May 27, 2024 Last Updated 6:09 AM, May 21, 2024

Is Indonesia a terrorist base?

Published: Jul 29, 2007

Greg Fealy

Indonesia has frequently been cast as a country with a serious international terrorism problem. The US, Singapore and Malaysia claim to have evidence of terrorists being based in Indonesia or of Indonesians leading offshore terrorist groups. Singaporean senior minister Lee Kwan Yew declared that Indonesia was a hotbed of terrorism. The claims have been used by the Bush administration to pressure Indonesia to take strong action against them.

A close look at the evidence suggests, however, that the terrorist threat has been overstated and that foreign officials and the media have been alarmist in their claims. The emphatic anti-terrorism policy pursued by the US and some of its allies towards Indonesia is misguided.

Among many alleged instances, I shall restrict this present discussion to the two most prominent and instructive cases. These are that: (1) al-Qaeda fighters received terrorist training in the Poso region of Central Sulawesi; and (2) Indonesian Muslims played a leading role in the Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia (KMM) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist groups in Malaysia and Singapore respectively, both of which have been linked to Osama bin Laden's network.

The claims of terrorist training bases in Sulawesi emerged originally in testimony given to a Spanish judge by eight al-Qaeda activists. They claimed 200-300 fighters had trained in Poso and mentioned an Indonesian, Parlindungan Siregar, as a pivotal figure. The claims were soon taken up by Hendropriyono, the head of Indonesia's State Intelligence Agency (BIN), who stated publicly in mid-December 2001 that his officers had found evidence of foreigners training near Poso. The US press also began carrying stories, presumably based on briefings from Bush administration officials, that high-resolution satellite imagery had confirmed the existence of the camps and their foreign personnel.

Much of this evidence, however, was soon shown to be equivocal. Key allies of the United States regarded the satellite photographs as inconclusive, because they failed to show who might have been using the base. A number of Western missions in Jakarta sent their own teams to Poso but found nothing to support the foreign base claim.

Hendropriyono's statements were also contradicted by senior Indonesian police and military officials, who admitted that, while there were certainly Indonesian paramilitary training bases in Poso, they had no evidence of outsiders training there. Finally, there was the general question of how the training of several hundred foreign Muslims could go unnoticed by the large Christian community around Poso or by local security officials.

The KMM and JI allegations surfaced following a series of arrests in Malaysia and Singapore between mid-2001 and early 2002. Officials in both countries claimed there were links between the two organisations. They said that testimony given by the detainees pointed to three Indonesians as having a leading role in KMM and JI. The three were Abubakar Ba'asyir, a fiery Islamic preacher from Central Java and supposed spiritual leader of both organisations, Riduan Isamuddin (commonly known as Hambali) who was credited with the daily management of JI, and Mohammad Iqbal. Iqbal was captured by Malaysian authorities in late 2001 and has not been seen in public since; Ba'asyir has returned to Indonesia where he maintains a high public profile; and Hambali went to ground after Indonesian police issued a warrant for his arrest. Malaysia and Singapore have pressed the Indonesian government to arrest Ba'asyir but have been told there is no case against him. This has led to highly critical reporting in the international press of Indonesia's soft stance on terrorism.

The JI-Indonesia connection received further coverage when Philippines officials arrested an Indonesian, Fathur Rohim al-Ghozi in January 2002, on charges of importing explosives. Al-Ghozi, a former student at Ba'asyir's boarding school, was soon identified as JI's bomb expert and accused of involvement in various bombings across the region. This was followed in mid-March by the detention of another three Indonesian Muslims Tamsil Linrung, Abdul Jamal Balfas and Agus Dwikarna in Manila on charges of smuggling C4 explosive in their luggage. Philippines authorities claimed the men were linked to JI and other terrorist organisations. Tamsil and Balfas were eventually released in mid-April for lack of evidence but Dwikarna remains in detention, reportedly at the request of BIN.

Sweeping claims

The KMM-JI connection has been frequently cited by foreign officials and the media in sweeping claims about Indonesia's terrorism problem, but the available evidence only warrants a narrower interpretation. In the case of JI, the Singaporean government has released substantial documentary and video evidence to back its claim that this was a genuine terrorist group, and there appears little reason to doubt this information. The case against al-Ghozi is also strong. Much of the original JI testimony that led to his arrest has proven accurate and al-Ghozi has admitted his involvement in terrorist training and bombings. He was found guilty in the Philippines in mid-April and sentenced to a minimum ten years jail. But the Singaporeans have failed to present evidence proving that Ba'asyir, Hambali and Iqbal had a role in JI's terrorism.

The KMM case is far less credible. The Malaysian government has offered the public almost no evidence to back its assertion that KMM is a terrorist group. Indeed, so flimsy is the government's case that a number of analysts have queried whether KMM even exists. The Mahathir administration has clear political and diplomatic motives in playing up the terrorism issue. It has sought to discredit its main political foe, the Islamist PAS, by alleging links between PAS and the KMM. It has also curried US favour by appearing pro-actively anti-terrorist. As with the Singaporeans, the Malaysian government has not revealed evidence showing the complicity of Ba'asyir, Hambali and Iqbal in KMM's terrorism. Indonesian police who have examined the testimony of the KMM detainees claim that, while it clearly shows that Ba'asyir and Hambali were militant preachers, it does not indicate any terrorist intent.

Also dubious is the case against Tamsil, Balfas and Dwikarna. Almost from the outset, their arrest showed signs of being a frame-up. Tamsil told the Indonesian press that he and his two associates had been the only passengers searched from their flight and that they had seen Filipino officials plant the explosives in one of their suitcases. Filipino police had later told them that their arrest had been ordered by Hendropriyono and that a senior BIN official had travelled to Manila to oversee the operation. Meanwhile the Filipino police refused to allow a visiting Indonesian police team access to the smuggled explosive. The role played by Hendropriyono and BIN has attracted strong criticism from Islamic groups, the press and parliamentarians.


A number of conclusions can now be drawn. The first is that there is little basis for asserting that Indonesia is a proven base for terrorist groups. While a small number of Indonesians can reasonably be assumed to have engaged in terrorism, the data regarding bases and cells is, at best, inconclusive. This is not to say that Indonesia has no terrorists, but rather, that those who assert it has a serious international terrorist problem lack sufficient evidence or are not placing what they know on the public record (I suspect the former).

A second conclusion is that US and Malaysian officials as well as Hendropriyono appear to be engaging in deliberate misinformation over the terrorism issue, apparently for domestic political and diplomatic purposes.

The Indonesian government and Islamic community have grounds for scepticism over foreign claims of terrorists within its borders. It is in part true, as outsiders often point out, that Megawati is wary of arousing Muslim sentiment. But the point remains that those doing the accusing have failed to provide compelling reasons for Indonesian law enforcement authorities to act. Rather than excoriate Jakarta, the international community should commend it for upholding the principle of presumption of innocence and not arresting citizens without evidence of guilt.

The above conclusions call into question the wisdom of the current US policy towards Indonesia, which entails pressuring it to step up action against terrorists. Indonesia's intelligence services, for example, have a notorious reputation of fabricating evidence and abusing human rights. The greater the US pressure, the greater the risk that these services will act in an unprofessional if not illegal way.

It seems that the Bush administration is planning to give a leading role to Hendropriyono and BIN as part of its anti-terrorism solution for Indonesia. In so doing, they appear willing to overlook the lamentable record of Hendropriyono and the organisation he leads. Apart from bungling the issue of al-Qaeda bases in Poso and arousing controversy over his role in the arrest of Tamsil, Balfas and Dwikarna, Hendropriyono has been accused of involvement in the massacre of more than a hundred Muslim villagers in Talangsari, Lampung, in 1989, when he was the local military commander. More recently he has attracted adverse press attention over his extensive business interests and for his suspected complicity in the assassination of Papuan leader Theys Eluay.

BIN's record under his leadership is little better. It has been publicly ridiculed for its inaccurate and often politically loaded reporting. In early 2002, it was derided by ministers and senior politicians when it emerged that BIN had written separate and contradictory reports on the economy for cabinet ministers and a parliamentary committee. BIN also prepared an error-filled briefing for parliament's Foreign Affairs and Security Commission prior to John Howard's visit to Indonesia in February. Among other things, it alleged that Australia's Lt-Gen Peter Cosgrove had written an autobiography denigrating Indonesia's role in East Timor. It also asserted that the Howard government had formed a secret twelve-person committee to engineer Papua's secession from Indonesia.

The cornerstone of any US anti-terrorism policy in Indonesia should be to win the confidence of the Islamic community. Cooperation from Muslims is critical if terrorists are to be exposed. This is only possible if the US and Indonesia's security officials and ASEAN partners provide reliable information to a community where anti-Western sentiment is already high.

Dr Greg Fealy ( is a research fellow in Indonesian politics at the Australian National University in Canberra. 

Inside Indonesia 71: Jul - Sep 2002

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