to captured members of the network.

By the time of the second Bali bombing, on Oct 2, 2005, JI participation was limited to just two low-level foot soldiers.

Experts see a mix of religious, historical and practical factors at work in the JI campaign.

In Islamic terms, it marks a return to the traditional reading of religious struggle, or ''defensive jihad'', which bars offensive action if Muslims are not directly threatened. And it reflects deep theological doubts about suicide bombings.

In practical terms, the deadly attacks drew unwanted attention from the Indonesian security forces, who arrested or killed a significant number of JI or affiliated activists.

The same crackdown dried up vital financing and broke up clandestine cells, while the high toll from the blasts among Indonesians discredited the militants in the eyes of many believers.

Finally, say analysts, the tactic failed the Islamic principle of cost-benefit analysis: the bombers did more harm than good to the cause.

''What does JI want to do? If an Islamic state is the mainstream goal, then the argument is that the bombings make this harder to accomplish,'' said Fealy.

Reuters


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