Foreign Policy Blogs

Jakarta in Hunt for an Estimated 1,000 Islamic State Supporters

The video encourages Indonesians to move to the Islamic State.

Still photo from ISIS Indonesian recruitment video (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The start of 2016 has been a foreboding one for countries facing the threat of terrorism, following attacks last Thursday in Paris and Cairo, and again last Friday on the coast of Egypt’s Red Sea and in Philadelphia, all claimed by followers of the Islamic State (IS). Whether these attacks were coordinated or the acts of lone wolves is uncertain at this time, as is the extent of the IS networks operating in these countries.

While much of the media attention is focused on the threat of IS to Americans, Europeans and North Africans, less attention is being paid to the citizens of Southeast Asian nations. Southeast Asia is home to about 15% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, many of whom have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria under the banner of IS, or have been radicalized while at home.  One such Southeast Asian country on the forefront of the battle against IS is Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, which has over the past year successfully crushed militant cells.

In December, Indonesian authorities announced a string of raids had led to the capture of nine IS sympathizers suspected of planning bomb attacks and the seizure of bomb-making equipment found across the island of Java. Authorities suspect the bombs were to be used in attacks against President Joko Widodo, government offices, and public landmarks.

Borobodur, the world’s largest Buddhist temple and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, had seen increased security after an apparent bomb threat by IS-affiliated Islamists last year.  There are an estimated 1,000 Islamic State sympathizers across a population of 250 million in Indonesia, many of whom are returning from fighting with IS in Syria, radicalized and battle-hardened.  The IS representative leadership is thought to be based in Solo, a city in the center of Java, known as a hotbed for Islamic unrest.

Indonesia has banned support for Islamic State and warned its citizens against joining IS, although most of its Muslim population practices a moderate form of Islam. Indonesian nationalism is founded on the doctrine of Pancasila, which stresses pluralism and diversity and strongly opposes the establishment of an Islamic state.  The leader of the country’s al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Abu Bakar Bashir, pledged his allegiance to the Islamic State from his jail cell in August (JI was behind the Bali bombings in 2002 that killed 202 people).

While Indonesia is not publicly declaring their support for airstrikes against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, they are not dismissive of the threat which IS poses across the Indonesian archipelago. Some of their citizens have homegrown grievances and are likely to be emboldened by the success of IS and declare ties to the terrorist organization, potentially traveling to Iraq and Syria or carrying out terrorist actions at home.

More worryingly, battle-hardened militants returning from Iraq and Syria may bring both skills and networks with which to join forces with locals (or foreigners)—Malaysian authorities are already expressing concern over networks forming between Malay-speaking militants from Malaysia and Indonesia, who have formed a combined fighting unit in Syria, and whom may join forces once home.

Greater efforts at intelligence-sharing, such as that which took place in December among Indonesian authorities, the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Australian Federal Police, should be encouraged throughout Southeast Asia. The potential of IS to threaten Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia is real and should not be minimized—after all, returning militants from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union from 1979–1989 were responsible for the founding of both Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and JI in Indonesia, both of which are still active today.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666