This study analyses the intellectual and political history of Laskar Jihad, the most spectacular Muslim paramilitary group that emerged in Indonesia in the aftermath of the collapse of the New Order regime in May 1998. Using an interpretive framework derived from social movement theory and identity politics, this study exposes the roots of the group and its transformation into a militant, jihadist movement. Based on extensive fieldwork, numerous interviews and a study of the movement's literature, this study demonstrates that the very existence of Laskar Jihad cannot be dissociated from Saudi Arabia's immensely ambitious global campaign for the Wahhabization of the Muslim umma. Operating under the banner of the transnational Salafi da'wa movement, this campaign has succeeded in disseminating the Wahhabi message around the world. The impact of this campaign has been felt in Indonesia since the mid-1980s, reflecting the success of the movement's proponents to attract a significant number of followers and establish an exclusive current of Islamic activism.
This study addresses how the rapid efflorescence of the Salafi movement coincided with increasing tension among its protagonists caused by their increasing competition to become the movement's legitimate representative. Fragmentation and conflict among the Salafis became inevitable. The movement's main actor was Ja'far Umar Thalib, a typical cadre of Islamism who grew up in the puritanical atmosphere of al-Irsyad and Persis, two reformist Muslim organizations in Indonesia. His militancy matured in Pakistan, and he went to Afghanistan to fight with the Afghan mujahids. Upon return, he immediately immersed himself in Salafi activism, giving lectures and sermons in Salafi teaching centres scattered among various Indonesian cities. Bolstered by further study with Muqbil ibn Hadi al-Wadi'i of Yemen, he quickly emerged as the movement's most visible, and leading, authority.
Utilizing pre-existing networks and interpersonal bonds formed through his activism in the Salafi movement, Ja'far Umar Thalib mobilized thousands of Salafis and other aspirant mujahids to join Laskar Jihad. Through conspiracy rhetoric blaming Zionist and Christian international powers for the escalation of the Moluccan conflict, he created a pretext for collective action that encouraged an analytical shift from individuals to groups. Based on this pretext, which was strengthened and legitimized by fatwas from prominent religious authorities in the Middle East, the Salafis justified their actions and created a new collective identity as heroes for their religion and fellow faithful and as patriots for their beloved state. Thus it is not surprising that they vied with one another to captain the ships that would take them to the frontlines of the Moluccas in a fervid attempt to absorb themselves into a protracted, bloody communal conflict in the islands. For these youths jihad seems not only a demonstration of their commitment to Islam but also a way to express their resentment and frustration in the face of rapid modernization and globalization.
From April 2000 until its disbanding in October 2002, Laskar Jihad dispatched more than 7,000 fighters to the Moluccas to confront Christians. This brief episode of jihad activism owed much to the support of military elites who saw it as a chance to use militant Muslim groups to retaliate against Abdurrahman Wahid for having sacked them from key military positions. Ironically, however, most of the Laskar Jihad fighters were unskilled combatants. They went to the Moluccas with limited experience and an untried fighting capacity. Their greatest achievement perhaps lay in creating propaganda that successfully influenced public opinion through the media. Given this fact, this study argues that the jihad conducted by Laskar Jihad can be more accurately described as drama: an endeavour by the Salafis to shore up their self-image as the most committed defenders of Islam, and thereby to put their identity on the map of Indonesian Islam.