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07 April 2006 

How do loyalty, group power work in jihadists circles?

Noor Huda Ismail, Brussels
The Jakarta Post, 7 April 2006

Have you ever wondered how loyalty among jihadists gets started? Usually, we think of them as a product of a highly contagious ideology. But the stretch of their loyalty has a lot to do with the skillful use of group power.

The idea is simple. If you want to bring about fundamental change in people's beliefs and behavior, a change that would endure and provide an example to others, you needed to form a group around you, where your beliefs can be practiced and articulated and nurtured.

This helps to explain why jihadists are required to attend regular meetings, say weekly or monthly, and to adhere to a strict code of conduct. If they fail to live up to the group's standards, they are reminded of these standards and even punished.
But what are the most effective groups that can bring about carnage?

The answer might lie in the arrests by the Indonesian police in mid-2003 of the first Bali bombers. Fifteen jihadists were directly related to the attacks, another 35 were guilty of harboring fugitives or withholding information, and another 30 possessed explosives or firearms.

In my reading, there are characteristics that distinguish each arrest. Those 15 jihadists who were directly related to the attack show us the fact that the group was aware that for a deadly operation, they had to keep themselves to a smaller group of people.

So they were close knit, which was very important for a successful operation. Imagine if the group got too large, then they would not be able to share things in common and they would start to become strangers. The operation would not work because they could not maintain the loyalty of each member.

In small groups, everybody knows each other and each person has a clear job distribution. As a result, most of the attacks, such as the JW Marriott Hotel, the Australian Embassy and the last year's Bali bombings, were carried out by a small group of hard-core loyalists.

National Police chief Gen. Sutanto said that Noordin and his followers remained hard to catch because they were "highly mobile and because they had a small team", allowing them to easily elude arrest.

While the other 35 who were guilty of harboring fugitives or withholding information in the first Bali blast may not have necessarily agreed with the attack, they shared some degree of loyalty to the group.

An example of this category is the grandson of Achmad Dahlan, the founder of Muhammadiyah, Achmad Roichan, alias Saad, who was arrested in April 2003 for withholding information on the whereabouts of Bali bomber Mukhlas.

Roichan is slender and composed. He talks slowly, with a slight Javanese accent. He has a kind of wry, ironic charm that is utterly winning. In my interviews with him in a Jakarta prison last year, he said he openly disagreed with the motive behind the Bali blasts. But he had fought with Mukhlas in Afghanistan from 1985 to 1988, and that created loyalty to the group.

Next on the list would be Herlambang, alias Subai, a 33-year-old Javanese who was arrested in December 2002 for harboring Bali bombers Sawad, Imam Samudra and Abdul Ghoni after the attack.

He is now in Krobokan Prison in Bali serving a six-year term. He was not directly involved in the attack and may have disagreed with it. But loyalty to the group triggered him to provide sanctuary for the bombers.

Psychologists here in Brussels tell us much about this phenomenon: When people are asked to consider evidence and make decisions in a group, they come to very different conclusions than when they are asked the same questions alone. Once we are part of a group, we are all susceptible to peer pressure and social norms.

"Peer pressure is much more powerful than a concept of boss. Many, many times more powerful. People want to live up to what is expected of them," these psychologists explain.

Historically, loyalty between members of regional terrorist group Jamaah Islamiyah seems to have been assumed within the group and has adjusted to internal needs, external shocks and demographic changes.

For that reason, many who are familiar with the group's workings were not surprised to learn that Abu Dujana has become the reported current leader of JI. According to Petrus Reinhard Golose of Indonesia's counterterrorism task force, Abu Dujana is "the guy who leads and has good relations with al-Qaeda and is trusted".

Abu Dujana, who is originally from a stronghold of Darul Islam in West Java, has proved his unquestionable loyalty to the group. He fought in Afghanistan together with Hambali. He shared his skills as a military trainer in the group's camp in Mindanao and allegedly worked closely with Abu Rusdan, a senior member of the group, before Rusdan's arrest.

As a secretary for Rusdan, Dujana was deeply involved with the group, getting reports from members and arranging meetings.

As for the international community, the real challenge is not merely to counter specific terrorist groups, but to always anticipate those individuals who might join a terror campaign because of an imagined connection with other people's struggles.
These "emotional" connections represent one obscure but real and lasting legacy of events such as the current ethnic-religious insurgency in southern Thailand, the unfinished Moro movement in the Philippines, the ongoing Palestinian struggle in the Middle East and obviously the war in Iraq that has drastically boosted terrorism, instead of lessening it.

The writer earned a British Chevening scholarship and is now in the postgraduate program in International Security Studies at St. Andrews University. He can be reached at noorhudaismail@yahoo.com.

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