Islamic State's growing Indonesian support base poses a serious long-term threat
Since the emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (ISIS) in 2013 and its declaration of a caliphate in June 2014, a small but growing number of Indonesians have answered ISIS' call. Hundreds of Indonesians have gone to fight for various rebel groups in Syria, including for ISIS. Within Indonesia, some 2000 people have joined pro-ISIS rallies and pledged allegiance to ISIS at events across the country. The individuals came from existing groups including Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), followers of Aman Abdurrahman, and the Mujahidin of East Indonesia.
Such numbers of ISIS supporters may appear insignificant for a majority-Muslim country with over 250 million people. Other groups campaigning for an Islamic caliphate like Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia are much larger. Moreover, many who pledge allegiance to ISIS are keyboard warriors rather than experienced combatants. Nevertheless, ISIS followers could pose a serious security threat in the long run, particularly if they provide a support base for survivors of the Syria fighting who bring their combat skills and experience home.
ISIS supporters in Indonesia have banded together under the auspices of Ansharud Daulah Islamiyah (ADI), which spans locations across Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia. It is difficult to ascertain whether ADI is an umbrella organisation or just a loose community of like-minded individuals. Its members will not openly discuss ADI’s structure, and in any case prefer not to describe ADI as an organisation for ideological reasons. They believe establishing a formal organisation would make them equal to other jihadi groups, which they see as being beneath the ISIS caliphate. They instead consider ADI to be an embryonic province of the Islamic State, even though it controls no territory. Their current priority is to emigrate to fight in Syria and Iraq, but ISIS supporters also envision expanding Islamic State within Indonesia. The leader of pro-ISIS militant group Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (East Indonesia Mujahidin) – based in Poso, Central Sulawesi – has also stated his desire to make Indonesia an Islamic State province.
Nevertheless, Indonesian militants are too insignificant to realise such dreams of ISIS' central leadership recognising Indonesia as a province in the near future. Existing groups in Indonesia lack the capability to carry out large-scale attacks, evident from the absence of any significant terror incident since 2009. Nor do extremists have much scope to operate in stable, democratic Indonesia, let alone to seize territory, as the ISIS affiliate in Libya has done.
Despite these obstacles, ADI appears to be pursuing two different pathways to gain ISIS central leadership acknowledgement: consolidating their support base within Indonesia while also sending fighters to the caliphate’s territory. Most of these fighters are sent to serve as ISIS soldiers. Some though appear to be going with the intention to return to Indonesia and contribute to the local struggle. For example, an Indonesian jihadi known as Abu Jandal released an infamous video in December 2014 in which he threatened to attack the Indonesian military and police to avenge jihadi terrorist inmates. He also threatened the paramilitary wing of Nahdlatul Ulama for its commitment to upholding the Indonesian state ideology, Pancasila.
More than a fanclub
The Indonesians pledging loyalty to ISIS may be truly committed, but they do not seem to agree on what their priority should be. Some advocate for non-violent means to promote the caliphate, whereas others call for domestic attacks.
Syamsudin Uba, a religious teacher and prominent ADI figure from Bekasi, West Java, explained, ‘For now, jihad is only obligatory in Syria and not here. Here we only focus on deepening the belief and spirituality of the caliphate supporters.’ To this end, ADI's Jakarta committee organises weekly study groups that can attract several hundred participants. Most attendees are known members of the so-called 'caliphate community'. A few unsuspecting Muslim men and women though have become ongoing attendees of these radical study groups after initially mistaking these meetings for a regular sermon.
Internal community building is an important aim of these study groups. Indoctrination and in-group bonding are considered crucial. Organisers break participants down into smaller discussion groups so they can get to know each other. Participants can also communicate daily via WhatsApp and Telegram groups. In common with other Indonesian militants, ISIS supporters also engage in match-making and in-group marriage. Members who are still single or have divorced their anti-ISIS spouses are encouraged to approach the teachers to have their marriages arranged.
Although ADI's Jakarta committee is focused on community building for now, violence within Indonesia is not entirely off the table. Study group teachers went to great lengths to justify ISIS' violent methods in interviews with the author. The group will be ready to use violence locally if ISIS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi declares Indonesia (and other parts of Southeast Asia) as an Islamic State governorate. ‘We are just following orders, we have been told to conduct religious outreach so that’s what we are doing. If the Caliph appoints a religious scholar to become a governor for Indonesia, we will listen and obey him immediately... If he orders us to wage jihad, we will’, said Uba.
At present, the Jakarta committee’s work plan calls for members who are not yet able to go to Syria to engage in physical training such as jogging, mountain climbing and archery, although the group claims to avoid the use of weaponry. It is worth noting that Uba and two others were arrested and interrogated in East Nusa Tenggara province, but there was nothing the police could hold them on.
Moreover, some Indonesian fighters in Syria have personally encouraged people who can’t afford to make the trip to instead perpetrate domestic attacks. The arrest of three ADI members in Solo in August suggests these appeals are gaining traction with some of the group's members. Police allege the trio were making explosives to be detonated at a police station, a church, and a Buddhist temple. They further alleged that the group had received funding from an Indonesian fighter in Syria named Bahrun Naim. Some ISIS supporters though claim the men were merely honing their combat skills before going to Syria. Nevertheless, the link to Indonesians in Syria highlights the potential danger posed by returning fighters.
Many Indonesian fighters in Syria who survive their combat experiences are likely to choose to live there permanently. Jihadis believe the end of times will begin in Syria, and they will be able to join the forces of the Islamic messiah Al-Mahdi there. Nevertheless, available reports suggest that at least a dozen trainee fighters have returned to Indonesia. More could return. The concept of hijra, which says that it is the religious obligation of all Muslims to move from the infidel state (dar al-kufr) to the Islamic state (dar al-Islam) and never to return again except for an invasion, is propagated by ADI. A pro-ISIS teacher from Cianjur, West Java, compared it to the occupation of Mecca, in which Prophet Muhammad and his forces returned to Mecca after establishing an Islamic state in Medina. Some may therefore interpret this as a call to come back and conquer the region.
Another indication is a post on Azzam Media, the self-declared ‘ISIS Media Division in Malay Language’, stating that Indonesian fighters are deeply concerned about ‘saving Muslims in Southeast Asia, especially the Rohingya’. According to this post, in order to prove their commitment to jihad in their home region, some fighters, including ‘a few Indonesians’, have been chosen to ‘enter a special military academy for future jihadi leaders’ after they have completed their basic training.
Whether or not this academy exists, the very formation of ADI’s Jakarta committee is another clearer indication that some fighters are likely to return. Uba reasoned that he has not gone to Syria because there has to be a ‘local coordinator to educate the Indonesian community about the caliphate’ and ‘to prepare for the coming of representatives from ISIS’.
A factor operating against their immediate return is the fear of arrest upon arrival in the country. These fighters may instead wait for political circumstances to change before coming back. In the meantime, ISIS supporters see it as important work to create a strong support base at home to provide hiding places and other help to returning fighters. The case of Noordin Top illustrates the significance of a strong support base. A Malaysian citizen who moved to Indonesia to escape arrest in 2001 and began a bombing campaign two years later, Noordin did not have an organisation of his own. His success largely hinged on his ability to tap into existing pockets of the jihadi community in different parts of Indonesia. Individuals from existing jihadi groups helped him to recruit suicide bombers and procure explosive materials, and provided him not only with safe houses but also new wives and families to protect his ever-changing identities.
It is not difficult to imagine ADI playing a similar role if Indonesian fighters return from Syria in the future. As one example, at present many of ADI’s female members (and their families) are eager to marry terrorist inmates because they see them as 'heroes of jihad'. Some inmates have been able to marry online twice in a matter of months. Veterans of jihad in Syria are likely to be able to command even greater devotion than these domestic jihadi supporters. Already, some women pay for their husbands’ journey to Syria, including by borrowing money from banks. If teachers continue to cultivate such commitment to and admiration of jihad heroes, such women may provide great assistance to returning fighters in the future.
The growing support base for ISIS presents two challenges to Indonesia. The first is what to do about returning fighters. Indonesia has been implementing a mixture of hard and soft approaches, which seems to have worked pretty well until recently. Many pundits have criticised the government’s slow effort to develop a legal framework to criminalise participation in foreign conflicts. JAT leader Afif Abdul Majid, for example, who trained with ISIS in Syria in 2014, was recently convicted not for going to Syria but rather for his prior involvement in aiding a militant camp in Aceh in 2010. Criminalisation of foreign fighters is necessary as a deterrent. But giving them a way out is also important, especially for those who are disillusioned and wish to leave ISIS. To this end, existing rehabilitation programmes and other incentive-based deradicalisation programmes should also be offered to returning fighters.
Another challenge is to stem the outward flow of foreign fighters being fed by ISIS' growing support base. The government needs to monitor how this support base is recruiting and training fighters, but should only criminalise and disband groups that have a clear plan to perpetrate violence. Beyond law enforcement, the National Counterterrorism Agency has also sought to promote counter-narratives to extremist messages. The agency's counter-narrative efforts risk being perceived as top-down government interference in local religious lives. It has exacerbated this problem by using the term "deradicalisation" in the titles of public seminars and lectures. Some interpret “deradicalisation” as de-Islamisation, giving rise to backlash movements in locations such as Central Java and West Java.
To promote counter-narratives, the counterterrorism agency has also engaged local religious scholars from mainstream Islamic organisations such as Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah. The public generally respects these scholars and considers them more credible than government officials. But many need training so that they thoroughly understand extremist narratives as well as how to craft effective counter-narratives.
Counter-narrative efforts also need to be better targeted, focusing on known radical gathering and recruitment sites. Local scholars very rarely go out of their way to reach out to those who are most vulnerable to extremist recruitment. Instead they mostly just preach peaceful messages to their already moderate students.
Apart from these state-led initiatives, the government could also benefit from empowering grassroots efforts. Local communities, especially those living near radical mosques, could be encouraged to hold rival religious study groups and other gatherings. Such initiatives will not eradicate extremism but can contain it. Some participants in ISIS study groups did not identify with ISIS but preferred the study group because the ‘teacher can explain the meaning of Qur'an and hadith very well’. Others said they joined pro-ISIS study groups because they felt a stronger sense of community compared to other Islamic organisations they had joined in the past. These diverse answers highlight the need for more research to understand what drives people to join and remain part of radical study groups.
Navhat Nuraniyah (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an analyst at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), Jakarta. This article was written as part of her previous research at the Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS), a research unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Singapore.