Battling ISIS in Indonesia
By Sidney Jones
Jan 18, 2016
The attack that killed four civilians and four terrorists in central Jakarta last Thursday may be a harbinger of more violence to come. It certainly suggests that ISIS, which claimed responsibility, has already transformed the terrorism threat in Indonesia, after years of mostly foiled plots.
Indonesia, the country with the world’s largest Muslim population, has a tiny jihadist movement relative to its size. Many factors have kept radicalism in check: a stable, democratic government, little internal conflict, peaceful neighbors and tolerance for advocates of Islamic law. It also has an effective counterterrorism police unit, set up after the 2002 Bali bombings.
The Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people, marked the high point of terrorist capacity in Indonesia. The bombers were from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), trained on the Afghan-Pakistani border and funded by Al Qaeda. Although those attacks were carried out in the name of the global jihad, most JI members — like many other local extremist groups — were focused on avenging the deaths of Muslims in Christian-Muslim fighting in two areas of eastern Indonesia, Maluku and Poso. The groups involved in that struggle in the late 1990s and early 2000s laid the basis for the extensive network of jihadist cells that exists in Indonesia today.
With the arrests that followed the Bali attacks and the end of local wars, the jihadist movement weakened and fragmented. But it did not disappear. By the mid-2000s, JI decided violence was largely counterproductive and redirected its efforts toward rebuilding its membership through religious outreach and education. Other extremist groups, some of them splinters from JI, remained committed to jihad, but they lacked JI’s training regimen, indoctrination process and discipline. From 2010 until last week, out of dozens of attempted bomb attacks in Indonesia, not one bomb worked as intended, and three suicide attacks killed only the attackers themselves.
But then ISIS emerged, and suddenly there was the potential for Indonesian extremists to go to Syria and get military training, combat experience, ideological indoctrination and international contacts. What had become a low-level threat became more serious again.
Thursday’s attacks were reportedly organized and funded by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian computer expert said to be in Syria. Last August, three men were arrested in Solo, in central Java, for planning to bomb a police post, a church and a Chinese temple on Mr. Naim’s instructions. (The temple was targeted as retaliation for Buddhist violence against Muslims in Myanmar.) In December, four more of Mr. Naim’s men were picked up for plotting attacks against senior police officials and Shiite institutions.
Even as terrorist activity has picked up in the last year, Indonesia has been shielded from its effects by the incompetence of would-be attackers, as well as police vigilance. In 2015, the total death toll from terrorism was just eight people; in 2014, it was four. The terrorists of the Solo plot, for example, apparently couldn’t figure out the right chemicals to make explosives. Last Thursday’s attacks could have been much deadlier had the perpetrators been better trained.
This weakness could lead Mr. Naim or other terrorists in the Middle East to send operatives back to Indonesia to instruct local extremists. And if the Jakarta attack did not cause the mass casualties its organizers were hoping for, the saturation news coverage it generated may turn that near-failure into a success of sorts, and encourage more attacks. Other ISIS sympathizers in Indonesia may want to strike in the hope of attracting similar attention. The rivalry between the two men who are said to be vying for the leadership of Indonesian fighters in Syria, Bahrumsyah and Abu Jandal, could blow back to Indonesia in the form of lethal competition among their supporters.
The need for more preventive measures has therefore become pressing. One necessity is plugging the holes in Indonesia’s anti-terrorism law, which at present does not ban membership in ISIS or similar organizations, or participation in terrorist-training camps abroad. Even when the Indonesian police know that individuals are actively recruiting for ISIS, they have few legal tools to stop them.
Another necessary step is to improve supervision and post-release monitoring of convicted terrorists. Pro-ISIS networks are able to disseminate information and contacts in Indonesian prisons, in part because almost every inmate has ready access to a smartphone. At any one time, some 300 individuals are either in prison or police custody awaiting trial on terrorism charges — many of them still in regular communication with peers on the outside. Dozens are released every year after serving their sentences, and the state authorities do not monitor them afterward.
The government must also develop a program for deportees who have been returned to Indonesia. So far some 200 Indonesians who tried to join ISIS have been sent back by Turkish authorities, some 60 percent of them women and minors, and if there ever was a target population for a deradicalisation program, this is it. These people, often especially the women, have proved their determination to go to Syria or Iraq, and they may try to do so again. Their whereabouts are known, at least for the moment, and many need assistance because they sold everything before leaving. The Ministry of Social Affairs provides them temporary shelter, but no structured program assists them beyond that. The Indonesian government must work with local civil society organizations to draw these people into new social networks.
Finally, Indonesia needs to engage young, computer-savvy Indonesians to develop anti-ISIS messaging on social media and online, where Mr. Naim and other radical groups are actively spreading ISIS propaganda.
So far, the combination of Indonesia’s moderate majority, good police work and the incompetence of Indonesian extremists has kept the death toll from terrorist attacks low. But with ISIS now clearly present as a new threat, the government must urgently develop more programs to prevent its appeal from spreading.
Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta