Asia

Indonesia Perseveres as ISIL Battles for Influence in Southeast Asia


The recent January 2016 terror attack in the capital city of Indonesia, Jakarta, serves as a painful reminder that those seeking to perpetrate violence in the name of the Islamic State (ISIL) stretch far beyond both the West and the Middle East.

Unfortunately, Indonesia and its neighboring Southeast Asian states are quite familiar with both Islamic militancy and foreign violent extremist groups seeking to influence and penetrate the region, including al-Qaeda and more recently ISIL. Indonesia’s internal societal issues would seem ripe for an assertive foreign agitator to exploit; however, the country’s history with violent extremists has shaped experienced and effective counterterror campaigns.

Indonesia is currently grappling with domestic sectarian violence and has endured over a decade of terrorist violence from domestic-based groups such as the infamous Jemaah Islamiyah (JI). Jemaah Islamiyah was born out of Darul Islam (meaning “Islamic state”), an Islamic movement involved with militancy and rebellion that began in response to the end of Dutch colonial rule in the 1940s and gained strength in the 1950s. JI’s mission was the  creation of an Islamic state throughout Southeast Asia and it came to existence in Indonesia following the forced resignation of Indonesian President Suharto in 1999. The two founding spiritual leaders of JI, Abu Bakar Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar (both of Yemini decent), were forced to flee from Indonesia to Malaysia in 1985 for ties to militant Darul groups. During this exile from Indonesia (1985-1999), both men spent time training and fighting alongside al-Qaeda against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. This experience and the resulting direct connection to foreign groups such as al-Qaeda was arguably the pivotal moment in the creation of Jemaah Islamiyah and for the evolution of Islamic militancy into terrorism in Indonesia.

The world took notice of JI following the internationally felt 2002 bombing of nightclubs frequented by tourists in Bali, with the United States designated it a terrorist organization. The group went on to commit additional terror attacks throughout Indonesia and spread to neighboring countries until 2009, when members began fracturing into splinter groups to determine the ideological future of their organization. As religious outreach became more central to JI’s purpose, its more bloodthirsty members, such as JI’s founder Abu Bakar Bashir, began creating new factions with more violent objectives.

Despite internal debate within JI about the merits of terror tactics, the group frequently resorted to violence and terrorism based upon its leaders’ understanding of fatwas issued by Osama Bin Laden. Initially JI was focused on the local government and religious minorities; however, Osama Bin Laden sought to shape JI into a Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda and directed JI to target foreigners and international venues, resulting in the notorious Bali bombings. Further links between the two groups were uncovered after the 2003 arrest of JI’s operational chief, Riduan Isamuddin (aka Hambali), who also served as al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian operations director with direct ties to Khaled Sheikh Muhammad.

As both Jemaah Islamiyah and al-Qaeda members have been captured or killed by national, regional, and international counterterrorist campaigns, their influence and the frequency of their attacks have waned in Indonesia and throughout the region. Nevertheless, the desire and motivation to commit acts of terrorism remain among individual members of JI and other various Indonesian groups advocating for an Islamic caliphate, despite diminished capacity and public opposition. Abu Bakar Bashir left JI in 2008-2009 to form a splinter group, Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), for this very purpose even as JI sought to turn away from violence. Bashir drew notoriety again when he pledged his allegiance and his group’s support to ISIL from a jail cell in 2014. Bashir and his followers seem desperate to belong to a global jihadist movement and to secure outside support to prop up their operations, because local Indonesian populations have no interest in these violent campaigns.

Other groups are also emerging. The January 14, 2016 attack in Jakarta has drawn attention to the new Katibah Nusantara group, which seeks to be the new ISIL affiliate for Southeast Asia. This group operates out of Malaysia and is led by Bahrun Naim, who reportedly lived in or near the ISIL-captured city of Raqqa when he planned the Jakarta attacks. Similar to the divide we see between ISIL and al-Qaeda, this new Katibah Nusantara group may be seeking to garner attention and outbid former prominent regional jihadi groups such as JI and JAT for resources and recruits. Both JAT and now Katibah Nusantara have aligned themselves with ISIL and it stands to reason that they will have to compete or consolidate as to not cannibalize their constituencies then prove worthy of ISIL to actually get the necessary support to subvert the Islamic masses in Indonesia. As Indonesia’s citizens wrestle with domestic sectarian violence, these terror groups theoretically should find fertile ground in the country.

Indonesia is host to the world’s largest Muslim population, with 255 million people of whom 87 percent or roughly 220 million identify as Muslim, creating concern over the country’s vulnerability to Islamic religious extremism and violence. However, Indonesia has had great success through domestic religious organizations in mitigating these threats among their constituencies. Local groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama advocate that not only is violence and terrorism non-Islamic, but also—even more interestingly—that these acts are non-Indonesian, and thus are foreign to both their faith and their national identity. These domestic religious outreach groups also advocate against some of the more divisive sects of Islam coming out of the Middle East such as Wahhabi, Salafi, and Sufi ideologies, again focusing on the message that these are alien to Indonesian interpretations of Islam. For those individuals requiring more direct intervention, Indonesia has had its own success in specialized law enforcement divisions. Through support of international actors such as the United States and Australia, Indonesia created its own elite counterterrorism force known as Detachment 88, which has been quite effective in thwarting plots and arresting members of terror groups. The fact that jihadi terror groups have not made the same destabilizing inroads in Indonesia, as seen throughout Africa and the Middle East, is representative of Indonesian resilience and the exceptional integration of disparate ideologies.

Those mobilized by the foreign jihadi call to arms must be dealt with swiftly so that neither Indonesia nor anywhere else, becomes a safe haven for terrorists to operate. The infamous terror groups that have afflicted Indonesia seem to have only survived there via direct support from foreign organizations such as al-Qaeda and ISIL. The success of both Indonesia’s Detachment 88 and groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama should be studied to determine if their anti-terror campaigns can be replicated to combat extremism in neighboring nations, and beyond as European and African states increasingly face acts of domestic terrorism. Managing these sectarian conflicts requires remaining vigilant in countering violent extremism and determining the susceptibility of citizens to the messages of violent groups or to the actual perpetration of violence themselves. Whether identified violent extremists such as Abu Bakar Bashir or new actors such as Bahrun Naim and their respective groups continue to emerge in support of ISIL, Indonesia’s success and perseverance illuminate a promising future in the face of this modern scourge of jihadi terrorism.


Christopher Doyle is pursuing a Master of Science in Global Affairs – Transnational Security at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs.

Image: Damage from the suicide bombing at the Sarinah Building, Jakarta in January 2016 (Gunawan Kartapranata/Wikimedia Commons)

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