Gauging the ISIS Threat in Indonesia

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.

Social Media Spreads the Word

Social media, for instance, is ensuring that ISIS propaganda is reaching new audiences, Jones said in a report titled Online Activism and Social Media Usage Among Indonesian Extremists, which added that the government would be unable to develop countermeasures unless it puts more resources into training analysts to analyze explore the content of extremist communications.

“The one constant has been the reliance on face-to-face contact for radicalisation and recruitment and that continues today,” Jones wrote in a study of social media “ISIS propaganda, disseminated by social media, can get individuals interested in the caliphate but with few exceptions, involvement in radical religious discussion groups seems to precede the actual decision to leave.”

Nevertheless, she wrote, the propaganda seems to be having an impact, particularly the depictions of daily life in the Islamic State and the camaraderie of Indonesian fighters, smiling broadly with their new weapons or enjoying a dip in a hotel swimming pool after battle. “More and more Indonesians have gone to Syria as families or even extended families, and in some cases, women have driven the departures. Indonesian government statistics on ‘foreign fighters’ include women and children, who may constitute more than 40 per cent of the Indonesians with ISIS. They form an even bigger percentage of the deportees from Turkey.

Counterterror Role Revives Army

In the meantime, the counterterror campaign has become one of the most important battlegrounds between the police and the military, leading to a resurgence of the Indonesian Army, known as the TNI. Starting in 1999, with the fall of Suharto, the military, which had played a dominant role in Indonesian society, went into partial eclipse at least partly because of what was regarded as its disgraceful role in attempting vainly to continue to prop up the strongman.

But, as Asia Sentinel reported earlier this year, President Joko Widowo has overseen a remarkable resurgence of military power.

The military is now eager to take on a more operational role, with the police – with their own formidable Densus 88 counterterrorism unit, which in the previous decade rolled up a sizable number of Islamist rebels, killing many of them – determined to keep it strictly a law enforcement responsibility.

“This competition played out in Poso in March and April, “ Jones wrote in another report, “where both institutions mounted huge operations – the TNI called theirs “exercises” – to try to capture Santoso, the country’s most wanted terrorist. Neither succeeded, but with better cooperation, they might have. The problem in part is that the division of labor in “grey areas” like counter-terrorism, counter-insurgency and narcotics interdiction, and the terms under which one institution assists the other, have never been defined in law.”

The report notes that there are no signs that the TNI is trying to return to political center stage. The military knows that its legitimacy with the Indonesian public – with whom it has an 83 percent approval rating – depends on full commitment to the democratic system.

“But the more it exploits dissatisfaction with the police and the more assertive it becomes, the harder it will be to exert civil control and put security sector reform back on track.”