North Sumatra, Indonesia – Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the al-Qaeda-affiliated group that masterminded the Bali bombings in 2002, has found a new source of income – a network of charity donation boxes stationed across Indonesia that were only discovered after one of the group’s leaders was arrested along with 23 other members late last year.
The group’s use of the seemingly innocuous boxes, which are clustered outside minimarkets across the archipelago and usually used by charities, could be more significant than the arrest of JI leader Zulkarnaen, also known as Aris Sumarsono, who had been on the run for 18 years, analysts said.
He is thought to be one of the most senior members of JI and was instrumental in the attacks on Bali, which left more than 200 people dead.
“The real major blow for JI isn’t the arrest of Zulkarnaen but the discovery of JI’s source of income through both illegal and legal ‘charity work’”, Noor Huda Ismail, a former member of the hardline group Darul Islam who has since founded the Institute for International Peace Building and runs deradicalisation programmes and workshops across Indonesia, told Al Jazeera.
“The importance of the arrest is uncovering the active JI cells who have been hibernating ‘peacefully’ using legitimate covers such as foundations, charity organisations and NGOs,” he said.
National Police Spokesperson Inspector General Argo Yuwono told the media in December that police had found more than 20,000 donation boxes in raids across 12 regions in Indonesia, including Jakarta, Lampung, North Sumatra, Yogyakarta, East Java and Maluku.
According to the police, donation boxes were also placed in other locations in addition to minimarkets, including petrol stations, restaurants, cafes and shops raking in millions of Indonesian rupiah every day. The scale of the operation appeared to have increased significantly over the past few years, the authorities said.
The boxes were registered, legally, to the Abdurrachman bin Auf (ABA) Charity Foundation but that was not where the money was going.
ABA was a front for JI, and some of the foundation’s members have also been arrested, including Fitria Sanjaya, who was detained after giving information about the alms boxes and the diversion of funds to Jemaah Islamiyah.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, former JI operative Arif Budi Setyawan, who has since written a book that warns of the dangers of radicalisation, says the discovery of the donation boxes marks a distinct escalation in the group’s fundraising efforts. “They had this kind of system of donations before, but not as many as now and not in public places like minimarkets,” he said. “No doubt this has astonished many people, but as a former member of JI, I’m just surprised by the sheer numbers [of donations boxes].”
There is speculation that Jemaah Islamiyah implemented the new public donation system after failing to raise enough funds from its own members, who are typically expected to contribute their own money in the form of alms to the group.
According to Ali Imron, who was jailed for life in 2003 for his role in the Bali bombings, JI previously relied on high-level donors rather than soliciting funds from the public. “That method didn’t exist before. We had our own money. For jihad in Ambon and Poso, we had financial help from lots of sources and for the Bali bombing we had money directly from Osama bin Laden,” he said.
The police say the funds from the boxes had been used to buy weapons and explosives, as well as to provide training for JI operatives in Syria. The group has been out of the limelight for nearly 10 years, but is estimated to have about 6,000 active cells, according to the police’s Yuwono.
Several weeks before Zulkarnaen was apprehended, another senior member of Jemaah Islamiyah, Upik Lawanga, was also arrested. At his home, police discovered an underground bunker containing weapons and bomb-making equipment, prompting fears that the group was planning a new wave of attacks.
In addition to the recent arrests, 82-year-old Abu Bakar Bashir, who was the so-called “spiritual leader” of JI at the time of the Bali attacks, is set to be released from prison on Friday after serving two-thirds of a 15-year sentence for supporting religious training camps in Indonesia’s Aceh Province.
In 2014, he pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the former leader of the ISIL (ISIS) group, who was killed in Syria in October 2019.
Ismail says the discovery of the funding network will probably be only a temporary setback to the group’s ambitions.
“The discovery of JI’s source of funding will weaken the organisation temporarily before it can bounce back and rejuvenate itself through its massive network in the country,” he said.
“I think JI will metamorphose from using the tactic of ‘bullets’ to ‘ballots’ by pushing its extremist ideology through politics. Sadly, the threat of terrorism will not be rooted out completely in Indonesia. What we can do is to slow down the process of growth and contain its tentacles.”
The former member Setyawan agreed that JI, which was banned in Indonesia in 2008 after a sustained crackdown by counterterrorism forces, should once again be viewed with concern.
“In the short term, we should not fear JI, but perhaps in the long term we need to remain cautious,” he said. “In particular, we need to examine the relationship between raising funds through thousands of donation boxes in minimarkets with the discovery of homemade weapons in bunkers.”