Nivell Rayda, Jakarta – Sitting on a narrow country road, the 180 sqm plot of land in the outskirts of Jakarta looked deserted. There were tall and unkempt shrubs as well as unused building materials occupying what was supposed to be the headquarters of a charitable organisation.
Several locals told CNA that there used to be a modest single-storey office on the premises. Hanging on its front wall was a sign bearing the organisation's name: "Abdurrahman bin Auf House of Zakat and Charity."
That all changed in late 2020, when the organisation's chairman, Fitria Sanjaya, was arrested by the Indonesian Police's counter-terrorism unit. The property was raided shortly after and it has been abandoned since.
"No one had any idea what the office was exactly. It had always been very quiet with only one or two people coming and going," said a local who requested anonymity when CNA went to the neighbourhood.
Authorities accused Abdurrahman bin Auf (ABA) of collecting donations from unsuspecting members of the public and funneling the funds to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a terrorist network with links to Al Qaeda. The network had been responsible for some of Indonesia's deadliest terror attacks, including the 2002 Bali bombings which killed more than 200 people.
It started operating in 2009 and managed to collect between 15 billion rupiah (US$1 million) and 28 billion rupiah in public donations per year.
To date, 14 ABA officials – all of whom were active members of JI – have been arrested. They include three advisors: Farid Okbah, Ahmad Zain An-Naja and Anung Al-Hamat.
Okbah is a preacher with a sizeable number of loyal followers. In May 2021, months before he was arrested, he co-founded a political party called the Indonesian People's Propagation Party and became its chairman.
Meanwhile, An-Naja is a member of the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), the country's most powerful Islamic body and a preacher with a modest following on social media.
Al-Hamat is a university lecturer and chairman of Perisai Nusantara Esa, a legal aid foundation that the police said is funded and run by JI.
Police have since identified two other charities with links to JI and seized assets belonging to the network.
"They have been quietly infiltrating public institutions and almost every aspect of civilian lives, recruiting members, raising funds and spreading its ideology in secret," the National Counter Terrorism Agency's (BNPT) director for terrorism prevention, Ahmad Nurwakhid, told CNA.
The arrests serve as notice that the JI has transformed from a clandestine group operating in the shadows into a complex organisation with wings which are publicly visible.
"This is Jemaah Islamiyah's way of adapting to changing times," Adhe Bhakti, a senior researcher with the Jakarta-based Radicalism and De-radicalisation Study Centre, told CNA.
Experts and authorities are worried that these charities and organisations only serve as a front to finance the more sinister side of the terror network.
As these charities flourished, JI continued to train recruits and send its members to war-torn Syria to hone their combat skills as well as amassing explosives and firearms stashed in bunkers and safe houses.
How the transformation began
After the 2002 Bali bombings, the authorities launched a major crackdown and arrested prominent JI leaders.
Para Wijayanto, a 58-year-old former manager at a paper company who headed the network from 2008 until June 2019 when he was arrested, decided to revamp the organisation.
In a video released by the National Police in January last year, Wijayanto admitted to being the network's Amir – Arabic for "commander" – after the arrest of his predecessor Zarkasih in 2007.
"I became Amir during a turbulent time. We had to rebuild," he told police, adding that back then, the network was in shambles after the arrests and gunning down of hundreds of its prominent members.
Wijayanto said he soon abandoned the old JI guideline used by his predecessors and developed his own system called "Total Amniah (Security), Total Solution".
According to court documents from Wijayanto's trial, the new guideline detailed how members of the network should strive to attract public sympathy and new recruits as well as grow the loyalty of members. This was done via charities and economic development programmes.
The guideline also detailed how JI cadres should be trained to fill strategic positions in Indonesia's bureaucracy so that they can change the system from the inside or serve as bureaucrats once the network accomplishes its goal of establishing an Islamic caliphate.
"Different Amirs had different policies but during Para's (time), the changes were significant," Badawi Rahman, a reformed terrorist said when interviewed by CNA at a small mosque near his home in Semarang city, Central Java province.
"The goal (of JI) remains the same, the establishment of an Islamic caliphate. The way is different. Old JI members viewed martyrdom as a goal, jihad as a goal. When in fact they're not. They're just means to an end," he said. Rahman used to serve as Wijayanto's security chief.
Initially, not everyone in JI agreed with the new guideline and wished for JI to keep launching acts of terror and waging war against the Indonesian government.
"But Para was smart. They made these people advisors to the Amir, while the day-to-day operations were handled by people who shared his vision," Joko Priyono, a recently released terrorism convict who once served as Wijayanto's right hand man, told CNA.
"It made the detractors feel like they were in control when really they had no power."
Growing membership and wealth
Under Wijayanto, JI grew both in terms of membership and wealth. Authorities estimated that during his time in charge, the network had 6,000 active members and was able to raise millions of dollars from its charities.
"Imagine 6,000 members donating 100,000 rupiah each month. That's already 600 million rupiah each month. Not to mention those who donated one or two million a month," Priyono recounted.
To raise more money, the JI leader also set up ABA in 2009. The latter would later place many charity boxes in small shops and convenience stores in various cities.
Authorities said that they have found and confiscated at least 20,000 boxes belonging to ABA in seven different Indonesian provinces.
What the public did not know was how the monies collected would be awarded almost exclusively to the wives and children of jailed or slain JI members.
"ABA's focus was internal (to JI)," Priyono said, adding that the money disbursed ensured that JI members would remain loyal to the network.
To provide free healthcare to JI members and their families, Wijayanto enlisted the help of Sunardi, a general practitioner and a member of the terrorist group.
Sunardi, a member of the Indonesian Doctor's Association (IDI) who goes by one name, independently established the Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia (HASI) in 2008. Wijayanto later incorporated HASI into JI.
Although Hilal Ahmar means "red crescent" in Arabic, it had no ties with the global humanitarian group, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC).
HASI provided medical care to the general public from Sunardi's home in Sukoharjo Regency, Central Java.
The JI-linked group also provided medical support during the 2009 earthquake which rocked the West Sumatran city of Padang. Because of its humanitarian programmes, HASI managed to attract public support, including from wealthy donors and politicians.
After a civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, HASI was involved in sending volunteers and aid to the Middle Eastern country.
However, the UN Security Council alleged that when operating in Syria, HASI also brought along JI recruits who would go on to fight alongside Syrian fighters, namely the then-Al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusra Front.
Subsequently, HASI was listed as a terrorist organisation by the UN Security Council in 2015. The UN has urged all of its members to impose an assets freeze, travel ban and arms embargo against HASI and its officials.
Training combatants, amassing weapons
The Syria-bound JI fighters were trained by Priyono inside rented villas and commercial spaces. The training took place between 2013 and 2019, the year when Priyono was arrested. During this period, 96 JI combatants were trained, according to Priyono.
To avoid detection, Priyono never used a space for more than a year, moving from one town to the next in Central Java and Yogyakarta.
In the rented buildings, recruits were trained in hand-to-hand combat and various fighting skills like throwing knives, wielding swords and firearms.
At a rented villa in the hilly resort town of Bandungan, Central Java, the trainees were even taught how to ambush a car convoy and kidnap a person of interest from a heavily guarded building.
"We sent our first batch (of combatants) in 2014. Once (in Syria), they were trained how to assemble weapons, operate tanks, how to become snipers and other combat skills," Priyono told CNA.
Some of the weapons used for Priyono's training programme were supplied by Wijayanto's security chief, Rahman. Before he was arrested in 2014, Rahman was tasked with amassing and producing weapons for JI. Rahman was released from prison in 2018.
"We were stockpiling firearms just in case there is a conflict. In the past, whenever there was a conflict, we always struggled to find firearms and ammunition," Rahman said.
Under Rahman's supervision, JI manufactured its own pistols and automatic assault riffles modelled after the likes of M-16 and AK-47.
To avoid detection, he set up a metal workshop in a sleepy village in Klaten Regency, Central Java where JI members worked on iron gates and canopies for regular customers during the day. At night, they would secretly make gun barrels and frames from industrial-grade steel.
When Rahman and his men were arrested, police confiscated ten fully functioning assault rifles and pistols as well as more than two dozen half-finished firearms.
Taufik Andrie, executive director of the Institute for International Peace Building, said the fact that JI was still sending militants overseas and amassing weapons shows that at heart, it remains an organisation with the potential to commit violent acts of terror.
"They are making preparations so they can participate should another (sectarian) conflict arises. The question is, are they simply waiting for a conflict to happen or are they planning to instigate such conflict in the first place," he told CNA.
While the police's counter-terrorism unit were able to act decisively in the case of Rahman – who was charged with amassing firearms – they were unable to do much to Priyono as the 2003 Law on Terrorism did not bar Indonesians from sending or participating in other countries' civil wars.
The law was finally changed in late 2018. "Before the Law on Terrorism was revised we could only act if there was a bomb attack or if there were plans to commit such acts," BNPT's Nurwakhid said.
The 2018 law allowed authorities to charge Indonesian fighters returning from Syria along with their facilitators and financiers. Among those charged with the new law at that time were those who were linked to Priyono.
This proved to be the tipping point for authorities in dismantling the JI network. Priyono was arrested in May 2019 as he was laying low in Madiun, East Java.
Through Priyono's arrest, the police were able to locate Wijayanto, who at that point had been on the wanted list for more than a decade. He was arrested in June 2019 at a hotel on the outskirts of Jakarta.
Police counter-terrorism unit then moved to arrest leaders of ABA, HASI and another JI-linked charity: Syam Organizer, depriving the network of its funding sources.
According to the National Police, 1,400 people had been arrested with terrorism charges since the 2018 law revision was passed.
The majority of those arrested were first-time offenders and had never been on police radar, something Wijayanto was fully aware of when he assigned them to their respective posts.
With no direct link to any terrorist attack or acts of violence, most JI members only received relatively short sentences. Rahman, for example, was sentenced to 4 years and 10 months in prison while Priyono received a 4-year sentence. The latter was released in May this year after his sentence was reduced for good behaviour.
Wijayanto was sentenced to a 7-year prison term, despite being the longest serving JI leader in its 30-year history.
Nevertheless, Nurwakhid of BNPT said the arrests were crucial in bringing down the network. "It is easier to de-radicalise them once they are in our custody. When they do, they can help law enforcers in building a case against the rest of the network," the one-star police general said.
Clear and present danger
So far, the plan seems to be working in the cases of Priyono and Rahman, who claimed that they have left JI and its radical beliefs.
Another key figure who appears to have softened ideologically is JI co-founder and former leader, Abu Bakar Bashir, who was convicted twice.
In 2004, he was sentenced to two and a half years in jail for being linked to the 2002 Bali bombings. He was again arrested in 2010 for helping to fund paramilitary training in Aceh and released from prison last year.
The 84-year-old made headlines recently for acknowledging Pancasila as national ideology, saying that it is aligned with Islamic beliefs after years of disavowing it.
In August, he staged an Indonesian Independence Day celebration at his Islamic boarding school Al Mukmin in Sukoharjo, Central Java.
It was the first Independence Day celebration in the school's 40 year history. The school was once believed to be a key recruiting ground for JI.
"We hope that they are truly reformed and can set an example for their followers," BNPT director Nurwakhid said.
However, efforts to de-radicalise Wijayanto have yet to bear fruit. "Perhaps, he wants to show his followers that he is still faithful to JI's cause," Wijayanto's former right hand man Priyono said.
Wijayanto is scheduled to be released in 2026. But the JI leader could be released sooner if he decides to formally renounce his radical beliefs. This would make him eligible for remissions and parole.
Since Wijayanto's arrest and imprisonment, no one has been identified as a replacement leader of JI. In addition, Sanjaya, Okbah, An-Naja and Al-Hamat who are still in jail, have yet to renounce their beliefs and continue to appeal to followers.
The survival of JI appears to be intertwined with what is happening internationally, analysts noted.
The wave of terrorism attacks perpetrated by JI in the 2000s, for example, were planned as a response to the US war on terror in Afghanistan while the rise of JI's rival Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) in 2014 coincided with that of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
But as ISIS was forced to retreat in Iraq and Syria in the last few years, JAD's influence in Indonesia appears to have waned. Today, the world's attention is on Afghanistan once again with the Taliban returning to power following the US-led coalition forces' withdrawal from the country.
Nasir Abbas, a former JI member turned terrorism analyst said the Taliban's success in regaining control over Afghanistan last year may inspire terrorist organisations in Indonesia to continue waging war against the government, particularly when it comes to JI which has a history with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
"Taliban's victory was met with jubilation among jihadists. It made them believe that they are on a path of righteousness, that their victory is only a matter of time and that they should be prepared to put up a long fight," Abbas told CNA.
The internal dynamics of JI may also heat up.
With Wijayanto out of the picture for now, Bhakti of the Radicalism and De-radicalisation Study Centre is worried a power grab could ensue. In particular, those longing for a return to JI's more violent approach of the past could make their move.
"Whenever there is a leadership vacuum, there is bound to be people out to prove their worth by launching a terrorism attack. This was true when past leaders of JI were arrested," he noted.
"What is JI like today and what will it be like once a new leader is appointed? Will the new leader continue Para Wijayanto's approach or opt for a return to the old ways? We don't know yet. Only time will tell." – CNA/ni(aw)