Introduction: The conflict in Syria has captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before. For the first time, Indonesians are going overseas to fight, not just to train, as in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s, or to give moral and financial support, as in the case of Palestine. The numbers are still limited – the Indonesian foreign ministry estimated about 50 in December 2013 – but they could rise.
Four factors explain why the conflict has attracted such attention. First, the enthusiasm for Syria is directly linked to predictions in Islamic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel. Indeed within some extremist circles, the Syrian conflict is known as the “one-way ticket jihad” because anyone goes there to fight will be able to stay and see Islam’s final victory.
Second, thanks to a best-selling book, The Two-Arm Strategy, translated from Arabic into Indonesian, many extremists believe that the chaos and suffering produced by the Arab Spring can be exploited in a way that will lead to the restoration of an Islamic caliphate.
Third, the atrocities of government forces against Sunni Muslims have been given wide play in the local media, including radical websites, playing into a campaign that was already underway before the conflict erupted to portray Shi’a Muslims, represented by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as deviant and murderous.
Finally, Syria is easier to reach for Indonesians, especially through Turkey, than any other major conflict feeding the global jihad.
As a result, Indonesians from different radical streams are going or trying to go to Syria. The most important is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the once-powerful regional organization responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that after 2007 disengaged from violence in Indonesia and was accused by other militants of abandoning jihad. From late 2012 to January 2014, JI’s humanitarian wing, Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia (HASI), sent ten delegations to Syria, bringing in cash and medical assistance to the Islamist resistance in a way apparently designed to open channels for more direct participation in the fighting. Other salafi jihadis, including from various Darul Islam factions, are also trying to go, as are members of the non-violent salafi community.
The Syrian conflict has also caused divisions among Indonesian jihadis, however. The tensions between two of the most hardline Islamist factions there, the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) and the al-Nusrah Front, have carried over to Indonesia, where each side has its supporters. Divisions have also emerged in Indonesia between those who see the conflict in Shi’a-Sunni terms and those who say these sectarian differences are being deliberately fanned by the West to mobilize opposition against the Assad government because of its strong opposition to Israel.
These differences could weaken the overall impact of the conflict on Indonesian extremists and keep them divided. Nevertheless, the danger remains that fighters returning from Syria could infuse new energy into Indonesia’s weak and ineffectual jihadi movement.