Editions : July-September 2015


The threat to Indonesia from supporters of the organization known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), is real – but it should not be overblown.

The dangers are threefold. First, many of the Indonesian fighters now with ISIS could eventually return home and revitalize terrorist groups that at the moment lack skills and leadership. Second, ISIS supporters unable to leave for Syria could decide to undertake violent acts in Indonesia as a way of demonstrating their loyalty. Finally, ISIS teachings that promote violence against those labeled as nonbelievers, apostates and heretics could gain more traction, particularly among student groups. The last may prove to be the most serious problem and the most difficult to address.


Indonesia’s foreign fighters


All countries with foreign fighters in Syria are worried about what happens when they return home. Indonesia may have less to fear in this regard than many other countries because of several factors. First, the numbers going are lower. With perhaps 300 nationals in Syria, Indonesia has 1.2 fighters abroad per one million population, as opposed to Belgium with 40, Denmark with 27, France with 18 – let alone Tunisia with 280. With a stable, democratic government, an absence of conflict, the ability to openly advocate for the application of Islamic law, no persecution of Muslim activists, few immigrant ties to the region and no hostile neighbors, there is less reason for Indonesians to leave for Syria than for nationals of many other countries.

A quick note on numbers: Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency (Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme, or BNPT) has repeatedly used a figure of 500 fighters, and some careless academics have put the figure even higher. The most reliable data comes from the national police’s counterterrorism unit, Detachment 88, which as of early June had documented 202 individuals in Syria. That, however, does not include nearly 40 believed to have been killed since last March. We know the figure of 202 is low because more people have gone than have been identified by name. At the same time, information from new arrests has significantly improved the accuracy of police data, so the true number is not likely to be too much higher. The figures of 500 and more tend to include everyone who has gone back and forth to Syria on humanitarian missions linked to Islamist organizations and simply are not accurate estimates of fighters.

Another reason not to overdramatize the problem is that most Indonesians who have left to join ISIS, like most other foreign fighters, have no intention of coming back, although they may be forced to if political circumstances change. The situation is very different than the late 1980s and early 1990s, when some 300 Indonesians went for training on the Afghan-Pakistan border. The goal then was not primarily to join the fighting against the Soviet Union, but rather to acquire the capacity to wage jihad at home. Southeast Asian fighters, many of whom later became leaders of the regional terrorist organization Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), were actively discouraged by Afghan mujahideen leaders from going into battle. In contrast, Indonesians in ISIS are fighting and dying for the Islamic State, with the active encouragement of the ISIS leadership. For the Afghan generation, the push factor – political repression – was more important than the pull factors. For the ISIS generation of post-Suharto Indonesia, it is hard to identify any major push factors. Instead, the attraction of joining the caliphate and taking part in what they believe will be “the great battle at the end of time” is pulling not just young men but entire families to Syria.


Divisions in the extremist community


The Indonesian government needs to be prepared for the return of individuals with the ideological fervor to try to apply ISIS’s murderous tactics at home, the legitimacy to take on leadership roles and the skills to cause serious damage, but there is little danger that they will be able to create a unified front. Indonesian extremists have been and will remain deeply divided. The main division now is between pro-ISIS and anti-ISIS factions, but it builds on earlier splits in the movement.

The pro-ISIS faction looks to radical cleric Aman Abdurrahman, imprisoned since 2010 on terrorism charges in a maximum-security prison off the south coast of Java, for ideological inspiration. It includes most of the groups still committed to waging jihad in Indonesia as part of a broader effort to establish an Islamic state. It also includes computer-savvy, university-educated preachers attracted by Aman Abdurrahman’s teachings, who have used radical websites and social media to organize ISIS support. Muhammad Fachry, the founder of al-mustaqbal.net, who was arrested last March, is a case in point.

The best-known militant in this faction is probably Santoso, the self-styled leader of the Mujahideen of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur). He was the target of major police and military operations in mid-2015, operates out of the jungles of Central Sulawesi province and has used a clever media strategy to portray himself as the Indonesian version of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, founder of ISIS’s parent organization, Al Qaeda in Iraq, when in fact he is a small-time operator with no obvious strategy.

The anti-ISIS faction, which includes JI and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia, also believes that jihad in Syria is obligatory for all Muslims, but supports the Al Qaeda affiliate and ISIS rival, Jabhat al-Nusra. Its members believe that for the moment, the costs of violent jihad in Indonesia outweigh the benefits, but that calculus could change. While the Indonesians who have gone to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra may only total several dozen (and are included in the Detachment 88 figure of 202), the national government needs to keep an eye on them as well, especially as JI generally has been more adept at long-term thinking than other groups.


Violence at home?


If returning fighters are one potential problem, another is that individuals loyal to ISIS could seek to undertake violence within Indonesia. These possible attackers fall into three categories. One is frustrated fighters. The Indonesian government since late 2014 has been much more proactive in trying to stop its citizens from leaving for Syria, even though it has few legal tools to do so. As has happened in Australia and Canada, individuals denied the chance to fight abroad could decide to retaliate through terrorism at home. Others could seek to win ISIS approval by attempting attacks in ISIS’s name. In both cases, the risk of mass casualties remains very low, because the capacity of terrorist groups is so limited. (Since the twin Jakarta hotel bombings in 2009, there has not been a single bombing that has killed anyone but the suicide bomber himself.) It is also remotely possible that at some stage, the ISIS leadership will send someone back to Indonesia from Syria with instructions to undertake an attack and who has the ability to organize it. But there is no evidence at this stage that ISIS is interested in Southeast Asia, and it needs all the Indonesian and Malaysian fighters it has for battles in the Middle East.


Pro-ISIS Indonesians look to radical cleric Aman Abdurrahman, imprisoned since 2010 on terrorism charges in a maximum-security prison off the south coast of Java, for ideological inspiration.


A bigger problem: ISIS teachings


The dissemination of ISIS propaganda may be ultimately a bigger problem for Indonesia. ISIS victories on the battlefield, its defiance of the West and its claim to be applying Islamic law in its purest form in the territories it controls have attracted interest beyond violent extremist circles.

The last thing Indonesia needs is for ISIS takfiri teachings – that is, its branding of anyone, including Muslims, who refuses to accept its dictates as a kafir, or nonbeliever – to gain a wider audience. But most government officials involved in counterterrorism activities, and certainly most leaders of “moderate” Muslim organizations, have neither read ISIS materials nor read an Indonesian translation of the ISIS magazine Dabiq, which is easily available on the Internet. There is no hope of developing an effective counternarrative without a clear understanding of what the actual content of ISIS’s arguments is and the Koranic references it uses to back them up.

The Indonesian government’s well-meaning but misguided effort last March to block extremist websites illustrates the problem. The list of 19 banned sites, prepared by the National Counterterrorism Agency, included ones that were pro-ISIS (al-mustaqbal.net); anti-ISIS but pro Jabhat an-Nusra (arrahmah.com, an-najah.net); and mainstream conservative but generally approving of ISIS (eramuslim.com and hidayatullah.com). Many pro-ISIS sites were left untouched, and most Indonesian students are sufficiently computer literate to figure out a way around the blockage. The problem is not a handful of sites; it is that enthusiasm for the new caliphate has reached a wider audience, and the government has no answer for this.

Indeed, the effort to block websites took place around the same time officials discovered that a religious education textbook used in the moderate Muslim stronghold of Jombang, East Java province, contained material that suggested it was permissible for Muslims to kill nonbelievers. The incident highlighted how easily radical messages can spread. The counterterrorism agency should be using its coordinating role to work with relevant government ministries to develop programs for better vetting and supervision of religious teachers, and a plan for how to deal with problem schools. A survey from 2011 showed that teachers of Islam already have become proponents of intolerance in some areas; the problem is more acute now with the rise of ISIS. But for effective targeting, officials themselves have to better understand the specific messages they want to counter.


A whole-of-government approach


The Indonesian government takes the threat of ISIS seriously, and it has stepped up law enforcement efforts to identify pro-ISIS groups, prevent them leaving for Syria or prosecute them when they return. Thus far, the only people who have been successfully prosecuted were already wanted for an earlier terrorism offense or guilty of other crimes, such as falsification of travel documents. A test case was under way in June to try one man who trained with ISIS fighters in Syria on the obscure charge in the criminal code of “joining a rebellion against a friendly state” – the state in this case being Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. The crime is punishable by up to five years in prison, hardly a heavy term. If the judges accept the argument, Indonesian prosecutors may be able to detain other returnees deemed to be high risk.

Moves are also under way to strengthen the 2003 Antiterrorism Law, but no one should see new legal measures as a silver bullet. If the Indonesian government cannot stop its most notorious convicted terrorists from using cellphones inside “super-maximum-security” prisons or holding radical study groups and translating ISIS propaganda for outside consumption, then new laws are not going to make much difference. Improved prison management has long been identified as a critical need in the fight against extremism in Indonesia, but even with improved political will, the obstacles to making headway are overwhelming.

The National Counterterrorism Agency needs a serious outside evaluation and overhaul. The bifurcation between operations, run by a police officer, and prevention, run by a military officer, is not conducive to cooperation. In any case, useful ideas for “immunizing” communities against radicalization are coming from those involved on the operational side with access to information about how, where and why radicalization took place in the first place. Many of the agency’s prevention programs are not sufficiently targeted at the locus of the problem to be of much use.

A bigger problem in Indonesia is that too often, specific issues are siloed. ISIS is treated as an isolated issue that has no bearing on, for example, religious vigilantism as practiced by the Islamic Defenders Front (Front Pembela Islam, or FPI) and similar groups that use vigilante violence in the name of protecting morality or fighting deviance. But in some areas of Indonesia, local FPI chapters have gone over en masse to pro-ISIS groups, influenced by persuasive preachers.

The need for better targeting of government programs to counter extremism does not mean that arresting a few high-profile people does the trick. Much of the counterterrorism effort thus far by President Joko Widodo’s government has been aimed at the capture of Santoso in Poso, Central Sulawesi. But his capture will not diminish support for ISIS or lead to an automatic decline in the risk of terrorist activity. Officials need to understand that they are dealing with a broad spectrum where violent extremism shades off into vigilantism, or a more generalized intolerance. Stopping foreign fighters only addresses a fraction of the problem.


Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta.

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