A string of recent
arrests in connection with terrorist attacks across South East Asia
is unlikely to have crippled the Jemaah Islamiah militant group.
By David Wright-Neville
Monash University, Melbourne
While it is true that some of these arrests, especially that of
JI's senior logistics person, Hambali, have damaged the
organisation's operational potential, the group's regional spread
network stretches across Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore and Thailand. Smaller cells might also exist in Cambodia,
Vietnam, and even Australia.
JI are alleged to have established cells
throughout the region
But the arrest of Hambali, and over the past year almost 100
other alleged JI members, is certain to have placed the organisation
and its pursuit of these goals under significant operational
Formed in the mid-1980s by two Indonesian clerics, the JI evolved
its terrorist edge in the mid-1990s when one of its founders, the
late Abdullah Sungkar, established contact with Osama Bin Laden's
While Abdullah Sungkar oversaw the JI's political and strategic
development, several South East Asian intelligence agencies name Abu
Bakar Ba'asyir as the group's spiritual leader. He is currently
facing treason charges in Indonesia.
The JI's principal goals are the establishment of Islamic
governments across the region followed by the formation of a unified
South East Asian Islamic state.
This state would stretch from southern Thailand, through the
Malay Peninsula (including Singapore), across the Indonesian
archipelago and into the southern Philippines.
Claims that JI aspires to include parts of Northern Australia in
this Islamic super-state remain unproven. Nor is there any evidence
that JI's vision is shared by anything more than a tiny number of
South East Asia's 300 million Muslims.
To achieve its goals the JI espouses the waging of a "holy war"
to purge the region of un-Islamic influences and ready the ground
for Islamic government.
With the arrest of Hambali, JI has now lost its three most senior
officials and no one individual appears to have the charismatic or
religious authority needed to fill the gap.
Jemaah Islamiah has been blamed for the Bali
attack in October 2002
Moreover, there is evidence that ideological and operational
divisions have recently opened up within JI. The absence of a strong
leadership core could see these divisions widen, a development that
would undermine JI's ability to co-ordinate across the region.
There is no reliable information on the exact number of
individuals contained within this network; estimates range from
several hundred to several thousand.
The actual number probably lies somewhere between these two
extremes, with the majority scattered across the sprawling
Robbed of its senior leadership, the network will struggle to
carry out an attack against a high value target, such as a
government office or Western diplomatic mission.
However, eager to send a message of resilience and deny their
enemies the accolades that flow from such high profile arrests,
there is a risk that different parts of the network will intensify
their focus on 'softer' targets, such as bars, nightclubs and
To this end, a number of younger and highly skilled JI cadre,
such as Dulmatin, Azahari bin Husin, and Fathur al-Ghozi, who
recently escaped from a Philippines jail, remain at large and
capable of co-ordinating terrorist attacks, if not assuming a
The fragmentation of JI's cohesion might also complicate links
with al-Qaeda. Until recently Hambali appeared to have been the
principle conduit through which both organisations communicated, a
position he inherited on the death in the late 1990s of Abdullah
While the precise nature of JI's relationship with al-Qaeda is a
topic of debate, informal links between the two organisations have
grown in recent years.
In fact it was the simultaneous presence at al-Qaeda camps in
Afghanistan by militants from across South East Asia that
facilitated many of the personal relationships that exist between JI
and members of other violent South East Asian Islamist groups.
These include the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (Milf), a
secessionist movement fighting for a Muslim homeland in the southern
Philippines, as well as several other Indonesian, Malaysia and Thai