The death yesterday of South-east Asia’s most wanted criminal, the terrorist Noordin Mohamad Top, came as a happy surprise to Indonesian authorities, given they did not know he was in the Solo, Central Java house they were raiding. However, given the closing security net around Top, it was always possible that he would meet his end in such an unplanned way.
The real question that comes with the death of Malaysian-born Top is whether this will spell an end to Islamist terrorism in Indonesia or, indeed, South-East Asia. The answer is twofold, the first part depending on how one defines ‘terrorism’, and the second part depending on how one defines ‘Islamism’.
Islamism is commonly understood to be the politico-ideological interpretation of Islam. In reality, though, all of Islam has a politico-ideological focus, and what outsiders call ‘Islamism’ is rather a particular interpretation of Sunni Islam that derives from the Salafi (old, or predecessor) tradition, in particular that of Wahhabism, developed in the 19th century in order to ‘purify’ Islam of ‘innovations’.
This ‘purist’ model of Islam was adopted by the Egyptian radical scholar Sayyid Qutb, executed in 1966 for attacks against the Egyptian state, who is credited with founding the Muslim Brotherhood from which almost all contemporary Jihadi groups derive. In particular, Qutb preached that it was acceptable to kill non-combatants in the cause of jihad, providing justification to organisations such as Al Qaeda and others that share a similar world view.
In South-East Asia, following a program of ‘purification’ of Islam, particularly in the post-independence era, this interpretation of Sunni Islam has taken root among groups both trying to overthrow states (e.g. Indonesia) and separating from states (e.g. Pattani in Thailand, Mindanao in the Philippines). In particular, what has become termed the ‘Al Qaeda narrative’ has taken hold of the imaginations of many radical Muslims with any one of a variety of grievances.
The Pattani and Mindanao models of Islamist violence, while occasionally linked to Al Qaeda and its local off-shoots such as Jema’ah Islamiyah, are essentially separatist movements defined by their religious identity in contrast to the religious identity of the ‘oppressor’ state. The Pattani United Liberation Organisation and the Moro Islamic Liberation front do engage in non-state violence, but are probably not ‘terrorist’ organisations in the general sense of the term. However, until their grievances are resolved, they are likely to continue to be involved in (or return to, in the case of the MILF) political violence.
In Indonesia, and to a lesser extent Malaysia, anti-state Islamism has a history dating back to the 1940s or, against colonial powers, well into the 19th century. That undercurrent continues to resurface, in the 1950s Darul Islam Rebellion, in the 1970s Komando Jihad movement, and in the 1990s and beyond as Jema’ah Islamiyah.
There is no sign that this Islamist tradition will end. What we have seen, however, is a return by most such Islamists to an understanding that terrorist acts lost more support than they gain, and are otherwise ultimately ineffective in bringing about their desired Islamic state.
That is, Islamism in the region continues, and whether it chooses or rejects violence tends to be cyclical. It is likely that the death of Top will end terrorist activity in Indonesia for some time, perhaps several years. It would be taking a short view of history, however, to believe that the inspiration for such violence has died with him.