Within weeks of the Bali bombings, Indonesian police made their first arrests of Jemaah Islamiah (JI) members. Since then, they have hauled in more than 100 people with suspected JI links. They have seized huge amounts of ammunition and explosives, confiscated documents and identified sites where JI recruits were trained. They have pursued the group to Pakistan and Cambodia. They have gone back to re-examine JI crimes committed before Bali and have detained fresh suspects. They have made themselves available to the media on an almost round-the-clock basis. And yet most polls in Indonesia consistently show that less than half the Indonesian public believes or acknowledges that JI exists.
Many Indonesians who have been transfixed by television coverage of the Bali bombers' trials concede that their country has produced homegrown radicals with the capacity and commitment to undertake serious violence. They are less willing to believe that the bombers are part of a deeply embedded network with cells across Southeast Asia, let alone one connected to al-Qaeda.
Why? To acknowledge the existence of a terrorist organization, as opposed to a gang of criminals with a strongly Muslim background, is seen to be following Washington's agenda at a time when anti-U.S. sentiment is at an all-time high. That hostility is born of the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the lack of U.S. evenhandedness in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and post-9/11 changes in American immigration policy that make it harder for Indonesians to get visas for the U.S. Moreover, in Indonesia, jemaah islamiah is a generic term simply meaning Islamic community. It has been widely used to refer to small groups living strictly by Islamic principles, and many Muslims are offended by the negative connotation the term has now acquired.
There is also the question of evidence. Even after the JW Marriott bombing, leaders of Indonesia's two main Muslim organizations, both of them influential moderates, said publicly that they weren't convinced of JI's existence because they hadn't seen any proof. Only after a furor over reported irregularities in the arrest of some 20 terror suspects did the police decide to turn over some of the documentary evidence on JI to Muslim leaders to let them see for themselves its structure and plans. Meanwhile, public skepticism was allowed to fester for months.
In addition, much of the publicly available information on JI has come from the foreign media, foreign governments and foreign analysts. Neither Indonesian President Megawati Sukarnoputri nor any senior member of her Cabinet has taken the time (or had the political courage) to go on prime-time TV to make a speech to the nation outlining the case against JI. They have been willing to make remarks condemning JI in the course of the odd press conference or interview, but it's almost as if they prefer the police to take both the credit and the heat for going after JI. This way, politicians who wish to appeal to conservative Muslim constituencies as next year's parliamentary and presidential elections approach can condemn violence, call for an investigation into police tactics against terror suspects and question the existence of JI all in the same breath.
Finally, for parts of the Muslim establishment, JI is too close to home. There are not six degrees of separation between JI and many legitimate Muslim organizations in Indonesia but sometimes just one or two. During the communal conflicts in Ambon and Poso from 1999 to 2001, Muslims and Christians alike were both victims and perpetrators. The deaths and displacement of Muslims drew contributions to Islamic charities from their fellow faithful across the political spectrum. But some of these charities became conduits for funding JI violence. To acknowledge JI as a terrorist organization would be to admit that once respectable organizations were tainted.
The Indonesian government should formally ban JI yet at the same time distinguish it from other Muslim groups. Either Megawati herself or her Security Minister, Soesilo Bambang Yudhoyono, should go on national TV, flanked by the leaders of the country's Muslim political parties, and explain the crimes JI has committed, its activities in the region and why outlawing it is not tantamount to a crackdown on nonviolent Muslim organizations. The government also needs to understand more about JI's recruitment patterns. This means systematically going through all the interrogation depositions taken by the police to extract data on the socioeconomic and educational backgrounds of each of the JI suspects arrested to understand why they were attracted to jihadist ideology and who their mentors were. Only from smart analysis of hard facts will effective counterterror measures emerge. And only then will Indonesians recognize the grave harm a minority of extremists is doing to them and to the rest of the region.