Indonesia: ISIS’s Next Front

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By Sidney Jones

ISIS appears to be exerting a steadily growing pull in Indonesia, with its appeal now reaching beyond existing extremist groups. It’s successfully presenting itself as a new, dynamic Islamic state that applies Islamic law in full and in its purest form. More and more Indonesians are seeking to make the journey, not just to fight but also as a religious obligation. As the nature of ISIS support in Indonesia evolves, so does the nature of the threat it presents. Indonesia’s concerns have thus far been focused on the possible return of its fighters, but it also needs to look at support networks inside and outside Indonesia and the possible social impact.

In late 2013, Indonesians were drawn to Syria either because they equated the conflict there with the great battle at the end of time foretold by Islamic prophecies, or because they wanted to defend fellow Sunni Muslims from attacks by the Assad government. ISIS was only one of several militias they joined. By mid-2014, however, far more Indonesians were flocking to ISIS than to any other group. The al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra was a distant second, attracting followers from Jemaah Islamiyah and Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia but few others.

The ISIS supporters included members of various Darul Islam factions; a loose coalition known as the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT) based in Poso, Central Sulawesi; and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), as well as disaffected jihadis from other groups looking for something more militant. Perhaps more importantly, they also included followers of detained cleric Aman Abdurrahman (real name: Oman Rochman), a salafi scholar who has provided the most influential religious rationale for ISIS support.

By early 2015, it became clear that the appeal of ISIS—as a victorious Islamic army and as an experiment in Islamic governance—was spreading, even as the Indonesian police were doing their best to disrupt sending networks. In March, several key organisers were arrested around Jakarta and Malang, East Java. The men involved had helped arrange travel, tickets and contacts on the Turkish-Syrian border. The travel was to Turkey, via Malaysia or the Gulf States. Jakarta-Qatar-Istanbul flights were popular, as were flights to Saudi Arabia with onward travel overland. The arrests of those men may have slowed departures among the groups that relied on them.

But one reason for assuming that the majority of the Indonesians in ISIS were from known radical groups was that the main sources of information were individuals with links to those groups—who knew their friends and families; had trained, fought, studied or been imprisoned with them; or stayed in touch with them through social media. But what if there was a critical mass of Indonesians in Syria without previous ties to violent extremists, whose social circles were completely separate, and who went through different sending networks? Not only would they be harder to identify in Syria, but their support networks inside Indonesia might be off police radars completely.

It was clear early on that some Indonesian students had left for Syria from Egypt, Turkey, Yemen and Pakistan. Several were from extremist families, but others had no such ties. Then there was the policeman from Jambi, recently killed in battle, who became attracted to ISIS on his own and then used social media networks to find contacts to help him arrive in Syria. Radical groups had reportedly rejected him as a possible spy, so he was forced to look elsewhere for logistical support—and found it. We’ve learned of networks among Indonesian migrant workers from East Asia to the Gulf who have offered assistance with alternative routes and transit accommodation.

This means that the numbers in Syria and Iraq are probably higher than we thought. The figure of 500 that the Indonesian government has been using since late 2014, based on poor data, may now be closer to the truth. Video footage recently posted on YouTube shows a large contingent of Indonesian–Malaysian fighters, and there’s growing evidence that it’s only one of several such groups.

The larger the presence in Syria, the larger the support base in Indonesia. Does this raise the risk of violence? Probably—but it’s important not to overdramatise it. There are several potential sources.

One is an ISIS structure established in Indonesia with the capacity to order acts of terrorism. Without control of territory, it’s difficult to see any advantages of a formal structure or how it would differ from existing would-be terrorist cells that quickly come to the attention of police.

A second would be an individual or group sent back to Indonesia—or elsewhere in Southeast Asia— with orders to carry out violence in ISIS’s name. The only motivation would be to demonstrate the organisation’s reach. It’s hard to believe it would be a priority for ISIS now, but things could change.

A third would be an attack carried out by one of several competing factions among Indonesian fighters in Syria. Reports of bitter infighting among Indonesian commanders have surfaced in the last few weeks, and this could have consequences back home—but without the leadership of the commanders themselves, there’s little reason to believe their supporters in Indonesia have the skills to pull off a major attack. The same lack of skills would restrict the ability of anyone else in Indonesia without overseas training who wanted to use violence to prove himself to the ISIS command.

The fourth, which is where the majority of concern has been focused to date, would be from Indonesian fighters forced by circumstance to return to Indonesia at some point in the future when the conflict wanes. A combination then of combat experience, ideological commitment and alienation at home could be deadly.

But if the appeal of ISIS is spreading because of its ‘pure’ application of Islamic law, perhaps we should begin to think of other kinds of risks as well. These include pockets of extreme intolerance, increased funding for pro-shariah activism, and higher exposure to extremist teachings in Indonesian migrant communities abroad.

Indonesia has shown some ability to deal with extremist violence but confronting the ideology that justifies it has proved much more difficult.

This article originally appeared at The Strategist.