The Islamic State Comes to Indonesia

The world's largest Muslim country is a vast recruiting ground for radical jihadists. But the government has done a surprisingly good job of containing the Caliphate -- so far.

Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images News
Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images News

JAKARTA, Indonesia — One day in July, worshippers gathered in a small mosque on the outskirts of Malang, a mid-sized Indonesian city, to learn about the achievements of the latest Sunni insurgency halfway across the world. The meeting, which was organized by Ansharul Khilafah, a local hardline Islamic organization, came one month after fighters from the Islamic State (IS) made headlines after routing Iraqi security forces in Mosul. During the event, the hosts showed a video highlighting IS’s military gains in Iraq and Syria, and distributed Islamic propaganda magazines. Aji Prase, a local who attended the event, worried that IS was growing in the region. "We don’t want Malang to be [IS] headquarters, because this would only bring violence here," he told the Indonesian newspaper the Jakarta Globe.

By September, it had become clear that Prase’s worries would not be realized. After local authorities learned about the July event, they reported it to the regional government and Jakarta. Police began monitoring the mosque to ensure there would be no more IS events, and when supporters of Ansharul Khilafah attempted to stage a meeting at a different Malang mosque in late July, the mosque’s administrators turned them away, and called IS a "radical group." The tone in Malang had been set; by early August, Nahdlatul Ulama, the most prominent Muslim organization in the area, condemned IS and announced a program to "prevent radicalization."

As IS battles for territory in the Middle East, the group is also fighting for hearts and minds in Indonesia. In recent months, IS propaganda, urging Indonesians to support the militants’ cause in the Middle East, has spread throughout the archipelago via social media and local radical groups. The government has responded decisively. In early August, Jakarta enlisted Indonesia’s most respected Muslim authorities to denounce the organization, and has banned Youtube videos that endorse the jihadis. Outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has been outspoken in rejecting the group — he banned it, called it "embarrassing" to Islam, and arrested Indonesians suspected of providing support for IS.

In late August, the government tightened security around Borobudur, the world’s largest Buddhist monument, after intelligence suggested that militants linked to IS were targeting it. On Sept. 13, Indonesian police arrested seven suspected militants, including four foreigners, on suspicion that they were linked to IS. So far, the government’s efforts seem to have been surprisingly effective: Jakarta estimates that there are only 60 Indonesian fighters for IS.

From Southeast Asia to Western Europe, governments are increasingly concerned about the growing number of radicalized Muslim youth traveling to fight with IS and other insurgent groups in Syria and Iraq. The British government estimates that some 500 of its citizens — including the suspected killer of the American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff — have joined militant groups in the Middle East. An estimated 300 Australians are on the frontlines in the region. Worried that fighters will return home and commit acts of terror, governments across the globe are scrambling to intercept potential combatants.

Indonesia, though, is at particular risk. The Southeast Asian nation of roughly 250 million people has the world’s largest Muslim population, and more Muslim men under the age of 30 than any nation except Pakistan. Nearly 80 percent of the country’s Internet users are plugged into social media — which is the main venue where IS works to recruit them.

The country is also contending with its own version of homegrown radicalism. Sunni extremist groups have carried out dozens of domestic acts of terror, including the 2002 bombing on the tourist island of Bali, which killed more than 200 people, mostly foreigners. These organizations have also been implicated in brutal attacks on religious minorities, attacking churches, Shiite mosques, and Buddhist temples. There has been a steady uptick in the number of these attacks: The Jakarta-based Setara Institute, which monitors religious violence in Indonesia, documented 220 religiously motivated attacks in 2013, up from 91 cases in 2007.

But the Islamic State is a particularly potent threat. In July, a recruitment video, featuring a charismatic Indonesian named Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi fighting with the Islamic State in Syria, trended on social media, encouraging Indonesians to join the jihad. On July 14, newspapers reported that prominent Indonesian extremists — most notably Abu Bakar Bashir, the influential leader of the radical group Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) — swore oaths to IS.

Indonesian law enforcement officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, report that over the last few months, these radical Islamic groups have been aggressively recruiting on behalf of IS across the country. Organizations that support IS "have held events in over 50 cities [throughout Indonesia] to get funds, with a secret motive to attract young able-bodied young men to Syria," a high-level law enforcement official said. "They are focusing on solidifying their strength in Indonesia."

By early August, however, Jakarta began to counter the new group’s popularity. IS supporters were arrested and the YouTube recruitment videos were taken down. The government announced that training programs would be implemented in mosques and Islamic boarding schools throughout the country so that young Indonesians could identify and reject IS propaganda. The Ministry of Religious Affairs, which oversees the country’s religious institutions, began mobilizing the leaders of major Muslim organizations to reject the group. Dr. Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Ulema Council, the country’s highest clerical body, condemned IS, saying that "[t]here is no obligation in the Quran for Muslims to set up an Islamic state or a caliphate." Local preachers from areas where IS has a presence joined in the condemnations. "They are threatening Islam as a religion," Muhammad Iqbal Bahari, a cleric based just outside of Jakarta, told a local news site in September. "Their place is not here." 

The injunctions by religious leaders have dissuaded many youth from joining the movement, says Rasyid, the head of a Muslim student organization in Malang. Devout, but also social media savvy, young Indonesians involved in student religious groups would seem to be the ideal target for recruitment. But according to Rasyid, who declined to provide his last name, now that the nation’s Muslim leadership has condemned IS, nobody in his organization supports it.

And while the roughly 60 Indonesians fighting with IS in Iraq and Syria all have links to extremist groups back home, the government has pressured well-known local radical groups to distance themselves from IS. Mochammad Achmad, the acting leader of JAT — the extremist Muslim group whose jailed founder recently declared his support for the caliphate — has said that he will leave JAT and form a new organization, along with his 3,000 members, to avoid being considered part of IS. Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), another domestic radical group, released a statement on August 10 saying that it does not support IS, and opposes the killing of "fellow Muslims."

"This is the case of the dog that didn’t bark," said David Malet, associate director of the Melbourne School of Government in Australia and author of Foreign Fighters: Transnational Identity in Civil Conflicts. "You’ve had [thousands] of foreign fighters in Iraq the last three and a half years, and just a couple dozen Indonesian fighters."

Though the numbers are low, Indonesian law enforcement officials worry they won’t stay that way. "You can’t compare how dangerous the situation is for Indonesian and Western nations," the high-level law enforcement official said. His worries echo those of Andreas Harsono, the Indonesia researcher at Human Rights Watch, who says that IS propaganda greatly appeals to Indonesian militants. "Many Muslims dream of seeing an Islamic caliphate. The fact that hardline Indonesian militants like Bashir have pledged support for IS says a lot about the power of symbolism of the group." 

The IS threat is still nascent and the group’s influence could grow in the archipelago. But, so far, the government’s efforts seem to have resonated. By educating the nation’s youth and marshalling moderate Muslim voices, the government has undercut the influence of IS and those loyal to it. Rasyid said that no members of his organization would join IS now that Muslim leaders have explained how violent the jihadi group is. "The Islamic State" in Indonesia, Rasyid said, "will not grow." 

In July, IS supporters targeted Emilia Az, the coordinator of OASE, an organization that represents Shiite women in Indonesia. They harassed her in the streets and sent her threatening text messages. Then, in August, after the government banned IS, she noticed that the text messages local extremists sent her were missing a key prop. "Now when they send me threatening messages on Blackberry, they have stopped posing with ISIS flags," she said. It’s still far from an ideal situation, but it’s an improvement. "The ban has had an effect," she said. "The movement is really slowing."

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