The Maluku Civil War: Laskar Jihad Disbands

Posted by on Jan 28, 2018 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

The Maluku Civil War: Laskar Jihad Disbands

After the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in the U.S., Indonesian militant groups came under an international spotlight, especially Laskar Jihad because of its high profile. [1] Ja’far Umar Thalib was a self-promoter. His Saudi and Yemeni mentors had endorsed a jihad to defend Maluku Muslims, but not an offensive against non-Muslims. Even though the Salafi movement opposed terror tactics, Ja’far gloated about the World Trade Center attack. Intelligence agencies and the media labeled Laskar Jihad a terrorist group. President Megawati Sukarnoputri faced pressure to show her commitment to the American-led “Global War on Terror.” In office for just a month, she was the first head of state to visit U.S. President George W. Bush after the September 11 attacks. When she returned to Jakarta, the government arrested several Jemaah Islamiyah militants, and detained and interrogated about a dozen Laskar Jihad fighters, sending alarms through the rank and file.

Ja’far admitted meeting Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan but claimed he had refused money and weapons offered by his emissaries. He declared bin Laden was “ignorant of proper Islam,” having deviated from the true faith through his rebellion against the legitimate government in Saudi Arabia. In an attempt to defuse negative publicity, he appeared in several public discussions with other Muslim leaders, including an Islam-West Dialogue attended by the British and American Ambassadors. Those actions were too much for Ja’far’s subordinates, who angrily criticized him. In another blunder, during January 2002 Ja’far sent several hundred Maluku veterans to Ngawi, East Java to attack gambling dens and entertainment centers controlled by a local representative from Megawati’s Indonesian Democratic Party- Struggle (PDI-P). About a dozen persons were killed on each side in fighting between the PDI-P security force and Laskar Jihad. Police arrested several dozen militants, later convicted and imprisoned. Some blamed Ja’far for failing to secure their release.

Ja’far and his jihad troops had clearly exceeded their mandate by attacking Maluku Christians. The Laskar Jihad Commander arrogantly strutted before the media and participated in public forums, things forbidden by Salafi doctrine. “As players in a drama, Laskar Jihad volunteers acted intentionally to capture public notice. They enjoyed the coverage in the media, including television, radio, newspapers, bulletins, and magazines, although their Salafi doctrine should have prevented them from doing so. They warmly welcomed reporters from the media who used the event (and at times sensationalized it) to sell their publications.” [2]

Authorities arrested Ja’far in early-May 2002 but freed him on his own recognizance a few weeks later, awaiting trial for subversion and inciting violence. In late-September, Ja’far’s Yemeni mentor, Syaikh Muqbil, issued a fatwa directing Laskar Jihad to disband. He maintained Ja’far and his movement had diverged from the true Salafi path by conducting a “heretical political jihad.” Ja’far angrily walked out of the October 7, 2002 Forum Komunikasi Ahlus Sunnah wal-Jama’ah (Forum for Followers of the Prophet’s Teachings and Community, FKAWJ) advisory board meeting when he learned its purpose was to dissolve Laskar Jihad and continued to resist the decision until the October 12 suicide attacks in Bali. Five days after the Bali bombings, Ja’far called a press conference to announce Laskar Jihad had disbanded because it had deviated from its original purpose. He admitted the situation in Maluku had stabilized and Laskar Jihad was no longer needed to defend Muslims there. Within a week, roughly 1,200 Laskar Jihad fighters left Ambon aboard passenger ships; another 170 returned from Central Sulawesi. Once more, as had been the case two years earlier when the first militants departed for Maluku, police were present to greet the militants as they passed through Surabaya’s Tanjung Perak Port.

President Megawati and senior officials were apprehensive about several thousand Laskar Jihad veterans returning to Java. While they worried the group’s fanatical followers would attempt carry their anti-Christian jihad to the Javanese heartland and other parts of Indonesia, most Laskar Jihad veterans obeyed Ja’far’s direction and peacefully returned to their homes; at least some denounced the Maluku adventure as a “black stain” on their lives. Several hundred had integrated themselves into local Muslim communities, especially in North Maluku, and stayed behind. In all, about forty Laskar Jihad fighters were killed in Maluku between 2000 and 2002, more than half in a single incident on June 24, 2001 when the TNI Joint Battalion ( Yongab) attacked militants in the Ambon Kebon Cengkeh neighborhood.

Some saw Laskar Jihad’s dissolution as proof that Ja’far had cut a deal with the government, although it apparently resulted from a confluence of factors – the lack of funding, withdrawal of military and political support, the improved security response, strife within the group, and the fatwa from Ja’far’s Middle Eastern sponsors – culminating with the Bali attack, that led to Laskar Jihad’s sudden demobilization. Although many assumed the group had played a role in the Bali attacks, it appears Ja’far’s claim was truthful; the decision to disband the militant group was made a week before the terrorist attacks and unrelated to the Jemaah Islamiyah operation. [3]

Yet the Bali attacks discredited Ja’far as Indonesia’s best known and most outspoken jihadist. Before the surprise announcement, there had been every indication he had national ambitions. On January 30, 2003, the East Jakarta District Court acquitted Ja’far on all charges. Subordinates abandoned him. He was deposed from leadership of the national Salafi movement. He returned to run the Degolan pesantren near Yogyakarta, but even there most students transferred to other schools. Despite all the bloodshed and publicity, in the end Laskar Jihad had little impact on the Islamic community, national politics or the secular state. Rather than building support for an Islamic State, Laskar Jihad and other jihad groups generated a backlash against religious extremism – especially after the horrific terrorist attack in Bali on October 12, 2002.

[1] Many details in this section are from Noorhaidi Hasan, Laskar Jihad: Islam, Militancy, and the Quest for Identity in Post-New Order Indonesia (Ithaca: Cornell Southeast Asia Program, 2006), Chapter Six, pp. 185-213.

[2] Ibid, p. 189.

[3] International Crisis Group, “Indonesia: Why Salafism and Terrorism Mostly Don’t Mix,” (Brussels: ICG, Asia Report No 83, September 13, 2004), pp. 16-18.

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