The ISIS Threat in Indonesia

Indonesia, with the largest Muslim population in Asia, is one of the most vulnerable states in Southeast Asia to possible infiltration from members of the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS).

Although the capacity of violent extremist groups remains low, this could change with the eventual return home of an unknown number of Indonesians now fighting in Syria and Iraq who will have the training, combat experience, and leadership potential now lacking in Indonesia’s extremist community, according to a new report issued last week by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis.

The report examines the ISIS support network in Indonesia, how it emerged, who joined it and how it has evolved. While the government’s response has been forceful, it still needs to translate decrees into action, the report continues. A small group of Indonesians inspired by an activist named Bahrum Syah with links to an extremist organization once known as Al Muhajiroun and Anjem Choudary, one of Al Muhariroun’s founders, have become the engine of the pro-ISIS network.

“The appearance of ISIS may be a rare example of international developments becoming a direct driver of jihadi recruitment in Indonesia,” the report notes “In the past, the drivers have been overwhelmingly local. When Indonesians went to Afghanistan to train in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, they were spurred by repression at home and the desire to develop the capacity to fight Suharto,” the strongman who fell from power in

The bombing campaign of Jemaah Islamiyah between 1999 and 2002 was sparked by communal conflict at home, in Ambon and Poso. Despite all the rhetoric about support for Palestine, very few Indonesians have ever gone to fight there. But, as with a long list of European countries the appeal of ISIS is different, “a combination of religious prophecies involving Sham (greater Syria); the string of victories in Iraq in June that gave a sense of backing a winner; the resonance of the concept of the caliphate; and sophisticated use by ISIS of social media.”

Somewhat fortunately, ISIS has also triggered a bigger backlash than ever seen before in the Indonesian Muslim community, “suggesting that support will stay limited to a fringe of the radical fringe. The individuals involved are nonetheless dangerous, and it is cause for concern that inmates of high security prisons continue to be among the most active propagators of ISIS views and teachings. Indonesian prison management has improved in recent years, but there is a long way to go.”

The appearance of the ISIS phenomenon means the incoming Jokowi government will have to decide whether to continue the counter-terrorism policies of the Yudhoyono government or ramp them up, including by pressing for strengthened legal tools.

“Either way, it is critical that leadership of the counter-terrorism effort be left in the hands of the police, who over the last decade have accumulated all the institutional knowledge of radical networks.:

Whatever strength ISIS has in Indonesia today appears to be centered in the prisons where police intelligence units rolled up previous jihadi units involved in the bombings of the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta, among other terrorist activities. As the Arab Spring upheavals rocked the Middle East and North Africa in 2011, these jihadis regarded the fall of dictators as the first step toward the establishment of the caliphate.

One critical area is obviously prison management. Stopping the translation of ISIS pronouncements will not stop their dissemination but it could slow them down and in any case could be a test case of ability of the Indonesian prison system to manage prisoners, their visitors and their communications, the report continues. Prison officials need much more explicit training in what is and is not allowed and ensure that tight control is maintained over communication and reading materials.

The Jokowi government also needs to follow through on Yudhoyono’s instructions to strengthen the capacity of the immigration service to monitor the comings and goings of ISIS supporters. This means more coordination with Detachment 88 and BNPT in providing watch lists for officials at ferry terminals and airports as well as timely sharing of information with governments in the region, especially Malaysia. Any bureaucratic obstacles to that sharing should be reviewed. It also needs to consult with other governments before issuing visas for radical clerics such as Anjem Choudary and Omar Bakri.

Indonesia, the country risk organization says, “does need a number of stronger laws to enforce its commitment to banning ISIS. For example, at present it is not illegal for Indonesians to travel overseas to take part in military training, and it should be. At the same time, Indonesia needs to avoid the temptation to turn the current anti-terrorism law into something that more resembles an Internal Security Act like Singapore’s, with provisions for lengthy preventive detention without trial. In the absence of new laws, the government may have to fall back on prosecuting some ISIS organizers under Criminal Code provisions that punish criminal incitement.

President-elect Jokowi will likely defer to his security advisers on the issue of counter-terrorism but he needs to think very carefully about staffing key positions. If the head of BNPT changes, for example, it is important that it stay with the police, not the army, and that that the danger posed by ISIS is not seen as an opening to give a greater role to the Indonesian military. It is the counter-terrorism police who have the institutional knowledge, the intelligence networks and the track record to manage the problem, although the high rate of deaths of suspected terrorists in police operations over the last two years also needs to be brought down.

Finally, the incoming government also needs to rethink a strategy for counter-radicalization, including through the development of a social media strategy. This is where BNPT and the Yudhoyono government have been weakest. It should not have taken a video posted on YouTube on 23 July to convince the government that ISIS was a threat, when incendiary teachings had been taking place across Indonesia for the preceding year.

The Indonesian government has reacted more forcefully to the appearance of IS than to any other extremist movement in memory and so has the mainstream Muslim community. The difficulty will be to translate genuine concern into meaningful change in terms of new legislation, improved immigration controls and better management of prisons.

But, the report recommends, there needs to be improved monitoring of Indonesians already in Syria and their possible return. Four have died there. There needs to be stricter monitoring of foreigners in Indonesia, better supervision of prisons where terrorist prisoners are held, stepped-up security in areas known to be home to radical networks such as Poso, Ambon, East Java and Central Java, deployment of “soft power” in an effort to be led by the Minister of Religion and involving community leaders and clerics to try to guard against the influence of ISIS teachings and firm punishment against those involved in terrorist activities.