Gauging the ISIS Threat in Indonesia

Gauging the ISIS Threat in Indonesia

They’re over there, not over here

So far, although 100-odd Islamic fighters have returned from the Middle East, the threat remains small


Concern is rising in Jakarta that Indonesia could be the first Southeast Asian nation hit by an Islamic State-style attack from the 100-odd Islamic fighters who have returned from the Middle East in recent months although the fundamentalists so far are disorganized and small in number. 

Roughly 160 Indonesian males, 40 females and 100 children under 25 have left Indonesia for the Middle East, according to figures supplied by Sidney Jones, a risk analyst who heads the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. About 100 of them have been killed in combat in regions held by Islamic State, or ISIS as the radical Muslim group is widely known.  Another 100-odd have been prevented from leaving Indonesia or have been deported from foreign countries that interdicted them.

A video has been circulating in social media since Nov. 22, purporting to be from East Indonesian Mujahideen, a terrorist group based in the forests of central Sulawesi some 600 km from Jakarta and which, according to authorities, is known to have pledged its allegiance to ISIS, which wants to build a fundamentalist caliphate across the Middle East.

Vow to Attack Palace, Police

In the video, Santoso, the fugitive leader of East Indonesian Mujahideen, vows to attack the State Palace, the residence of President Joko Widodo, and to destroy the Jakarta Police headquarters. The group has a history of targeting security forces, in particular the police, in retaliation for what it claims is a systematic campaign by the authorities to crack down on Muslims. The Army has retaliated with a series of “training missions” in the Solo area of Sulawesi that are believed to have killed or neutralized some of Santoso’s forces although he remains at large.

Insp. Gen. Tito Karnavian, the Jakarta Police chief, told local media his office is aware of the threats is was taking them seriously. He added that security would be beefed up throughout the Greater Jakarta area.

That is possibly an empty threat, given the isolated location of the organization. Police and Army intelligence officials are more concerned with the area around Bogor in west Java, 60 km. south of Jakarta. The Setara Institute, a monitor of religious freedom, surveyed 94 cities nationwide and found Bogor is the most religiously intolerant city in Indonesia, with the top 10 all located in West Java.  Religious feeling against Christian churches is extremely high, with large groupings of fundamentalists. 

With the police and army on high alert, the possibility of a Paris-style attack, in which suicide bombers and gunmen killed 140 people at three locations, is relatively small, Jones said. Any Indonesian incident is likely to be small-scale.

“An attack is possible, but capacity is low,” Jones said in a Skype interview. “Lots of factors suggest that the risk of violence might be rising, but from a very low base.” ISIS Central, she said, is not interested in SE Asia and the groups that want to commit violence in the region are not very competent. The government is at a high level of vigilance and, despite the presentation by Sentoso, in the jungles of Solo, they have not picked up much traffic that would  suggest an attack is being discussed. But, she said, the risk of violence is probably rising.

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