Indonesia Fighting An Uphill Battle Against Islamic State


By Siktus Harson*

It’s shocking to realize that there is a growing number of Indonesians who have either participated directly or are in favor of the cause of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), the terror organization responsible for the deaths of thousands in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Its latest attack in Paris on Nov. 13, killed 129 and injured hundreds of others, and drew worldwide condemnation, including from Indonesia’s Sunni community that comprises the majority of the country’s Muslims. There is no doubt that the IS group manipulates Islamic teaching to stir chaos and install its politics of violence against humanity.

Despite this knowledge of brutality and terror, it is indeed surprising that there are many Indonesians joining or casting their support for such a radical movement.

Indonesian coordinating minister for political and legal affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan revealed recently that about 800 Indonesians had joined the IS group in Syria. More than 100 have since returned home.

Unlike the IS-influenced bombing of a Shia festival in Bangladesh or the beheading of a Malaysian national in the Philippines, the IS group in Indonesia at this stage has not shown off its power. But one thing for certain is is that Indonesia could be sitting on a time bomb.

Early this year, Ansyaad Mbai, former director of the anti-terrorism agency, uncovered 16 radical groups — including the East Indonesia Mujahideen — that had been initiated and had declared loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baqdadi.

The East Indonesia Mujahideen is small in numbers but has still managed to launch attacks on police and military in Poso in Central Sulawesi province. Last year the anti-terror squad Densus 88 arrested four Turkish nationals suspected of being IS messengers. Santoso, the group’s leader, is believed to have received financial support from the IS group to expand its proxy in Indonesia.

Terrorism expert Sidney Jones warned that although the number of IS-affiliated individuals in Indonesia is relatively small and have not carried out any significant activities, they have the potential to breed new jihadists and re-activate a terrorism seed that is still alive in Indonesia. Such a warning is becoming more relevant considering that 10 million Indonesians favor the IS cause, according to a recent Pew Research Poll survey released in November.

Pew’s poll may have revealed the tip of an extremism iceberg, an extremism that has grown since Suharto’s dictatorial regime ended in 1998. The Internet and social media have allowed jihadists a platform to promote their propaganda.

Since Indonesian authorities have monitored the movement of radical groups on the Internet and social media, the IS group has shifted its approach to meeting face-to-face with families who are trapped in poverty — promising them high incomes and better education.

Most of the IS-affiliated individuals or groups are unable to travel to Syria, due to tight travel restrictions. Instead, they stay home, wait and see what they can do next. Analysts said they have not openly planned attacks, but there is possibility of consolidating power.

IS rise

The IS movement began to surface in Indonesia, sometime in February 2014.

Immediately leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, two moderate Islam organizations with a combined membership of 120 million people, urged the government to ban the IS group from expanding in Indonesia.

Leaders of both organizations, however, reminded the government and security forces that using military action is not the answer. They believe retaliation perpetuates the cycle of violence, just as what has happened in Iraq and Syria, where millions of people have been forced to flee to other countries. A better approach, they say, is through education.

In the past, radical groups — such as the al-Qaida-funded Jemaah Islamiyah — could easily recruit young Muslims to Islamic boarding schools, mainly due to a poor state education system that led to an openness to radical ideologies.

A few years ago, after a series of terrorist attacks on public facilities and threats to blow up Christian places of worship, the government and security forces launched a “deradicalization approach.”

Leaders of Nahlatul Ulama lamented the government’s lack of commitment to deradicalization. Ma’ruf Amin, one of its leaders, even blamed authorities for an inability to prevent the rise of radical ideology from growing. De-radicalization should be impartial, systematic and done continuously, he said.

Religious leaders warned that since another root of radicalism is poverty, the IS playing field in Indonesia remains huge. They called on the government to improve people’s welfare at all levels, to ensure a peaceful atmosphere and justice that will narrow the chances for radical ideology to grow.

Officials at the national anti-terror agency said they have taken various measures to stop the spread of IS propaganda on social media by shutting down many websites and social media accounts.

The IS group, however, has found a way to infiltrate, not only Islamic groups but government institutions. According to a police report, two government employees were identified to have joined the IS group. Though both isolated cases, analysts cautioned there will be more IS sympathizers within the government if no measures are taken to monitor the activities of government employees.

Intelligence analysts Prayitno Ramelan in his blog Ramalan Inteligen said IS jihadists have the mission to establish a caliphate in Indonesia. With the IS having access to enormous financial resources and young, impressionable recruits, Indonesia needs to fear the unthinkable.

*Siktus Harson is a reporter in’s Indonesia bureau and is based in Jakarta.

UCA News

The Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News, UCAN) is the leading independent Catholic news source in Asia. A network of journalists and editors that spans East, South and Southeast Asia, UCA News has for four decades aimed to provide the most accurate and up-to-date news, feature, commentary and analysis, and multimedia content on social, political and religious developments that relate or are of interest to the Catholic Church in Asia.

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