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Bhattacharya1,M (pgr)

December 4th, 2020

Indonesia’s Mujahidin Timur, Past and Present: Peripheral Jihad Against a Broader Social History

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Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Bhattacharya1,M (pgr)

December 4th, 2020

Indonesia’s Mujahidin Timur, Past and Present: Peripheral Jihad Against a Broader Social History

1 comment | 2 shares

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

In this article Charles Baker examines the historical roots of Indonesia’s Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, a militant jihadi organisation. He argues that the state must address major socio-economic discrepancies and perceptions of neglect in order to tackle movements propagated by organisations like MIT. 

Over the past four years in Poso, Central Sulawesi, Indonesia’s security forces have been engaged in a protracted operation aimed at dismantling a small, persistent militant jihadi organization known as Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (‘East Indonesian Mujahidin’ or MIT). Alarmingly, it would seem that MIT maintains some degree of communal support in the region and a seemingly recurring supply of radical recruits.[1] Indeed, the matter of MIT’s persistence in Sulawesi suggests the salience of deeper structural realities related to histories of both broad and regional social class positioning(s) and antagonisms. Such realities do much to fuel articulations of specific ‘Islamic’ symbols, practices, and priorities that are seen to contend sharply with state policy narratives and the ethno-religious groups they are perceived to favor.

With this in mind, the regional narrative of MIT and its articulated grievances harken back to Sulawesi’s Darul Islam (DI) rebellion and its own narrative of social struggle. In fact, Vedi Hadiz has already suggested that the many militant jihads waged alongside social transformations in Indonesia have, to some degree, had their roots in DI.[2] Thus, in considering the persistence of militant jihadism in the region, it becomes necessary to recall Darul Islam as a pinnacle moment in the temporality of political and socioeconomic transformation across Indonesia.

A Broader Social Context

With independence in 1945 and the canonization of an official state-Islam separation in the new constitution, it seemed that pribumi (‘indigenous’) Muslims’ articulations of ‘political Islam’ over the early to mid-20th-century largely failed as means of realizing any elevated social, political, or material status in the now-officially-plural state. Nor did it succeed in bringing to fruition any paradigmatic forms of egalitarianism in subsequent political and economic development processes. In fact, it was only through the DI rebellions that Islamists realized a degree of short-lived success over the initial decades of independence.

The DI rebellions, led by Kartosuwirjo, began in Central Java in 1949 and sought to create an ‘Islamic state’ by implementing sharia’h across the Indonesian archipelago. This was to be attained through an insurgency aimed toward establishing autonomous territorial enclaves as staging grounds for a total societal transformation through jihad. By 1955, DI militants held areas in Central Java, South Sulawesi, South Kalimantan, and North Sumatra. Unsurprisingly, these early rebellions had their roots in various social grievances and, therefore, articulated desires for a ‘socially just’, equitable nation-state.

Though Indonesia has an overwhelming Muslim-majority, historical politico-economic development processes, as many have discussed, failed to proportionally integrate Muslims within the emerging economy.[3] While over the 1970s, an urban-Muslim middle class did emerge alongside President Suharto’s capital liberalizations, the pribumi Muslims of Indonesia’s rural periphery remained detached. Outside of the metropolis, the Muslim majorities of coastal Sulawesi have remained behind development trends relative to both ethnic-Chinese and pribumi Christian minorities.[4] Subsequently, anxieties over perceived distance from the burgeoning urban-Muslim aggregations of power and solidarity have elevated within some peripheral Muslim communities, where legacies of colonialism help sustain perceptions of subordination.[5]

Preceding independence, Dutch colonial efforts to reform landholdings and agricultural practices allowed a pribumi Protestant population of inland Sulawesi to emerge as a petty-bourgeoisie class of its own. The Dutch engaged in missionizing Protestantism across the rice-producing highlands of Sulawesi over the 19th-century in hopes of constructing a loyal agricultural class of pribumi Christians, while attenuating coastal Muslims’ anti-colonial aspirations.[6] This early-elevated social position for the pribumi populations of inland Sulawesi has largely endured and continues to inform post-colonial social antagonisms.

Sulawesi’s Darul Islam

In considering Darul Islam’s historical influence in the east, it is important to note that many view those of the South Sulawesi rebellion as having carried alternative motivations for joining DI, rather than insatiable desires for an ‘Islamic state’ based in Sharia’h.[7] Van Dijk has discussed how Kahar Muzzakar, leader of the Sulawesi rebellion, was initially angered over the infant state’s planned exclusion of the region’s ex-independence fighters.[8] As DI gained momentum, Kahar Muzzakar severed state ties, and with the validation of Kartosuwirjo, mobilized an insurgency in 1952—a social rebellion at first only thinly-veiled under the pretense of Kartosuwirjo’s broader Islamist jihad.[9]

Prior to the rebellions, ex-independence fighters in Sulawesi were excluded from the new state military apparatus, leaving these already-armed militants in search of a cause.[10] Undoubtedly, any prior-held ideas or hopes of inclusion would have elicited notions and imaginaries of joining an elevated social class of military personnel—even after the ‘secular-nationalist’ constitution had been ratified. This suggests that, initially, many of these DI militants did not harbor any major qualms over the prospect of being absorbed by a ‘secular-nationalist’ state. Subsequently, Kahar Muzzakar’s DI rebellion demonstrates relationships between social grievances and existing religious traditions that can be leveraged for dissent by social movement actors.

Kahar Muzzakar’s rebellion became deeply rooted in the pursuit of social justice reform—broadly, the movement sought landholding reforms and a general re-structuring of rural society along wholly egalitarian lines. Van Dijk goes on to discuss how traditional terms of respect and superiority were banned altogether, while material possession was regulated under frameworks of collectivity. Indeed, Van Dijk’s account of Sulawesi’s DI exposes a movement bent on a comprehensive social revolution through nothing less than a total transformation in the collective psyche of local pribumi communities.[11] Being a devout Muslim himself, it is no surprise that Kahar Muzzakar articulated Islam as the primary schema of his desired revolutionary trajectory.

As Hadiz suggests, DI represented a struggle that was altogether intertwined with transformations in regional social class relations. Communal support, he posits, was underpinned by emerging alliances between rural peasantry classes and communal ruling-elites as their interests converged against post-colonial development trajectories.[12]

Leveraging contemning perceptions of the emerging state, Kahar Muzzakar’s rebellion followed a comparatively unique pattern of communal relations. In contrast to Kartosuwirjo’s use of takfir ideology against resisting communities, it seems that Muzzakar’s repertoire of contention was geared more toward cultivating favorability within both approving and skeptical Muslim communities.[13] Nevertheless, DI militants in Sulawesi did perpetrate violence against Christian communities, at times even venturing north to attack Christians in Central Sulawesi.[14]

Kahar Muzzakar’s hybrid-DI rebellion outlasted its counterparts. In fact, the rebel commander went on to dissociate himself from Kartosuwirjo in an attempt to establish his own autonomous caliphate that would include Indonesia Timur and parts of Java.[15] While DI rebels in Java disaggregated after Kartosuwirjo’s capture in 1962, it wasn’t until 1965 that Kahar Muzzakar’s rebellion was dismantled following his death at the hands of security forces.[16] This, however, did nothing to diminish Darul Islam’s relevance. For insofar as today’s jihadis struggle against perceived social and political marginalization, they continue a DI tradition that, rather than dying in the early-1960s, may simply have retreated, reemerging periodically as its narratives resonate.

The Contemporary Mujahidin in Perspective

MIT was conceived in 2010 by former Jemaah Islamiyah member and Poso-native Abu Wardah—or ‘Santoso’—after his attempts to establish a jihadi training camp in Aceh, North Sumatra failed. Once established, MIT soon began attacks on Poso police. Much like South Sulawesi’s earlier DI rebellion, MIT actively adopted a focus on the ‘near enemy’ by keeping violence directed at regional security personnel instead of civilian targets or foreign influences.[17] Since its inception, MIT has been responsible for a slew of deadly attacks on local security personnel.

In pursuit of regional autonomy, MIT has followed in DI’s tracks, recruiting from areas across Indonesia Timur in much the same way Kahar Muzzakar had leveraged ties with ex-independence fighters from Nusa Tenggara to Maluku.[18] While state-targeting has been MIT’s modus operandi, the group has, in recent years, targeted minorities around Poso. Notably, the group was responsible for the particularly brutal murder of a local farmer and his son in July 2019.[19] While Santoso was killed in 2016, changes in operational form may reflect new leadership under Ali Kalora. And yet, a recent April 2020 attack killing two police officers suggests a recommitment to targeting the various symbolic forms through which the state manifests in Sulawesi.[20] 

Though approval for militant jihad is certainly not universal across regional Muslim communities, much of the analysis on MIT’s historical persistence does suggest that communal support has been a central factor.[21] In 2016, Santoso’s funeral in Poso, for example, drew a heavy turnout of locals sympathetic to his cause.[22] Such forms of communal approval, however, must be placed within the context of capital asymmetries and perceived political marginalization.

Historically, infrastructure development across Central Sulawesi has lagged state trends, and the formal labor market remains substantially less accessible than in Java’s urban sphere. Adding to historical social tensions, Christians have remained both a regional minority and the region’s landholding majority.[23] Furthermore, Muslims’ secondary school completion rates over the 1990s were roughly 50-percent lower than Christians’, making it unsurprising that Christians have dominated regional government positions in the aftermath of Post-Suharto ‘decentralization’ reforms.[24] Such realities have helped crystalize sentiments of detachment from what is perceived as a neglectful, disparaging central state.[25] Consequently, the contemporary MIT appears as part of a renewed struggle to transform Muslims’ subordinated status through the realization of an autonomous ‘Islamic’ state.

Arianto Sangadji has argued that persistent violence in Poso should be reconsidered as being struggles between Muslim and Christian members of the same marginalized class—the ‘rural proletariat’—given the key absence of class consciousness.[26] Although poverty has been indiscriminate in Poso, Dutch colonial priorities and ethno-religious minorities’ domination of capital suggests that some Muslims may view Christians as altogether intertwined with state elites. Furthermore, the prior conquests of DI can arguably be seen as a force in furthering the collective realization of a certain rural Muslim-class consciousness and of its relation to an evolving national Ummah.

This consciousness was initially elevated under the pre-independence Sarekat Islam (SI). SI emerged on Java in the 1920s as an Islamic-nationalist movement propagating Islam as a means of promoting egalitarianism and of distinguishing an emerging Muslim petty-bourgeoisie apart from Dutch and ethnic-Chinese capital domination.[27] The suffusion of rural Muslim-class identity was further catalyzed under DI through, as Van Dijk’s account shows, discursive engagements both encouraging a rejection of capitalist ideals and implicating a virtuous ‘Islamic’ identity as the ideal basis of a ‘socially just’, egalitarian society.

With the onset of Muslim-Christian communal violence across Poso in the late 1990s, the draw of ethno-religious solidarity became ever more potent. And for some, militant forms of struggle again became an attractive means of ensuring the survival of ethno-religious traditions and of asserting a re-invigorated desire for new, representative models of economy and nationhood. This would draw militant jihadis from neighboring regions over the early-2000s, who reintroduced a sense of belonging with an empowering national Ummah—a belonging to be strengthened and solidified by aggressive chauvinism performed through militant jihad. [28]

Against a backdrop of asymmetrical development and subsequent ethno-religious antagonisms, MIT seems eager to coalesce—under desired autonomy—with the more chauvinistic strains of an evolving Ummah through articulations of common symbols and narratives of struggle made available by pre-existing organizations of jihad. This wholly aligns with the apparent desires of Kahar Muzzakar’s DI rebellion. Indeed, insofar as MIT’s jihad is predicated upon critiques of regional Muslims’ subordinated status situations and upon desires for a new ‘Islamic’ nationhood, it will likely sustain approval, as some continue to pursue voices of representation disassociated from secular-elite priorities and opposing ethno-religious minorities.

In concluding, DI undoubtedly remains both a point of reference and an inescapable cast for contemporary struggles against the state.[29] Whether active or passive, recollections of DI’s history in Sulawesi have likely helped sanction contemporary jihadis’ resolve to carry on as part of what might be considered a ‘historically-legitimate’ regional struggle. Today, the struggle remains in pursuit of autonomy and elevated social status within alternative paradigms of economy, state, and society. Consequently, addressing major socioeconomic discrepancies and perceptions of neglect must be an integral component of any organized attempt to defeat movements such as MIT and the maleficence it spreads.


Charles D. Baker graduated from Yale University with a B.A. in political science, focusing on religion and politics in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. He recently completed his MSc. in political sociology at LSE, where he focused on both the political economy of ‘populism’ and the history of political Islam. He has working proficiency in Bahasa Indonesia.

Featured Image: Central Sulawesi in Indonesia. Taken from Wikimedia Commons


[1] “Covid-19 and the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia”. Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. April, 2020.

[2] Hadiz, Vedi. Islamic Populism in Indonesia and the Middle East. (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[3] Bruinessen, Martin Van. “Islamic State or State Islam? Fifty Years of State-Islam Relations in Indonesia.” In Indonesia at the End of the 20th Century. Ingrid Wassel (eds.), (Hamburg: Abera-Verlag, 1996). Pp. 19–34.

[4] Sidel, John T. (2008). “Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy Revisited: Colonial State and Chinese Immigrant in the Making of Modern Southeast Asia.” Comparative Politics, vol. 40, no.2. Pp. 127–147.

[5] Hadiz, Vedi. 2016.

[6] Aragon, Lorraine V. “Communal Violence in Poso, Central Sulawesi: Where People Eat Fish and Fish Eat People”. Indonesia. 2001. Pp. 51-2.

[7] Solahudin. 2013. Pp 23-45.

[8] Van Dijk, C. Rebellion under the Banner of Islam: the Darul Islam in Indonesia. (Martinus Nijhoff, 1981). Pp. 156-217.

[9] Solahudin. 2013. Pp 23-45.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Van Dijk, C. Rebellion Under the Banner of Islam. 1981. Pp. 187-194.

[12] Hadiz, Vedi. 2016. Pp. 120.

[13] Solahudin. 2013. Roots of Terrorism. Pp 23-45.

[14] Aragon, Lorraine V. “Communal Violence in Poso”. 2001.

[15] Solahudin. Roots of Terrorism. 2013.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Henshaw, Andrew D. “Transnational Macro-Narrative Descendancy in Violent Conflict: A Case Study of Mujahidin Indonesia Timur in Central Sulawesi”. Dissertation. Macquarie University. 2015.

[18] Hadiz, Vedi. 2016. Pp. 126.

[19] Sangadji, Ruslan. “Islamic State-Linked Group Behind Murder of Father, Son: Sulawesi Police”. The Jakarta Post. July, 2019.

[20] “Joint Operation Extends Poso Terror Group Manhunt, Again”. The Jakarta Post. July, 2020.

[21] Sumpter, Cameron and Jordan Newton. “Flurry of violence in Poso Shows Resilient Militancy and Community Support”. Indonesia at Melbourne. May, 2020.

[22] “Covid-19 and the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia”. Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. April, 2020.

[23] Brown, Graham and Yuki Tajima. “Causes of Conflict”. In Overcoming Violent Conflict: Peace and Development Analysis in Central Sulawesi. (Jakarta: Indonesia Printers, 2005). Pp. 21-33.

[24] Sangadji, A. “All About the Poor: An Alternative Explanation for the violence in Poso. In Flowers on the Wall: Truth and Reconciliation in Timor-Leste, Indonesia, and Melanesia (University of Calgary Press, 2018).

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid. Pp. 196.

[27] Hadiz, Vedi. 2016. Pp. 8, 127-31.

[28] Schulze, Kirsten. “From Ambon to Poso: Comparative and Evolutionary Aspects of Local Jihad in Indonesia”. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs. Vol. 41. 2019.

[29] Hadiz, Vedi. Islamic Populism. 2016.

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