Indonesia steps up pressure on Islamist militants

By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 13, 2010

PAMULANG, INDONESIA -- Shortly before noon March 9, a bearded man in a white T-shirt and black pants walked into the Multiplus business center in this grimy town south of the Indonesian capital. He booked two hours on the Internet, recalled the center's manager, Rinda Riana, and settled into booth No. 9 to surf the Web.

Five minutes later, Riana's customer was dead, shot by members of Detachment 88, an anti-terrorism police unit set up with U.S. funds and training. His bullet-riddled body lay sprawled under a sign pitching low-cost Internet access: "Surf With Value."

The operation ended a long hunt for a very high-value quarry: Joko Pitono, an al-Qaeda-trained bombmaker better known as Dulmatin. The United States considered Dulmatin, an architect of the 2002 Bali bombings and other outrages, such a menace that it had put a $10 million bounty on his head.

Over the past six months, Indonesian security forces have killed or arrested a host of key figures in an Islamist network that once looked as if it might tip the world's most populous Muslim nation into chaos. Unlike Pakistan, where extremists have steadily expanded their reach, Indonesia has hammered its main militant outfit, Jemaah Islamiyah, and the organization's even more violent splinter groups.

Whether Indonesia secures long-term calm depends on its capacity to combat extremism with more than guns and prison cells.

"Radical movements cannot be dealt with by only force," said Ansyaad Mbai, Indonesia's counterterrorism chief. More important, he said, is uprooting an ideology of Islamist militancy that turns believers into bombers.

Held in check for decades by authoritarian rule, Islamic radicals took full advantage of the freedoms offered by democracy's arrival in 1998. Authorities, struggling to hold the country together amid economic meltdown and political chaos, paid little attention to what they initially viewed as a minor menace.

That began to change after the 2002 Bali bombing, which appalled the public and prodded the government to acknowledge it had a problem. Further attacks, including a second Bali bombing in 2005, added to a mood of crisis and rallied moderate clerics to confront a small but expanding and increasingly dangerous minority.

Which side prevails will be decided in local battles such as the one unfolding here in Pamulang at the al-Munawwarah Mosque, just down the road from the Multiplus business center where Dulmatin, the Bali bomber, was cornered and killed.

The mosque, in a leafy housing estate, has been controlled since 2004 by Muhammad Iqbal, a Saudi-educated cleric and veteran of anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan. Iqbal, also known as Abu Jibril, figures on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of "specially designated nationals," a catalogue of terrorism suspects, drug traffickers and others the United States regards as dangerous.

"Trouble started as soon as he got here," said Abdurrahman Assegaff, a rival Pamulang cleric who is leading a campaign to oust Iqbal and purge his mosque of jihadi thinking.

On the defensive

When Iqbal arrived in Pamulang, hard-line ideas like those he promoted looked as if they might eclipse Indonesia's traditionally laid-back take on Islam. The potential consequences appeared grave, not only for Indonesia but also for Washington, which was alarmed by the direction being taken by a country with more Muslims than the Arab heartland in the Middle East. At the time, Indonesia's best-selling magazine was an Islamic weekly called Sibili, which offered a mix of wild anti-American conspiracy theories and cheerleading for jihad.

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