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January’s Jakarta terrorist attacks have their roots in the oppression and unrest of Aceh’s hidden war. By John Martinkus.

Jakarta terrorism’s roots in oppressed Aceh

An armed Afif Sunakim during January’s attacks in the Indonesian capital, Jakarta.
Credit: AFP PHOTO / XINHUA

The photo, showing a man wearing blue jeans, black shirt and baseball cap, carrying a gun and rucksack, was run by many Indonesian media outlets.

Authorities have identified him as Afif Sunakim. He was among four attackers killed by police following the Jakarta terrorist attacks in January. Four civilians were killed, one of whom died later of his wounds. More than 20 people were injured, including foreigners.

Afif spent seven years in jail for attending a training camp for militants in Aceh, national police chief General Badrodin Haiti said. According to reports, he met with Jemaah Islamiah leader Abu Bakar Ba’asyir while in jail.

This is the blowback from a long forgotten war. An attack in the name of Daesh, targeting foreigners, Westerners, in the most obvious and public place in Jakarta. The Sarinah mall where foreigners go to get respite from the chaos of the Indonesian capital. Do something normal. Read the papers, check email, have a coffee.

It was an obvious place to target. If I were a jihadist, the overweight, balding and overpaid Western men who frequented that establishment would symbolise everything that was wrong with the status quo. Coming from a village, sleeping on the ground, attacked day and night by Indonesian troops trained and financed by the United States and Australian military, it is no surprise this has happened. The Jakarta bombers were angry, willing to die for revenge at what they see as justified retribution for the suffering they have endured. It could be they were orphaned by Indonesian military operations in the early 2000s. It could be they were orphaned by the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004 and taken in by Islamic schools. It could be they have watched, read and heard of atrocities, real and perceived, of US and coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has been going for more than 14 years, this gestation of hatred.

I remember back in 2001. I was in Aceh’s capital, Banda Aceh, for The Bulletin with photographer David Dare Parker. But nothing was going on. It was Ramadan. Aceh, which then was fighting a war against the Indonesian state to enforce a more strict form of Islam, was not a news story. Post 9/11, human rights abuses by a US-supported ally was not a really saleable story. The news was dominated by the US “liberation” of Afghanistan. We documented arbitrary killings by the Indonesian military. We interviewed resistance leaders. We got stones thrown at us in the street for smoking outside in Ramadan. The fighters of the Free Aceh Movement (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka) were devout Muslims and believed they were fighting a corrupt and self-serving Indonesian state that had the support of the US and Australia, which they were. But in the political and media climate of the time, Muslims killing Muslims was not a story, no matter how many bodies we counted, photographed and identified. Particularly after 9/11. With us or against us, as George W. Bush said.

Fast-forward to March 2003. The American-led coalition invades Iraq. What happens in Aceh? The Indonesian government under Megawati Sukarnoputri declares martial law. Thousands of troops are sent in, including parachutists that are featured heavily on state-run television. It is their “shock-and-awe” campaign. All foreigners, journalists, aid workers and those involved in the ongoing peace negotiations are banned and ejected from the province. I tried to get back in and felt like a hunted animal. Every checkpoint, every bus stop, every casual conversation on the street was a potential arrest from the Indonesian soldiers, police and intelligence operatives that were everywhere. A colleague, American journalist William Nessen, got 40 days in an Indonesian jail before the US State Department got him out. 

Meanwhile, back in Medan, the capital of the bordering province of Sumatra, I was stuck in the karaoke bar of the hotel I was staying at, listening to bad renditions of “I love you baby ... oh pretty baby” by drunk Indonesian soldiers about to deploy to Aceh for their own Vietnam. The news was dominated by the invasion of Iraq: nobody noticed there was another war going on on Australia’s doorstep. Thousands of Acehnese died in that time of martial law and no journalists, human rights workers or foreign observers were allowed into the province. We still do not know what really happened during that period, but human rights groups, the United Nations and the foreign press, as far is it could determine, concluded a lot of people were killed by the Indonesian military.

Fast-forward further. Boxing Day 2004. A massive undersea earthquake off the coast of Sumatra created a tsunami. A nine-metre wall of water that smashed into the capital Banda Aceh and particularly devastated the west coast of the province, sweeping away entire villages and their occupants. It also swept away many of the Indonesian police and military who were based in the coastal villages and towns, as well as in the capital. Two weeks after the event I walked through the deserted barracks. There was nothing left but the concrete foundations of the buildings that had once contained those the Acehnese considered an occupying force. 

The story I was covering at the time was not the humanitarian disaster, which was massive and receiving high amounts of coverage; it was the war and, inexplicably, it was still going on. I went with an Acehnese guide and an American colleague to what had been a coastal village west of the capital. Indonesian troops still manned posts on the devastated highway, which was blocked at one point by a massive cargo ship, lifted by the tsunami a few kilometres inland to come to rest on the mostly washed away main road west of the capital. The devastation was mind-blowing and after dark we avoided Indonesian patrols and began to walk over the flattened remains of villages, bodies decomposing in the rubble underfoot, to meet with and interview the Free Aceh guerillas, whose positions in the hills had saved them from the tsunami. I remember saying to my American colleague, “This job doesn’t get much worse than this”, as we clambered over a pile of timber that had once been a house and stank of the sickly sweet rotting corpses that lay underneath. It was dark, the Indonesian soldiers behind us, the guerillas in front of us. No-man’s-land in a nightmare. 

We got to the guerilla camp in the nearby hills. They were hungry. Many had lost family in the tsunami but were unable to return home to check because of the fighting that continued with the Indonesian forces that despite this enormous humanitarian tragedy seemed more concerned with combat than rendering humanitarian aid to the victims of the tsunami, even two weeks later. 

But what the 2004 tsunami did was force the Indonesian government to allow the foreign community back into the province, to provide aid, reconstruct and to help rebuild. Eventually, after many small incidents and obfuscation by the Indonesian military, the generals realised they could make more money from the international aid community than from continuing the war. In 2005 a ceasefire was declared and a former Free Aceh Movement official elected governor.

In many ways it was a victory for the Acehnese in the face of an immense tragedy. They had fought Indonesia, suffered the repression by the Indonesian security services since the mid-1970s. They had been isolated, imprisoned, killed and disappeared with impunity from the start of their rebellion against the Indonesian state in 1976. But after the massive tragedy of the tsunami in 2004 and the end of hostilities in 2005 there was a generation of traumatised and brutalised individuals who did not benefit from the new-found peace and saw the new government as corrupt and allied to the infidels of the international aid community and central government in Jakarta. 

In 2009, Islamic militants from Jemaah Islamiah, the same group responsible for the Bali bombings in 2002, established training camps in Aceh. They drew in part from the orphaned and disenfranchised Acehnese to preach jihad. It was one of those men who led the attacks in Jakarta in the name of Daesh on January 14. He was arrested and jailed when the camps were raided in 2010. Released before his sentence had expired because of good conduct, his next and last public appearance was when he was photographed brandishing a gun in the attack on the popular Sarinah shopping mall. Afif Sunakim was shot dead by police at the scene of the attack, the face of another generation of South-East Asian jihadists. Baseball cap, backpack and a firearm, the only features to differentiate him from any other young Indonesian.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2016 as "Terrorism’s fertile fields". Subscribe here.

John Martinkus
is a foreign correspondent and author.