In search for formless Jamaah Islamiyah
Muhammad Nafik The Jakarta Post Jakarta
"Do you believe Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) really exists here?" a friend of mine once asked. Others have also raised the same question on other occasions.
It is truly hard to verifiably say "yes" in reply to that question, although police have repeatedly linked Indonesian bombers to JI.
Several leading Muslim leaders also doubt the existence of the regional terrorist network but have firmly stressed that terrorists are at large in the world's largest Muslim country of some 212 million people.
Hasyim Muzadi, who chairs Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) -- the nation's largest Muslim organization with 40 million members, was one of those casting doubt on JI's existence.
Last September, he accused the United States of playing the JI card to put pressure on and control Indonesia and other Muslim nations.
His statement came after the Central Jakarta District Court failed to convict elderly cleric Abu Bakar Ba'asyir of leadership of the regional terrorist group, although he was sentenced to four years in prison for treason and immigration offenses. A higher court in Jakarta later acquitted him of treason charges and reduced his imprisonment to only three years.
"The verdict is proof that JI does not exist in Indonesia, even if it exists in other countries," Hasyim said.
Also airing similar skepticism were another NU leader Solahuddin Wahid, who is also a deputy chairman of the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM), and legal expert Rudy Satrio from the University of Indonesia.
Solahuddin said it required hard evidence to convince people that JI was operating in Indonesia. "Frankly speaking, I doubt that JI exists in our country."
Satrio said there was no strong evidence to prove that JI operated in Indonesia, adding that the trial of Ba'asyir was the right occasion to prove it, but Indonesian authorities had failed to do so.
JI is a shadowy terror group connected to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist network, blamed for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in New York and Washington.
Indonesian Police blamed JI for the Oct. 12, 2002, Bali bombings that killed 202 people and the JW Marriott Hotel blast on Aug. 5, 2003.
JI gained notoriety worldwide after it was officially listed by the UN as a regional terrorist network, following the humiliating Sept. 11 attacks.
But for many (if not most) Indonesians, JI remains a mystery.
Confessions that Ba'asyir, 64, was the emir of JI were made by terror suspects detained overseas, such as Umar Al-Faruq and others arrested in Singapore and Malaysia under the Internal Security Act.
Their confessions could not, however, be directly verified by Indonesian investigators as they were denied access to the suspects.
Nor could worldwide reports that Hambali was the JI operative leader be legally confirmed. He was captured in Thailand and is being by held by American security forces at an undisclosed location, but Indonesian police investigators were prevented from grilling the terror suspect directly, for reasons as yet unknown.
The Jakarta office of the International Crisis Group (ICG) released this year a report that JI was established by Ba'asyir and another extremist, the late Abdullah Sungkar, and how it operated in Indonesia. But once again, the report has not, as yet, been verified in court.
Branding the convicted Indonesian bombers as part of JI only may have precluded consideration of the possibility that other groups or individuals might have been involved in the series of terror attacks across Indonesia.
Even though the Bali bombing convicts confessed to have assembled and detonated the powerful bombs, many remained doubtful of the bombers' expertise to do so.
Doubt still shrouds the genuine masterminds of the devastating attacks, as the key suspects, some of whom received death sentences, have not been ordered to reenact how they mixed the ingredients for the bombs to be assembled.
Police have said they found traces of high-powered explosives, particularly RDX, at the scene of the bombings on Jl. Legian in Kuta, Bali. But the sources of those explosives remain unexplained.
JI was said to have plans for a regional Islamic state covering Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines in the future. The question was how they would make good on the plan, for it appears not to be viable due to the diversity of the Southeast Asian countries' social and religious cultures.
In Indonesia, JI is apparently not one of the extremist Muslim organizations that have campaigned peacefully for Islamic sharia law to be enforced in the country.
Harold Crouch, a prominent Indonesianist from the Australian National University (ANU), has said there has been a tendency for hard-line groups campaigning for the adoption of sharia in Indonesia to have ceased to use violence to achieve their goals, as the now-defunct Darul Islam radical movement did in the 1950s.
Darul Islam, led by Marijan Sukarmaji Kartosuwiryo, fought violently for sharia in the country in the 1950s. Established in West Java, the group declared an Indonesian Islamic state on Aug. 7, 1949, and waged a rebellion against government forces.
Crouch said radical movements had significantly declined in Indonesia since then, even though Islamist parties continued to struggle for the inclusion of sharia in the amended 1945 Constitution at the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR).
Moreover, the wave of recent terror incidents put major Islamist political parties in a difficult position to reaffirm publicly their ties with radical groups, so as to secure their traditional support in the 2004 elections.
Like Crouch, other experts brushed aside claims that radical movements could pose a serious challenge to the secular forces that controlled the country's political stage due to their poor unity and lack of support from most Indonesians.
Nevertheless, foreign media have often exaggerated reports of radical movements in Indonesia but have failed to highlight the root causes of the problem.
Radicalism and terrorism are inseparable from injustices that prevail across the globe, particularly the perceived double standard of United States policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in its invasion of Iraq.
The recent capture of ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and how he will be treated before the law could further anger radicals and terrorists who might launch new terror attacks against the U.S. and its allies.