This report looks at the origins and development of the ISIS support network in Indonesia.
Support for the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as ISIS) in Indonesia raises the risk of violence there even though the capacity of violent extremist groups remains low. This could change with the eventual return home of Indonesians now fighting in Syria and Iraq who will have the training, combat experience, and leadership potential now lacking in Indonesia’s extremist community.
The 22 September 2014 exhortation by IS spokesman Al-Adnani to kill foreigners linked to the U.S.-led coalition could also provide an incentive to Indonesian ISIS supporters to target Westerners as a way of earning approval from leaders of the self-declared caliphate. The Indonesian translation of that exhortation includes this passage:
If you do not have bombs or bullets, and a kafir (infidel) from America or France or one of their allies comes out, hit him in the head with a rock, carve him up with a knife, hit him with your car, throw him off a high building or poison him!
Would-be terrorists in Indonesia for the last four years have focused exclusively on domestic targets, mostly the police, and they continued to do so even after the caliphate was announced. The instruction from Al-Adnani, however, could be taken seriously by those who have both pledged allegiance to IS and have already used or attempted to use violence.
This report examines the ISIS support network in Indonesia, how it emerged, who joined it and how it has evolved. It also looks at the Indonesian government’s response. While that response has been forceful, the government still needs to translate decrees into action. It has instructed prison officials to step up monitoring of convicted terrorists, for example, yet Al-Adnani’s grim message was translated by one of those prisoners and posted on radical websites within 24 hours of its issuance.
President Yudhoyono’s government announced a ban on ISIS on 4 August after the appearance on YouTube of a video called “Joining the Ranks”, in which an Indonesian calling himself “Abu Muhammad al Indunisi” urges others to follow his example and join the jihad in Syria.
Abu Muhammad turned out to be an activist named Bahrum Syah with links to an extremist organisation once known as Al Muhajiroun. Al Muhajiroun’s founders, Omar Bakri Muhammad and Anjem Choudary, have gone on to establish a global network of advocacy groups supporting the establishment of Islamic law, if necessary by violent means. The first branch, in the UK where Choudary is based, was called Islam4UK, later Sharia4UK. Each national branch had “Sharia4” in its title; Sharia4Indonesia was established in 2010.
A small group of Indonesians inspired by Bakri and Choudary became the engine of the pro-ISIS network in Indonesia. The group runs the website www.al-mustaqbal.net, hereafter referred to as Al-Mustaqbal. It has links to most of the terrorist groups still operating in Indonesia, including the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, MIT) and the Mujahidin of Western Indonesia (Mujahidin Indonesian Barat, MIB). It sponsored most of the ceremonies across Indonesia pledging loyalty to IS after the latter on 29 June 2014 announced the establishment of a caliphate. And its fighters in Syria, including Bahrum Syah, have formed an Indonesian-Malaysian unit of ISIS in Syria that reportedly aims at eventually establishing an archipelagic Islamic State in Southeast Asia, to be called Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara.
The report also examines how the announcement of the caliphate has split the Indonesian jihadi community, leading to deep divisions among convicted terrorist prisoners and the splintering of a leading jihadi organisation, Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid (JAT). The individual who has emerged as the most important ideological promoter of ISIS is Aman Abdurrahman, a cleric imprisoned in the maximum security complex on the island of Nusakambangan, off the south coast of Java. It is he who became the mentor of the Sharia4Indonesia group and whose followers constitute the glue that binds disparate elements of the Indonesian ISIS network together.
The appearance of ISIS may be a rare example of international developments becoming a direct driver of jihadi recruitment in Indonesia. In the past, the drivers have been overwhelmingly local. When Indonesians went to Afghanistan to train in the mid-1980s and early 1990s, they were spurred by repression at home and the desire to develop the capacity to fight Soeharto. The bombing campaign of Jemaah Islamiyah between 1999 and 2002 was sparked by communal conflict at home, in Ambon and Poso. Despite all the rhetoric about support for Palestine, very few Indonesians have ever gone to fight there. The appeal of ISIS is different, a combination of religious prophecies involving Sham (greater Syria); the string of victories in Iraq in June that gave a sense of backing a winner; the resonance of the concept of the caliphate; and sophisticated use by ISIS of social media.
At the same time, ISIS has triggered a bigger backlash than ever seen before in the Indonesian Muslim community, suggesting that support will stay limited to a fringe of the radical fringe. The individuals involved are nonetheless dangerous, and it is cause for concern that inmates of high security prisons continue to be among the most active propagators of ISIS views and teachings. Indonesian prison management has improved in recent years, but there is a long way to go.
The incoming Jokowi government will have to decide whether to continue the counter-terrorism policies of the Yudhoyono government or ramp them up, including by pressing for strengthened legal tools. Either way, it is critical that leadership of the counter-terrorism effort be left in the hands of the police, who over the last decade have accumulated all the institutional knowledge of radical networks.