From Vigilantism to Terrorism?

On Friday April 4, Anti Terror Unit Detasemen Khusus 88 Antiteror (Densus 88) arrested three terror suspects in Lamongan, Jawa Timur. One of the suspects allegedly possessed a Front Pembela Islam (FPI) uniform and literature.

I have been asked on a few occasions about the implications of militia and vigilante violence for counter terrorism. Reports that suggest an alleged terror suspect arrested in these raids was part of the FPI, reviving discussions in Indonesia about the issue of possible cross-pollination between terrorist and militia groups. I address it briefly in this post.

There are very distinct differences between Indonesia’s violent Muslim militia groups and terrorist organisations. Although violent ormas (militia) do represent a form of Islamic militantism, their violence does not target the state. This is what differentiates it from the violence of terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS.

Yet members of violent ormas still have the potential to cross-over to more extreme forms of violence. As Heiduk has pointed out, it is possible that violent ormas (militia) could be radicalized and drawn to jihadist terrorism.[1] It is also possible that terrorist ideologies and tactics could merge, formally or informally, with the agendas of violent ormas as “a new variant in Indonesia’s spectrum of radical Islamists”.[2] As Carnegie suggests:

The ‘grey area’ between the radicalism [of groups like the Front Pembela Islam (FPI)] and outright terrorist activity … provide fertile conditions for incubating a transformation of intolerance and radical thinking into more home-grown forms of violence and terror.”[3]

A study by the Setara Institute has also suggested that membership of violent ormas has the potential to create pathways to radicalization,[4] providing an ideological ‘conveyor belt’ for those with the potential to become terrorists.[5] The International Crisis Group (ICG) also noted the potential for future threats to emerge if violent ormas were radicalized, citing an example in West Java where a group had begun to use different weaponry, moving from using “sticks and stones in the name of upholding morality and curbing ‘deviance’ to using bombs and guns.”[6]Yet the analyses provided by ICG also acknowledge that Indonesia’s Islamist preman and violent ormas differ inherently from terrorist organizations, primarily because of their very different aims.

Groups associated with transnational organizations such as utopian Salafis, radical internationalists, and those such as Jemaah Islamiyya and IS believe in the implementation of a global Islamic Caliphate focusing on “internationalist and revolutionary aims.”[7] Islamist ormas or preman groups like the FPI  are locally based, nationalist in orientation, and certainly “not interested in implementing an Islamic caliphate,”[8] or challenging the Indonesian state (sometimes they act in concert with the police in morality operations).

Instead, these groups are more concerned with establishing greater power at the street-level.[9] In light of this, groups such as the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defender’s Front – FPI)  remain “out of the boxes” commonly used in post 9/11 analyses of contemporary Islamist movements. [10] But because of the tendency of militia to use violence to achieve their political goals, it must be recognised that their members could be vulnerable to recruitment to terrorist organisations and movements.

Andrew Zammit and I will talk more about this issue on our podcast Sub Rosa next week. 

[1] Felix Heiduk, “Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Radical Islam in Post-Suharto Indonesia,” International Journal of Conflict and violence 6, no. 1 (2012), 37.

[2] Ibid

[3] Paul James Carnegie, “Is Militant Islamism a Busted Flush in Indonesia?,” Journal of Terrorism Research 4, no. 2 (September 24, 2013), accessed April 28, 2016, doi:10.15664/jtr.563, 19.[4] Setara Institute. “Organisasi Radikal di Jawa Tengah & Yogyakarta: Relasi dan Transformasi” (Jakarta: Setara Institute, 2015), http://www.scribd.com/doc/113570933/ringkasan-pdf#scribd p. 38

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Indonesia: From Vigilantism to Terrorism in Cirebon.” Asia Briefing N°132 Jakarta/Brussels (26 January, 2012), accessed 2 May, 2016, http://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east…/indonesia-vigilantism-terrorism-cirebon, 1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ismail Hasani, The Faces of Islam ‘Defenders’ (Jakarta: The Setara Institute, 2010), 20.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Richard Robinson, “Political Economy and the Explanation of Islamic Politics in the Contemporary World,” in Between Dissent and Power: The transformation of Islamic Politics in the Middle East and Asia, ed. Khoo Boo Teik, Yoshihiro Nakanishi and Vedi Hadiz (Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). 22.

[10] Mark Woodward et al., “The Islamic Defenders Front: Demonization, Violence and the State in Indonesia,” Contemporary Islam 8, no. 2 (December 28, 2013), doi:10.1007/s11562-013-0288-1, 9.

Author: Kate Grealy-Riadi

I have a background as a researcher and technical adviser on countering violent extremism (CVE), counter terrorism (CT), and crime prevention. I have also worked in development communications and project management in Australia, Pakistan, and Indonesia. I have an MA in international relations, and am currently researching political violence in Indonesia. Posts can be a bit intermittent as I recently had a baby ☺

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