From Ambon to Poso: Comparative and Evolutionary Aspects of Local Jihad in Indonesia.

AuthorSchulze, Kirsten E.

On 24 December 1998, an argument between a Muslim and a Christian youth over a screwdriver followed by the stabbing of a Muslim youth by a Christian later that evening triggered communal conflict in Poso, Central Sulawesi. (1) Three weeks later, on 19 January 1999, a dispute between two Muslim youths and a Christian city transport driver over a bus fare ignited communal conflict in Ambon, Maluku. (2) Both conflicts were rooted in socio-economic and political competition between Christians and Muslims. In both areas, local power-sharing arrangements had been undermined by three decades of President Suharto's centralization and migration policies. Both conflicts resulted in a lacklustre response from the Indonesian government as the communal violence on the periphery of the archipelago was deemed to be less urgent than the political struggles that were taking place in Jakarta following the fall of Suharto's New Order regime in May 1998. This provided an opening for jihadi volunteers from other parts of Indonesia, and gave rise to the Ambon and Poso jihads.

The Ambon and Poso jihads only partially overlapped with the Ambon and Poso conflicts. The Ambon jihad began after the first wave of violence in January 1999, during which Ambonese Christians had targeted Muslim migrants, destroying their market stalls, burning their houses and driving them out of Ambon. The Poso jihad started after the Walisongo massacre in May 2000 in which Muslim students and teachers from the Walisongo pesantren (Islamic boarding school), as well as Muslim migrants from the adjacent village, were hacked to death by Christians. Both jihads continued beyond the end of the communal conflicts in Poso in December 2001 and in Ambon in February 2002. The Ambon jihad waned after an attack on a police post in Loki on Seram island in 2005, while the Poso jihad temporarily ceased with a mujahidin-police shootout in Poso city's Tanah Runtuh neighbourhood in 2007. (3) Both areas remain home to small extremist cells to this day.

This article examines the Ambon and Poso jihads from a comparative and evolutionary perspective. At the heart of this analysis are two interconnected questions: Why was the Ambon jihad so much more disorganized than the Poso jihad? And to what extent was the better organization of the Poso jihad the result of lessons learnt from the "mistakes" of the Ambon jihad? This article argues that the Ambon jihad was undermined by disagreements within one of the main jihadi organizations, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), as well as by the shifting dynamics between JI and the other key jihadi groups, Mujahidin KOMPAK (4) and Laskar Jihad. This article further posits that the Poso jihad was more organized than the Ambon jihad because JI's leadership had a different, more comprehensive, approach to the Poso jihad; because JI and Mujahidin KOMPAK had learnt from some of the mistakes of the Ambon jihad in the areas of leadership, training and using local jihads to achieve national aims; and because the intra- and inter-mujahidin dynamics, and with it the "state of jihad", had evolved between February 1999 and September 2000.

The Ambon and Poso jihads have not been examined in much detail in the academic literature on the violence during the post-Suharto democratic transition. This literature, as exemplified by writings of Jacques Bertrand, Gerry Van Klinken, Yukhi Tajima and Harold Crouch (5) has instead focused on the communal conflicts. It has examined the root causes of the violence, its links to the authoritarian policies of the New Order, the violence as an assertion of identity, and as an expression of the struggle over local resources as well as political power. Jihad in Ambon and Poso was only one element within the broader analysis of the conflicts, and more often than not, it was equated with Laskar Jihad as the most visible of the jihadi groups. The Ambon and Poso jihads have also been a side story in the literature on Islamist resurgence and jihad in Indonesia. John Sidel and Noorhaidi Hasan have referenced Ambon and Poso in their discussion of Laskar Jihad within the rise of militant Islamism in post-Suharto Indonesia. (6) In their books on JI, Zachary Abuza, Greg Barton, Maria Ressa and Ken Conboy mention Ambon and Poso, but their overall focus is on JI's links with Al-Qaeda, JI's ideology and above all its violence and the threat it poses to Indonesia and Southeast Asia. (7) The notable exceptions are Solahudin and Sidney Jones, who have examined the role of the Ambon and Poso jihads in the evolution of JI as well as mujahidin and jihadi activities in Ambon and Poso, and Greg Fealy and Chernov Hwang who have looked at local jihad in Indonesia and mujahidin disengagement. (8) More coverage of these two jihads can be found in the small number of books and articles specifically on the Ambon and Poso conflicts. Writing on Ambon Bertrand, Dieter Bartels, Jeroen Adam, Badrus Sholeh and Sumanto Al-Qurtuby have examined the causes of conflict, the mobilization of society, the role of religion and efforts to resolve the conflict in Ambon. (9) Loraine Aragon, Rinaldy Damanik and Dave McRae have done the same with respect to Poso. (10) Aspects of jihadism in these conflicts have been explored by Kirsten E. Schulze and Birgit Brauchler who examined Laskar Jihad in the Ambon conflict, (11) and McRae and Tito Karnavian as well as Julie Chernov Hwang, Rizal Panggabean and Ihsan Fauzi who have looked at the role of the Javanese mujahidin in the Poso conflict, their affiliates Mujahidin Kayamanya and Mujahidin Tanah Runtuh, counter-terrorism efforts and jihadi disengagement. (12) The Ambon and Poso jihads have also featured in the detailed reports published by the International Crisis Group and the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. (13) It is to this latter, more detailed, literature on the Ambon and Poso jihads that this article seeks to contribute.

Drawing upon a wide range of interviews conducted by the author between 1999 and 2018, this article starts by exploring the debate within JI after the Ambon conflict erupted in January 1999. It then proceeds to examine the role that the Muslim humanitarian aid organization KOMPAK played during this early period in Ambon from January 1999 to mid-2000, as a gateway to jihad. This is followed by an analysis of how and why the Poso jihad differed from the Ambon jihad, what lessons were learned from the "mistakes" of the Ambon jihad, and whether these lessons explain why the Poso jihad was so much better organized than the Ambon jihad. The article concludes with a discussion of the evolutionary aspects, looking at how intra- and inter-mujahidin dynamics evolved from the Ambon jihad to the Poso jihad.

The Debate in JI on Ambon

The eruption of conflict between Christians and Muslims in Ambon in January 1999 became the first big challenge for JI in Indonesia. JI was founded in 1993 by Indonesian clerics Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir while in exile in Malaysia. Headed by an amir--Sungkar until his death in November 1999 followed by Ba'asyir--and governed by a qiyadah markaziyah (Central Council), the organization was divided into four mantiqi (territorial divisions) across Southeast Asia: Mantiqi 1 covered Singapore and Malaysia; Mantiqi 2 encompassed Indonesia including Ambon but excluding Poso; Mantiqi 3 comprised the Southern Philippines, Sabah, Sarawak and Sulawesi including Poso; and Mantiqi 4, also referred to as Mantiqi Ukhro (the last mantiqi), covered Papua and Australia. (14) JI's ultimate aim was to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia. At the time of the first wave of violence in Ambon, JI's leaders and many of its members had only just returned to Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in May 1998, and JI was still trying to find its feet on Indonesian soil.

The debate within JI on Ambon revolved around the nature of the conflict, whether JI should get involved and if so what JI's response should look like. Heated discussions were held both at the leadership level within JI's markaziyah and among its members for over a year. At different stages of this debate, the fault-line ran between Indonesians and Malaysians within JI, between Mantiqi 2 and the other mantiqis, and between JI's veterans of military training along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border in the period 1985-94 known as the "Afghan alumni" and the rest of JI.

Most Indonesian JI members regarded the Ambon conflict with considerable suspicion. Like other Indonesians at the time, many believed that the violence was a "dirty game" which had originated in Jakarta, in the circle of former President Suharto, and possibly engineered by the Indonesian military which had been pushed out of power. As Bali bomber Ali Imron recalled, there were two key questions that were being discussed: "What are they fighting about? And will this help or hinder us in our aim to establish an Islamic state?" (15)

In order to answer the first question, Sungkar asked JI's head of military operations, Zulkarnaen, to send an investigative team to Ambon. Zulkarnaen, an Afghan alumnus, had formed a special team known as Laskar Khos in 1998, mostly drawing upon other Afghan alumni. Ali Imron, who was part of Laskar Khos, became part of this initial JI investigative effort along with twin brothers Nurudin and Saifuddin, just after the first wave of violence had ended in February 1999:

We went there and talked to Muslim leaders, but not known ones and not politicians because we did not know who we could trust. They said they were attacked by the Christians and that they wanted to defend themselves. From what I saw, and the stories I heard, I got the impression that they needed lessons to prepare themselves--just some basic lessons on how to use a gun and how to make bombs, but the most important was fiqh jihad. (16) Ali Imron only stayed in Ambon for three weeks. As he departed for the Philippines, Nurudin and Saifuddin stayed behind and started to...

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