The Laskar Jihad chief, who wants to set up an Islamic state at home, may one day expand his scope, warns a terror expert.
Muslim cleric Jaffar Umar Thalib has emerged as Indonesia’s most feared militant – a ‘dangerous man’ who is mentioned in the same breath as Osama bin Laden and leads an army able to conduct terrorist activities.
Buoyed by fundamentalism and protected by political and military figures, he is a symbol of Jakarta’s inability to confront the threat of homegrown militancy.
‘For now, it seems that Jaffar scares the Indonesian government,’ the New York Times magazine reported in a recent article.
‘No one, apparently, has the power or inclination to rid Indonesia of its most turbulent priest.’
Jaffar heads the Laskar Jihad, a Muslim paramilitary group known for its fanaticism and brutality. His followers, who number between 3,000 and 10,000, are well drilled, heavily armed and very loyal.
The NYT said that Laskar Jihad stood out from among the plethora of radical Islamic groups formed after Mr Suharto’s fall in 1998.
It quoted Indonesia expert Harold Crouch of the Australian National University as saying:
‘They’ve got real organisation and they’ve got reasonably capable people. You might find an airline pilot or two in Laskar Jihad, but in the others, I doubt it very much.’
Its camps in the jungles of Sulawesi have reportedly trained hundreds of non-Indonesian Muslims – including Al-Qaeda operatives.
Jaffar got his start in jihad fighting alongside the anti-Soviet mujahideen in Afghanistan in the late 80s.
At about that time, he met Osama whom he now scorns as a misguided lightweight.
But the NYT quoted analysts as saying there was little difference between them.
‘He claims to be ideologically opposed to Osama, but his ideology is parallel,’ said Dr Rohan Gunaratna, a terrorism expert at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.
Jaffar dreams of setting up an Islamic state in Indonesia.
Squads of his long-robed followers patrol cities regularly, raiding liquor stores and suspected brothels.
Said Jaffar: ‘The idea behind the action is to clear up all the vice, especially during Ramadan – the gambling, the prostitution, the drinking.’
Whatever his public sentiments towards Osama, Western observers see his militant outfit as one group that might be prepared to aid ‘the logistical relocation of Al-Qaeda forces, post Taleban’.
Indeed, American officials believe that Al-Qaeda ‘sleeper cells’ exist in Sulawesi and other parts of the country. The NYT noted that Jaffar is not the only worrisome figure in Indonesia.
It pointed to another Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir, who is suspected of leading the Jemaah Islamiah, an Al-Qaeda-linked terror group in South-east Asia.
‘While his group is smaller and more secretive than Laskar Jihad, it apparently has stronger ties to the global jihad movement,’ it said.
But Jaffar, whose violent activities has so far been confined to the domestic arena, heads a much larger organisation whose members operate openly with impunity.
Dr Gunaratna noted that Jaffar, unlike Bashir, ‘is not an international jihadist but could graduate into one’.
‘There is a pattern with these groups. They start nationally, go regional, then go international, which is precisely why they must be stopped when they’re still small,’ he told the NYT.
The policy of any government, especially a democratically elected government, is also the responsibility of all the people who support it. The people run the risk of the results of those policies.’
– Jaffar, on the justification for terrorist attacks