By Nava Nuraniyah, an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), Jakarta.
Extremist groups have failed to exploit the 4 November Islamist protest against the Jakarta governor in order to spark sectarian conflict. In fact, the rally has deepened internal division among extremists loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (IS).
Earlier this month, tens of thousands of protesters flooded Jakarta streets to demand the prosecution of Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, or Ahok, for his alleged blasphemous remarks about Islam. In the days leading up to the rally, many feared it would turn violent, especially since extremists from Afghan alumni to Jemaah Islamiyah and IS planned to deploy protesters to the rally.
Abu Jibril, the leader of Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia whose son died while fighting for an al-Nusra affiliate in Syria last year, was at the forefront of the first protest on 14 October. Later that month, some Indonesian and other foreign fighters with Jabhat Fath al-Sham (the new name of al-Nusra) threatened to kill Ahok in a picture that went viral on social media. Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian IS recruiter, gave out Ahok’s home address and called on his followers to kill him. IS sympathisers on social media also talked about how the massive rally could lead to a 'chaos that would open the gate for jihad'.
Despite such incitement, online chatter on Telegram (an encrypted messaging app widely used by militants worldwide) suggested deep division. In particular, pro-IS jihadis could not agree on the merit of the protest. On the one hand, a more politically-inclined faction led by Syamsudin Uba, a preacher leading various IS study groups in Jakarta, wanted to exploit the anger of mainstream Muslims and Islamists alike to incite violence against Ahok and the security apparatus that protected him. On the other, the faction of Aman Abdurrahman, an influential jihadi ideologue currently in prison, condemned the protest as a form of support for democracy and declared those protesting would be 'apostates' for 'seeking judgement from a law other than God’s law'. But some disciples of Uba and Abu Husna, the leader of another pro-IS group based in Solo, joined the protest anyway, arguing that they intended to spark a riot, not to bring Ahok to justice. And that was exactly what they did, but to no avail.
During the protest, a pro-IS Telegram channel called Ghuroba, with around 1800 followers, broadcast a series of false rumours designed to incite violence. On the evening of 4 November, Ghuroba announced that two people were killed (this was untrue) and called on ‘lone wolves all over Indonesia’ to fight back. They then published the location where police supposedly stored ammunition, followed by Anwar Awlaki’s article entitled ‘Islamic ruling on robbery to fund jihad [fa’i] and the spoils of war [ghanimah]’. At the same time, there was an attack at a Chinese neighbourhood in North Jakarta. Guroba and other groups quickly encouraged jihadis to exploit it, but police managed to contain the violence.
On 7 November, Ghuroba once again tried to exploit a brawl near a Papuan community club at Tanah Abang, Central Jakarta. It claimed Papuans were attacking a local mosque. The propaganda was forwarded to another private chat group whose administrator quickly sent some members to investigate. Within minutes, they reported back that it was actually a gang-related brawl, not a sectarian one, and warned fellow members against ‘media deception’ intended to trick IS sympathisers into an unholy killing.
These events underscore how the lack of strong leadership within pro-IS groups contributes to their incompetence. Aman’s faction, which established Jamaah Ansharul Khilafah Islamiyah (JAKI) in November 2015, might have been the most organised, having carried out some bombings and shootings in Jakarta last January; those loyal to Abu Husna and Bahrun Naim have mostly failed. JAKI’s relative success, however, has not united everyone under its banner, mostly because many dislike Aman Abdurrahman (who some feel is too quick to brand fellow Muslims who do not agree with him, including jihadis, as infidels). His reference to some of the protesters as 'apostates' only reinforced their negative view of him. JAKI has also recently lost some of its prominent fighters, including Abu Jandal, who was reportedly killed in Mosul recently. Many had expected him to return and lead the struggle back home. The lack of a strong and competent leader may make it more difficult for any of these groups to organise a major attack. However, it also means that no one can control hot-headed sympathisers wanting to launch attacks by themselves, such as the youth who stabbed three police officers near Jakarta on October before being shot, or the young man who attacked a pastor in a Medan church attack in August, modelling his action after a similar attack earlier this year in France.
As it becomes more difficult to get to Syria, many IS supporters are frustrated and impatient for action and may be more motivated than ever to revert to a do-it-yourself jihad. The failure of violent extremists to turn the 4 November rally to their advantage does not mean they will give up and the anti-Ahok campaigners are threatening future rallies if their demands are not met.
Photo: Getty Images/Ed Wray