August 2013

Essays

Gillian Terzis

‘The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia’ by Solahudin

Trans. Dave McRae; NewSouth Books; $49.99

Conventional warfare assumes a self-evident mission and an obvious opponent, but the fight against terrorism is different: it is not an enemy in the conventional sense, but a methodology. Traditional metrics of military success do not apply.

As such, governments and terrorists alike are challenged by the questions of appropriate means and ends. The evolving nature and strategies of jihadist movements is the subject of The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia, written by Indonesian researcher and journalist Solahudin and translated by the Lowy Institute’s Dave McRae. Drawing on numerous interviews with members of Indonesian terrorist groups, Solahudin provides a dispassionate analysis of divergent terrorist ideologies, from Indonesia’s war of independence in the late 1940s to the Bali bombings orchestrated by Jemaah Islamiyah in 2002. 

Culminating in 202 deaths and more than 240 people injured, the Bali bombings were the largest terror attack in South-east Asia’s history – and the first that explicitly targeted foreigners on a mass scale. The attacks are the starting point for Solahudin’s fastidious and challenging historical analysis of the motivations of Indonesian jihadist movements. He begins by differentiating between the mainstream definition of jihad (“considered by mainstream Muslims as a war on a battlefield … and the killing of women, children and the elderly is forbidden”) and more radical interpretations (a war on all “unbelievers”). The latter view is in line with Salafist jihadism, a militant strand of activism that took hold in Afghanistan during its war with the Soviet Union in the late ’80s. It was there that hundreds of mujahideen from Darul Islam, Indonesia’s main Islamist network, received training and “ideological renewal” under the tutelage of Al Qaeda. Their local aspirations were subsequently recast as global objectives. This development, fostered by the Western invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s, Solahudin argues, was significant in spreading Salafist jihadism to Indonesia. 

But jihadist doctrine is hardly monolithic. The book explains, in exhaustive detail, how infighting over Al Qaeda’s influence caused the splintering of Darul Islam. As Solahudin notes, though the Bali bombings received considerable funding from Osama bin Laden’s men, the majority of Jemaah Islamiyah members did not believe bin Laden’s objectives to be “pertinent” to Indonesian interests. 

According to Solahudin, those interests – namely, the establishment of Islamic law in Indonesia – are fundamental to the resilience of jihadist groups. Indeed, whether confronted with authoritarian or democratic governments, jihadist ideology, in all its various forms, has never wavered. The book doesn’t provide neat solutions for extremist violence, but it certainly asks the right questions. 

August 2013

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