Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The case of the “Ngruki Network” in Indonesia
One network of militant Muslims has produced all the Indonesian nationals so far suspected of links to al-Qaeda. This briefing paper explains how that network emerged, its historical antecedents, and the political dynamics over the last two decades that led some of its members from Indonesia to Malaysia to Afghanistan. It is part of an occasional series that ICG intends to issue on the nature of radical Islam in Southeast Asia.
The network has as its hub a religious boarding school (pesantren or pondok) near Solo, Central Java, known as Pondok Ngruki, after the village where the school is located. The “Ngruki network” began to coalesce in the late 1970s as Indonesian intelligence operatives embarked on an operation to expose potential political enemies of then President Soeharto from the Muslim right. It drew in additional members in the early 1980s, many of whom had served time in prison for anti-government activities. An inner core of the network, led by the two founders of Pondok Ngruki – Abdullah Sungkar (now dead) and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir – and radicalised by repression at home, fled to Malaysia in 1985.Some associated with the Ngruki network returned to Indonesia after Soeharto’s resignation in 1998; others stayed in Malaysia but continued to be in close contact with those who went back.
Most members of the network share common characteristics: loyalty to Pondok Ngruki or its founders; commitment to carrying on the struggle of Darul Islam rebellions of the 1950s; desire to create an Islamic state by first establishing an Islamic community or jemaah islamiyah, and shared experiences of political detention in the 1980s. Many are on the executive committee of an organisation formed in Yogyakarta in 2000 called the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI, Indonesian Mujahidin Council).
The problem is that the Ngruki network is far wider than the handful of people who have been accused of ties to al-Qaeda and includes individuals with well-established political legitimacy for having defied the Soeharto government and gone to prison as a result. Many Indonesians have expressed concern that pressure from the U.S. and Southeast Asian governments on Indonesian authorities to carry out preventive arrests of suspects without hard evidence could be seriously counterproductive. It could easily turn the targets of that pressure into heroes within the Muslim community – as has happened with Abu Bakar Ba’asyir – to the point that they become the beneficiaries of substantial political and financial support. And with a combination of a highly politicised national intelligence agency and law enforcement institutions and courts that are both weak and corrupt, such pressure could lead to a recurrence of the arbitrary arrests and detentions that characterised the Soeharto years.
Indonesia is not a terrorist hotbed. Proponents of radical Islam remain a small minority, and most of those are devout practitioners who would never dream of using violence. But even a tiny group of people can cause an immense amount of damage. The challenge, both for the Indonesian government and the international community, is to be alert to the possibility of individuals making common cause with international criminals, without taking steps that will undermine Indonesia’s fragile democratic institutions.
Jakarta/Brussels, 8 August 2002