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  • The Four Mutations of Violent Muslim Extremism in Southeast Asia:Some Implications for a Cognitive Immunization Policy
  • Kumar Ramakrishna (bio)

More than eight years after the horrific terror attacks in Bali in October 2002 that killed 202 civilians, it is apparent that Southeast Asia faces a violent Muslim extremist challenge that is both resilient and ever-changing. The Bali atrocity was perpetrated by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a hierarchically organized, pan–Southeast Asian terrorist network influenced by al Qaeda. Since then, and particularly in the past year or so, the threat appears to have metastasized beyond JI.1 The result has been what may be termed the "four mutations."

First, owing to much improved police action by Indonesia and other Southeast Asian governments, the old organized JI structure has been decimated, giving rise to a looser network of shifting coalitions. In February 2010, for instance, Indonesian police uncovered a new group, "al Qaeda on the Veranda of Mecca," more commonly referred to as "al Qaeda in Aceh."2 This sizable, if motley, group was started by JI veteran Dulmatin (subsequently killed in a police shootout in March 2010) and comprised not just JI militants but also other violent Islamists from groups that were related to the same historic Darul Islam separatist milieu that had spawned JI.3 These individuals—one hundred of whom were arrested in subsequent investigations—had been driven to coalesce in the face of intensified police action following the July 2009 bombings of the Ritz-Carlton and Marriott hotels in Jakarta. Those attacks had been mounted by another violent JI faction led by the Malaysian militant Noordin Top, who was himself subsequently killed in September 2009. The al Qaeda in Aceh group allegedly received moral and financial support from the suspected long-time spiritual leader of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir, who was detained in August 2010 and is, at the time of writing, facing trial for his activities in support of [End Page 13] the new network. The group had supposedly been training and plotting to assassinate the Indonesian president as well as to bomb hotels and embassies in Jakarta.4

A second mutation involves the radicalization of small groups of individuals with no previous connections to the original JI and the wider violent Islamist milieu, but who are radicalized by individuals belonging to that milieu.5 For example, in January 2011 six vocational school students and graduates—who, as far as can be ascertained at the time of writing, possessed no previous criminal records or links to JI—were arrested in Klaten, Central Java, for staging a series of low-level attacks in that province in December. They were apparently led by Antok, a veteran of Muslim-Christian fighting in Ambon in eastern Indonesia in the early 2000s—a conflict in which JI had been involved. Antok was a confederate of Sogir, a bomb maker who had been trained by the late JI bomb expert Azhari Husin, who had helped assemble the Bali bombs. This small Klaten cell had called itself "Indonesian al Qaeda."6

A third mutation has been taking place in cyberspace for several years. Using the Internet, extremists such as the charismatic al Qaeda ideologue Anwar al-Awlaki, based in Yemen, have violently radicalized individuals worldwide. Awlaki's influence goes beyond radicalizing individuals such as Fort Hood shooter Major Nidal Malik Hasan and the failed "underwear bomber" Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to even reach individuals in Southeast Asia. In July 2010, a full-time Singaporean national serviceman, twenty year-old Muhammad Fadil Abdul Hamid, was detained under the government's Internal Security Act. Fadil was reportedly radicalized by Awlaki and attracted to global jihadi ideology, wanting to fight beside Awlaki in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. While Fadil was detained for two years, two other Singaporeans—freelance religious teacher Muhammad Anwar Jailani and his student Muhammad Thahir Shaik Dawood—were arrested as well. Awlaki, through recordings of his sermons, apparently succeeded in converting both Jailani and Thahir to his radical brand of ideology.7 [End Page 14]

Finally, a fourth mutation has emerged. In February 2011, three members of the small Ahmadiyah sect in West Java—seen as deviant by mainstream Muslims—were set upon and...


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