With over 250 million people, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation. While it has banned support for ISIS and its ideology, fighters returning from Iraq or Syria threaten to revive terrorist networks and destabilise the country.
On 3 January 2015, the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta issued a security warning for Surabaya, East Java. Although the statement did not expand on the nature of the threat, the former chief of the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) and current adviser to the administration of President Joko Widodo, Abdullah Mahmud Hendropriyono, stated that the warning was related to ISIS activity.
ISIS’ role in Indonesia’s extremist networks
The U.S. security warning has raised new questions about the role of pro-IS militants in Indonesia and the immanence of security threats.
Indonesia has cracked down on radical groups since the notorious Bali bombings when the militant Islamist terrorist organisation Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Congregation) planted two bombs in a Bali nightclub killing 200 people.
The government’s response to militant groups has been largely effective. The formation of the National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) in 2010 has further streamlined policy formulation and coordination. However, the emergence of ISIS represents a new challenge to Indonesian authorities.
ISIS gaining traction among militant Muslims
While ISIS has sparked a pronounced backlash in the overwhelmingly moderate Indonesian Muslim community, it finds traction with some of Indonesia’s militant groups.
A report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) on the “Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia” suggests that the appeal of ISIS is best explained by a combination of ideology, a string of ‘victories’ in Iraq, the resonance of the concept of the caliphate, and ISIS’ sophisticated use of social media.
The BNPT estimates that around 500 Indonesians have travelled to Iraq and Syria to support ISIS. When returning to Indonesia, these jihadists bring along extensive training, combat experience and the leadership potential lacking in Indonesia’s extremist community as a result of the government’s campaign against terrorism.
The support for ISIS bears the potential to revive key networks and raise the (currently low) capacity of violent extremist groups.
To mitigate the risk of violence, the administration of President Joko Widodo will have to show the political will and unequivocal commitment to fighting ISIS. In addition, further government or presidential measures are needed to address imitations in Indonesia’s current counterterrorism strategy.
Indonesia needs to create a database of suspected militants planning to go to Iraq or Syria, closely monitor convicted militants in prison (especially the well over 130 inmates due for release in 2015 and 16), and provide a legal framework that would criminalize traveling abroad to join or assist foreign terrorist organisations.
The threat of ISIS-inspired attacks on Indonesian soil is real and requires firm action by the government. However, the risk of a substantial radicalisation in Indonesia remains moderate—at least for the time being.