JAKARTA — As the war in Syria enters its third year, the conflict continues to attract Islamic fighters from the Arab world, and from countries as far flung as Kazakhstan, Australia and Indonesia. The trend has become a major concern for Western governments.
Of the hundreds of rebel units currently operating in Syria, some pledge allegiance to al-Qaida while others want to see Syria become an Islamic caliphate.
According to a recent estimate by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization, some 11,000 people from 74 countries have traveled to Syria to join the opposition fighters.
The figure has doubled since last April, with a particularly sharp increase in non-Arab and Western fighters.
According to terrorism analyst Noor Huda, while most foreign fighters are from the Middle East and Europe, Indonesian fighters are also getting involved for ideological reasons.
"They look at Sham [region of Syria] as the holy of holiest place for jihad where now they see the battle between good and evil, the battle between the Sunni and the Shia, and mostly Indonesian jihadists are Sunni, and then it is time for them to actually defend their Sunni brothers, it is timely for them,” Huda explained.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling minority are Alawites, a Shia Islamic sect.
Huda noted that Indonesians studying in the Middle East have also traveled to Syria, and two have died in crossfire over recent months. They have since been held up as martyrs on radical websites.
Indonesia’s National Counterterrorism Agency is currently tracking 50 Indonesians in Syria suspected of terrorist activities.
Inspired by the idea of global jihad, the involvement of Indonesian hardliners in Syria also has local repercussions.
“If we look back at our experience with Indonesian fighters in Afghanistan you can see that the returned jihadists from Afghanistan have a certain standing here in Indonesia,” Huda said.
As Indonesia’s militants take a greater interest in conflicts abroad, Sidney Jones, from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), says they are becoming more anti-Shia at home.
“What is new in Indonesia is this virulent anti-Shia rhetoric, which seems like in part it is coming in part from Saudi-funded organizations," Jones said, "but the Syrian conflict is exacerbating that because Assad can be used as a example of why you have to aware of Shia, and see them as the enemy because they are killing Sunni Muslims.
Indonesia is the world largest Muslim-majority nation. Most here subscribe to Sunni Islam and hold moderate religious views.
Over the past two and half years, minority Shia Muslims have come under increasing attack, as well as forced relocations and in some cases, government-sanctioned forced conversion.