Medan, Indonesia – In the early 2000s, the potential for terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia looked very different than it does today.

Indonesia was rocked by the Christmas Eve church bombings on December 24, 2000, which killed 18 people. Just six days later, similar bombings occurred in Metro Manila, the Philippines, killing 22 people.

In 2002, a series of bombings occurred in a popular nightlife district in Bali, Indonesia, killing more than 200 people and injuring at least 200 others.

In the following years, the JW Marriott Hotel, the Philippine Stock Exchange and the Consulate, all in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, as well as other locations throughout Southeast Asia were attacked.

The group responsible for the attacks and others was Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), whose members sought to establish a hardline Islamic state in Indonesia and wider Southeast Asia.

JI is often referred to by its initials and is said to be active in Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and the Philippines. There are also said to be ties to other groups, including Al-Qaeda and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines. Mindanao Island.

Although JI was responsible for a long list of atrocities and hundreds of victims in the early 2000s – the last recorded attack was the bombing of a police compound in West Java province in 2011 – the group and fears of terrorist attacks are largely forgotten now in the region.

How could Indonesia and other governments in Southeast Asia effectively contain a regional threat while the U.S.-led “war on terror” following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States devastated entire countries and plunged regions of the world into chaos?

“The early 2000s certainly felt dangerous at the time,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College in Washington, DC, told Al Jazeera.

“But the Bali bombing really shook Indonesia out of its complacency. “The new terrorism law changed the public perception of the perceived level of danger and the authorities were given a free hand to carry out their work without political interference,” Abuza said.

Indonesian forensic police officers walk past destroyed cars near the site of the 2002 bombings in Kuta on the Indonesian resort island of Bali [File: Beawiharta/Reuters]

“It broke JI’s back.”

At the time of the Bali bombings in late 2002, Indonesia had no specific and targeted anti-terrorism legislation, although it was quickly drafted and enacted in 2003 and applied retroactively to some of the perpetrators of the attack on the popular holiday island.

Three senior members of JI, Imam Samudra, Ali Ghufron and Amrozi, were quickly arrested, prosecuted and executed in 2008 for their roles in planning the bombings.

A fourth perpetrator, Ali Imron, was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2003, Hambali, a Malaysia-based member of JI who was allegedly responsible for financing the group, was arrested in Thailand after months of hiding in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.

Transferred by the US, Hambali was tortured at CIA “secret locations” before being transferred to the US military’s notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, where he remains imprisoned to this day for his alleged role in the Bali bombings.

Indonesia and other governments in the region continued to close the net between JI members and their leaders.

In 2007, Abu Dujana, JI’s head of military operations, was arrested. In 2010, Abu Bakar Bashir, the organization’s “spiritual leader,” was captured and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was released early in January 2021.

“When people were arrested, the JI broke its back,” Abuza said.

“But JI as an organization still existed and the government gave it enough space to exist and allowed it to run its madrasas [Islamic educational institutions]Charities and businesses,” he said.

The Indonesian government officially declared JI an illegal organization in 2008, but authorities took a more measured approach and continued to grant its members a degree of autonomy provided they did not engage in violence.

“Jihad as a spiritual struggle”

According to Farihin, an Indonesia-based member of JI, the organization remains active, although it has since changed its philosophy to one of pacifism and focuses on works such as religious education and other social causes.

“The focus now is no longer on violence,” he told Al Jazeera.

“Only about jihad as a spiritual struggle to protect ourselves from our personal sins as individuals,” he said.

“All religions have this concept in some form.”

Although Farihin still calls himself a member of JI, he said the original grouping has fractured and splintered many times over the years due to people’s different views and opinions.

These differences are regularly cited as another reason for the success of the regional approach in the so-called “war on terror” – a mix of internal political disputes and external security operations.

In 2007, Abuza reported, JI was “plagued by factionalism” as the organization’s remaining members fought for power and argued over how to create a plan for the future of its operations.

“Abu Dujana had different ideas about the organization and believed that bombing foreigners was not the way to achieve its goals,” Abuza said.

“Enough people in JI thought it was best to keep a low profile after the Bali bombing and the attack was not productive,” he said.

“Abu Dujana did not argue that killing foreigners was morally wrong, only that it was pointless because the organization became weaker with each attack and subsequent arrests.”

Counterterrorism work continues

Indonesia has also made great progress in creating an effective counterterrorism framework, which has significantly weakened the networks of potential attackers across the region, said Alif Satria, a researcher in the policy and social change department at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Indonesia .

“The first is the establishment of Densus 88 in 2003 with the help of other countries. This ensured that Indonesia has a well-functioning counter-terrorism force with the necessary intelligence and operational capabilities to dismantle networks,” Satria told Al Jazeera.

Densus 88 or Counterterrorism Special Detachment 88 was a unit founded in 2003 under the auspices of the National Police, funded, equipped and trained in part by the United States and Australia.

Police officers from Indonesia’s elite anti-terrorism unit Detachment 88 during an exercise in Jakarta in 2010 before a visit by then US President Barack Obama [File: Supri/Reuters]

Satria added that another milestone was the establishment of the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) in 2010.

The de-radicalization programs implemented by the police in the early 2000s were also crucial in ensuring that those arrested did not re-associate with hard-line groups after their release.

“As a result, Indonesia has managed to keep its recidivism rate at around 11 percent,” he said.

However, the counter-terrorism measures carried out by the Indonesian authorities are still ongoing.

Who will show up next?

The open source data collection shows that between 2021 and 2023, more JI members were arrested than members of other groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an ISIS-affiliated group responsible for recent attacks in Indonesia and the wider region .

Recent incidents include the Surabaya bombings in 2018, in which three Christian churches in the city of Surabaya were attacked by a couple and their four children, one of whom was just nine years old. Fifteen people were killed.

The same group was also behind the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings in Sulu, Philippines, which killed 20 people.

“Between 2021 and 2023, about 610 people were arrested, 42 percent of which were JI and 39 percent were JAD and other pro-Islamic State groups,” Satria said.

“To me, this shows that even though JI is not carrying out attacks, it is still very active, be it recruiting, fundraising or preparing for its revival,” he said.

Abuza agreed with this cautious tone, saying that the lack of clear leadership at the global level for hardline groups also contributed to an overall sense of quintessence.

But that could change quickly.

“These organizations are living organizations and respond to the external environment,” Abuza said.

“Everyone is waiting to see what happens in the Middle East and who emerges as the leader,” he said.

“Someone will do it,” he added.

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