Rakyan Adibrata and Jasminder Singh – The announcement by the Indonesian authorities that Askary Sibghotul Haq, the son of former Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) leader Para Wijayanto, has been in their custody since April 2022 has put the notorious militant group back into the spotlight.
Askary's arrest in Bandung came at a time when the Indonesian security apparatus was conducting a broad clampdown on JI, during which it conducted raids on JI cells and arrested scores of its members. If convicted under Indonesia's anti-terrorism laws, Askary faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Who is Askary Sibghotul Haq?
Askary Sibghotul Haq was a prominent leader of JI and the former head of its international relations wing from 2015 to 2019. Late last month, he was put on trial on charges of facilitating the travel of JI members to train in Syria a decade ago. Prior to his arrest, Askary went to Syria in 2013. where, according to BenarNews, he remained for a month and connected with the Free Syria Army (FSA) to train JI members.
In 2015, Askary traveled to India to meet with members of the Pakistani terror outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT). LeT would likely have been in a position to provide him with training and access to LeT networks that could be of assistance in terms of arms procurement and finances. Askary's links with the LeT could also have facilitated the import of the latter's radical and violent ideology into Southeast Asia, leading to growing radicalization in the region as well as a possible development of closer ties between radical groups in South Asia, especially Pakistan, and in Southeast Asia. However, Askary was deported from India, where he had been listed as a terrorist.
Back in Indonesia, he was allowed to go free because under the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, it was then not illegal under the law to travel to Syria or to facilitate the travel of others. The Anti-Terrorism Law was amended in 2018 to close this loophole.
Askary was subsequently appointed as the head of JI's international relations wing, a position he held until his father's arrest in 2019. When he returned to Indonesia after being deported from India in 2015, he reportedly sent five batches of members to Syria for military training with Ahrar Al-Sham. According to some Indonesian prosecutors, JI had also approached the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS, and Jabhat al-Nusra to train JI members, but negotiations with those groups failed. Under the leadership of his father Para Wijayanto, Askary also ventured to Vietnam in 2012 to study the bunker system utilized during the Vietnam war and how to use AK-47 rifles.
Askary's transnational operations flew under the radar in the mid-2010s, likely due to Indonesia's concentration of law enforcement resources on the then proliferating threat posed by various emerging IS-affiliated groups in the country. A question worth asking is that given Askary's combat experience in Syria, was he preparing to lead a violent faction associated with JI? Previously, JI's violent faction was associated with Hambali, who helped plan and carry out the 2002 Bali bombings, and disagreed with the JI central leadership, which was more focused on dawah (missionary activities).
The recent Jemaah Islamiyah arrests
The arrest of several key Jemaah Islamiyah figures has had an extraordinary effect on the organization and its members. Successive arrests have targeted the members of its Shura Council (Advisory Council), and its amir, treasurer, and deputy of intelligence, which are collectively in charge of sending JI members to Syria and in charge of sasana (paramilitary training).
Dating back to the Bali bombings of October 2002, periodic arrests have hampered JI's development and caused it to fracture. Amongst those detained in the immediate aftermath of the attacks was Abu Rusydan, who was the amir of JI from 2000 to 2003. Internally, it took five years for JI to recover from the post-bombing crackdown, given that individuals in key positions had either been eliminated or arrested, even though after Abu Rusydan was quickly replaced by another amir.
When Para Wijayanto took charge as JI's amir in 2008, the organization had been nearly wiped out due to government crackdowns since 2000. Para Wijayanto was then arrested in July 2019 and is currently serving a seven-year prison sentence.
The JI also suffered a major setback in 2022 after 120 of its members revoked their pledge of allegiance to the group in Lampung. This event came after the security agencies arrested key JI figures of Jemaah Islamiyah, including Askary. However, unlike the JAD, MIT, or other splinter groups which have been operationally weakened more recently, the JI still retains a strong organizational culture. The group retains a strong foundation in terms of financial resources and organizational doctrines with which to revive itself.
The quiet JI
While the JI has suffered from the incarceration of its leader, its decentralized structure has created lines of succession. There are two JI-associated figures whose voices can still play a significant role within JI despite the various arrests that have occurred. These individuals are Bambang Sukirno and Ibnu Thoyyib, both of whom are from Solo province in East Java.
Bambang Sukirno, also known as "Bangkir," was very close to Dr. Sunardi, an alleged JI member who died in a shootout with Densus 88 in Sukoharjo in March of last year, and Dipo Azhari, who was arrested in August 2021 in Tuban. Bambang has been closely associated with the Islamist humanitarian agency Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia (HASI), which has been operating in many conflict areas, including Syria; HASI has also been identified as a JI charity. Bambang was HASI's spokesperson as of October 2013 and was also identified as HASI's secretary general in September 2012. With the death of Dr. Sunardi and the arrest of Dipo, the next generation of JI will likely look to a senior figure such as Bambang for leadership.
Ibnu Thoyyib (alias Abu Fatih) was born in Pacitan and once held a position as JI's Mantiqi II leader, in charge of Kalimantan, Ambon, Sulawesi, and Papua. Ibnu Thoyyib is the older brother of Ibrahim Thoyyib (alias Abu Husna), who was the JI leader in 2008, and an in-law of Para Wijayanto.
With individuals such as Para Wijayanto and Abu Rusydan now behind bars, JI members will likely look to these individuals, who have the capacity to advise the organization, albeit in an unofficial role.
The investigations surrounding Askary's arrest provide an insight into how extensive the Jemaah Islamiyah network has grown and the ambitions the group retains despite its current period of dormancy. An added factor also was that Askary had overseas combat experience and that provided added value for the group. He would be able to share this experience and skills with other like-minded members of the group.
A lesson that counterterrorism officials should take from Askary's overseas stint is that terror returnees from any conflict zone should not be treated lightly. During their time abroad, they can be expected to have amassed a great amount of knowledge and combat experience. The networks forged with overseas groups would also be significant and these individuals would be the go-to people to establish links with other international terror groups should they seek a safe haven from their countries of origin. In the case of JI, it was reported that the group had spent 2.4 billion rupiah ($166,000) to send members to Syria to undergo military training from 2013 to 2018.
Clearly, the JI and its succeeding generation of jihadists and fighters remain relevant. The arrest of key JI leaders, including Para Wijayanto and his son, indicates that JI continues to be a persistent threat. Nonetheless, despite prioritizing the IS threat over JI for a while, Indonesia has refocused its operations on neutering the JI threat. These efforts are reinforced by the decades of experience gained in dealing with the JI. Therefore, the authorities must redeploy personnel experienced in combating the JI tactics and narratives to address the growing threat that it poses.
Rakyan Adibrata is the Country Director of the International Association for Counter-Terrorism and Security Professionals (IACSP), Indonesia.
Jasminder Singh is a senior analyst with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.