As the jihadist insurgency in Syria and Iraq intensifies, so too does its appeal to hardline Islamists in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation. In Jakarta, the Indonesian government has moved swiftly to crack down on the possibility of a revived terrorist threat.
On the streets of Jakarta and across pockets of Java, small groups of hardline extremists have openly pledged their allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group. Thousands more have mimicked their cries on social networking sites.
From maximum-security prison, hardline preacher Abu Bakar Ba’asyir also pledged an oath to the newly declared Islamic caliphate, photos of which have circulated online.
The Indonesian government has moved to swiftly crack down on the developments, earlier this month officially banning the group and the spread of its teachings.
The government says the hardline group formerly known as the Islamic State in Syria and the Levant (ISIS) contradicts Indonesia’s pluralist state ideology Pancasila, and that it will block websites displaying its content.
Sri Yunanto, from Indonesia’s national counterterrorism agency, told a panel discussion on Wednesday that it is stepping up efforts to curb the threat of Indonesian fighters returning from Syria, what he described as the jihadi “alumni.” “We have to be prepared, when the issue of ISIS in the Middle East is over and then they come back into Indonesia. We have experience with Afghan fighters, Moro Fighters, we don’t want ISIS alumni in Indonesia and Iran to be like them,” said Yunanto.
Key individuals behind major terrorist attacks in Indonesia, such as the 2002 Bali bombings, received direct training with MILF, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and in Afghanistan in the late 80s and early 90s.
Over the past decade Indonesia has successfully dismantled hardline groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, and most senior hardliners have either been killed or incarcerated.
For would-be Indonesian jihadis, the Syrian conflict represents an appealing training ground, one where they can gain weapons and bomb-making skills and develop contacts with a well-funded terrorist group.
Taufik Andrie, the executive director of the Institute of International Peace Building, says that in Indonesia’s current terrorism landscape, it is the splinter or “freelance” jihadists that pose the biggest threat.
“Mostly Indonesian jihadis are driven by individual motivations, not necessarily by group’s or leaders’ comments. They have enough information from the internet, from Facebook and Twitter and that’s enough for them to decide… Freelance jihadi, individuals, it is just a matter of money,” said Andrie.
The government believes that up to 30 Indonesians have joined the Islamic State in Syria, but analysts say the figure could be as high as 200.
Porous borders and poor coordination between agencies and ministries has allowed some individuals to buy tickets to Turkey and then cross the border into Syria undetected.
Even though the numbers of Indonesian fighters joining the conflict in Syria are small, Todd Elliott, a Jakarta-based terrorism analyst from Concorde Consulting, said returned jihadis pose a significant security risk in the long term.
“I don't think there is an immediate threat of jihadists returning and immediately using any skills they have to launch a terrorist attack, but the fact that they have skills and they're available and they can pass them on to younger jihadists and other groups, that's where the risk lies,” said Elliott.
Indonesian authorities have threatened to revoke the citizenship of individuals who continue to support the Islamic State and say they will better monitor their citizens traveling to the Middle East in the near future.