As counter-terrorism officials plot life for al Qa'eda after Osama bin Laden, they would do well to look towards the Indonesian experience.
Indonesia's trial by fire and the risk of leaderless terrorists
In the wake of the killing of Osama bin Laden, many American policymakers and terrorism experts were celebrating, believing that the removal of al Qa'eda's head and spiritual leader would render the organisation far weaker. Yet others warned that, at least for now, bin Laden's death might actually make the organisation more dangerous since it will become more atomised into smaller cells bent on revenge. After the killing, the United States in fact raised its terrorism alert precisely for this reason.
The assumption makes sense. In Indonesia, where security forces have done the finest job of any developing nation in smashing a terror network's senior leadership, removing the head did not necessarily make average people safer in the short run. Instead, the decapitation of the local terror organisation Jemaah Islamiah (JI) led terror groups to spread out and launch smaller scale, more random and more frequent attacks.
In the early 2000s, JI, which aims to turn Indonesia and other parts of South East Asia into one caliphate, posed as great a threat to Indonesia as al Qa'eda does to the United States. In fact, JI launched multiple successful attacks on the Indonesian archipelago, including a series of bombings on Christmas Day in 2000, two attacks in Bali in 2002 and 2005, and a strike on the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta.
JI clearly rattled the country: tourism, a major earner of foreign exchange, plummeted and as in Pakistan today politicians, like the then-president Megawati Sukarnoputri, simply denied that the country faced a serious terrorist threat.
But by the mid-2000s, Indonesia had started to turn it around. Better police penetration of JI cells, prodded by a more aggressive political leadership, led to the arrests or killings of the Bali bombers and the teams behind the Marriott bombings. JI's spiritual leader, the cleric Abu Bakr Bashir, who had run a kind of jihad academy and functioned in a role similar to bin Laden's, is now facing terrorism-related charges.
Yet as Indonesia wrapped up the top leaders, the organisation metamorphised in a way Jakarta had not anticipated at first. The splintered local networks of JI initially became more dangerous, since atomised JI cells no longer cared as much about building public backing for some larger goal, like an Islamic caliphate, but merely sought to lash out in all directions.
"Unlike the small group proponents, advocates of 'organisational' jihad believe that nothing can be accomplished without a large organisation and a strong leader ... if the ultimate goal is an Islamic state, then it is imperative to build public support," read a recent report by the International Crisis Group. No longer seeking to build support, JI's diffuse cells were free to kill at will.
As could happen with small al Qa'eda cells today, wounded JI networks out of necessity began building alliances with other dangerous organisations, alliances they might not have made if they were stronger. Local cells in Indonesia allied with criminal networks that could help them rob banks and commit other crimes to gain funds, for example.
This splintering has produced fewer mass-casualty attacks but more local-level damage, a situation many terrorism experts expect to see happen with al Qa'eda's worldwide franchise, although the group purportedly has announced a new leader. JI's broken cells put a "greater focus on local rather than foreign 'enemies' ... particularly the police, Christians and members of the Ahmadiyah sect [of heterodox Muslims]," the crisis group reported. In recent months, local cells have attacked numerous Ahmadiyah gatherings, seriously denting Indonesia's example as a tolerant nation, and also have organised attacks on local policemen and other officials. They have sent letter bombs, attacked moderate mosques seemingly at random, and committed numerous other crimes across the archipelago. While these attacks have been far smaller than the first Bali bombing, they were spread out all over the country and actually instil more fear in local populations.
While Indonesia shows how the decapitation of a terror network can, in the near term, lead to more bloodshed, the country also offers an example of how to stanch the bleeding, a template for mopping up al Qa'eda's remaining cells. Indonesia's leaders, unlike those in Pakistan, increasingly rally public opinion against terrorist groups by admitting their local nature and threat to local populations.
Unlike other countries facing splintering terror networks such as Pakistan or Yemen, Indonesia also has resisted using the threat of terrorism to compromise the rule of law. It has created an elite police counterterrorism force that has rounded up many local cells, but the elite force, which has received training and funding from the US State Department, has not engaged in indefinite detention of suspects. The government's fight against terror has generally upheld the rule of law, keeping the Indonesian public on a local level supportive.
Perhaps most important, Indonesia has devolved a significant amount of economic and political power to cities and provinces and away from Jakarta. This is very rare in young democracies, where senior leaders who came of age under dictatorships usually are reluctant to take power away from the central government. But the Indonesian experiment has worked: by devolving power, it has included more people in the political process, making it harder for JI cells to recruit militants by arguing that the government does nothing for them. This strategy could work well in places like Yemen, where central authority already is weak, handing more political power to local leaders and so reducing the grievances that animate local al Qa'eda cells.
Joshua Kurlantzick is a fellow for South East Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York