ISIS in Indonesia

Sidney Jones & Solahudin. Southeast Asian Affairs; Singapore. 2015.

A steep decline in terrorist acts in Indonesia in 2014 should have been good news, especially because it underscored that police vigilance was high and extremist capacity was weak. But a third factor was also involved that was not such good news: more extremists were focused on getting to Syria and joining what they believed was a more important jihad than any they could wage at home. By late 2014, about 100 Indonesians, possibly more, were believed to have left to fight in Syria, some with their wives and children, and most to join the Islamic State.

Violent Extremists in Indonesia in 2014

By early 2014, Indonesia’s jihadist community was divided between those who supported violence inside Indonesia, with the police as the primary target, and those who believed that at least for the moment, violence at home was counterproductive. The former generally supported the Islamic State and its predecessor, the Islamic State in Greater Syria and Iraq (ISIS). The latter were more likely to support IS’s main rival in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, and its allies.

Prominent in the first group was Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), a group of some thirty armed men led by Santoso alias Abu Wardah in the hills outside Poso, Central Sulawesi. Santoso had run a series of military-style training camps in Poso beginning in 2011, and graduates and supporters are now scattered across Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara Barat (NTB). Despite being effectively under police siege during the year in his jungle camp, Santoso managed to smuggle out videos periodically to YouTube and radical websites. While neither he nor any other group managed any bombings in 2014, the few attacks on police during the year were all linked to MIT. Santoso was the first Indonesian to publicly pledge loyalty to the Islamic State after its leader, Abubakar al-Baghdadi, announced the establishment of the new caliphate on 29 June 2014 (1 Ramadan).

The pro-violence group also included remnants of Mujahidin Indonesia Barat (MIB), many members of which had previous ties to an old Darul Islam network led by the now-imprisoned Abdullah Umar. It included some but not all members of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s organization, Jamaah Anshorul Tauhid (JAT), and many followers of the imprisoned cleric Aman Abdurrahman who had no specific organizational affiliation.

The group that argued most strenuously that the costs of jihad in Indonesia outweighed the benefits was Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), best known for its involvement in the 2002 Bali bombing. Since 2007, it had forbidden its members to engage in attacks on the grounds that there was no community support, and there was no justification for collateral Muslim deaths since Indonesia was under neither occupation nor attack. It was vilified as a result by other jihadists for having abandoned jihad but its early and strong support for anti-Assad Islamists in Syria reburnished its jihadi credentials and strengthened its recruitment potential. Through 2014 JI remained strongly anti-ISIS but it also remained the only jihadi group with the capacity for long-term strategic thinking and the question was what its ultimate goals were.

The Attraction of Syria

From the beginning, the conflict in Syria had exerted a strong pull for Indonesians, stronger than other conflicts such as in Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere that were seen as part of the global jihad. The reasons were several. First, according to several prophetic traditions (hadith), the final battle at the end of time, called Malhamah al-Kubra, would take place in Sham (Greater Syria), when the Imam Mahdi would lead the forces of Islam to victory. The appeal of taking part in that victory was high, especially as radical Indonesians were avid readers of books on Islamic eschatology, with one Jemaah Islamiyah-affiliated publisher in Solo, Central Java, issuing a whole series on events that would mark the end of the world. Many of the discussions on the Syrian conflict that took place around Indonesia from 2012 onwards were explicitly linked to these apocalyptic predictions.

Second, many Indonesians were moved by the humanitarian suffering of Sunni Muslims in Syria and wanted to help. These included many in the radical community. Two groups close to JI became active in 2012. One was Syam Organizer <>, which sponsored lectures and fund-raising events across Indonesia. Another was the Red Crescent Society of Indonesia (Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia, HASI). In late 2012, HASI began sending delegations to Syria to provide medical assistance, initially to Ahrar al-Sham, a group that was initially independent but some factions of which eventually allied with al-Nusra.

Some, particularly in the Salafi community, were attracted to the idea of fighting Shi’ism and saw Assad, a member of the Alawite sect, as a murderous Shi’a massacring Sunnis.

Finally, some of Indonesia’s most militant extremists saw in the struggle of ISIS in particular a chance for the re-establishment of a caliphate that would unite all Muslims in a single political entity. Many Muslims who see a caliphate as the most perfect form of governance reject violence as a means of achieving it. But in Indonesia, some have long believed that it would be achieved only through jihad and the creation of individual Islamic states. They closely followed the creation of the “Islamic State of Iraq” in 2006—an entity that existed in name only—and admired its leader, the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. (Santoso of MIT, for example, calls himself the Zarqawi of Indonesia.) Thus when ISIS, the successor to ISI, began to control territory and apply a draconian form of Islamic law, the hopes of these militants rose. When al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate, they immediately pledged support.

The Syrian conflict thus stirred interest among many different Islamist groups in Indonesia, but the common concern masked different motivations and deep differences about which faction in Syria to support.

How Support for ISIS Spread in Indonesia

Early support for ISIS in Indonesia spread through two related channels: the website, run by a man named M. Fachry, and the teachings of detained cleric Aman Abdurrahman. Fachry had been initially inspired in 2005 by the teachings of a then U.K.-based cleric named Omar Bakri Muhammad, founder of an organization called al-Muhajiroun. Bakri taught that a caliphate could be built through the establishment, by force if necessary, of territorial zones called imarah Islam, in which Islamic law would be applied. Fachry and a few friends were determined to set up such a zone in Indonesia, and they became increasingly hostile toward other Islamists whose views differed from theirs. They also became increasingly interested in developments in the Middle East.

When Arab Spring activism led to the fall of authoritarian leaders in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, Fachry and several friends were convinced that the caliphate was at hand, because they saw these developments as fulfilment of a prophecy about the political cycle of Islam. In the prophecy, the Prophet’s own rule would be followed by a government of his successors (caliphate), then by inherited kingdoms, then by dictators and finally, at the end of time, by a return to the caliphate (khilafah minhajul nubuwah). Fachry’s friends included a few followers of Aman Abdurrahman.

Aman Abdurrahman himself, a superb Arabic linguist, became the main translator of ISIS propaganda, and though serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security prison, those translations appeared regularly on radical websites, including Fachry’s. His support for ISIS was ironic. He had long been a critic of al-Zarqawi, faulting him for lacking a long-term strategy and only concerned with striking at the enemy. He called this approach qital nikayah which he contrasted with what he clearly believed to be the superior strategy, qital tamkin, which used jihad as a way of removing barriers to the establishment of an Islamic state. But as Zarqawi’s successors began to hold territory and apply Islamic law, he strongly supported them and suggested that any Muslim who did not was tantamount to being an unbeliever {kafir). He also used his authority in prison to bring other prisoners around to his point of view. Outside prison, his many followers distributed his analyses as leaflets and kept his blog,, updated.

Fachry and friends had initially taken a wait-and-see attitude after the rift between the al-Nusra Front and ISIS exploded into the open in April 2013, unsure of which to support. But Fachry’s mentor, Omar Bakri Muhammad, came out in support of ISIS in October 2013 and from that point on, he and other ISIS supporters began organizing discussions designed to build local support for the pro-ISIS position. One of the activists who appeared frequently as a discussant or moderator in these events was a young preacher named Bahrum Syah, one of Aman Abdurrahman’s disciples. On 16 March, Fachry and Bahrum Syah together organized a big pro-ISIS demonstration around central Jakarta’s main traffic circle; two months later, Bahrum Syah left for Syria. Two months after that, he appeared in an ISIS recruiting video, posted on YouTube, urging other Indonesians to join.

By the time Bahrum Syah left, a critical mass of Indonesians was already there. Some had left from study abroad. One group of four had left from the International Islamic University in Islamabad; they were all from the school founded by former JI head Abu Bakar Ba’asyir in Ngruki, Solo. Another left from a university Yemen, two others from technical institute in Turkey. Another contingent had left from West Java. Several had left with families, attracted by the prospect not just of taking part in an exciting political and religious enterprise but by the stipends offered for housing and schooling. The Facebook and Twitter posts sent back to friends in Indonesia almost certainly attracted others, but most of those who left from Java already had ties to radical groups.

After victories in Mosul and other Iraqi cities and al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate just as the fasting month was starting, Fachiy and al-Mustaqbal started organizing induction ceremonies across Indonesia, where anywhere from a dozen to several hundred participants would take an oath of allegiance to the new leader. These ceremonies took place from Jakarta to Poso, from Malang to Bima. To the shock of many Indonesians, one such ceremony took place in mid-July in one of Indonesia’s supposedly most tightly controlled prison complexes, where both Aman Abdurrahman and Abu Bakar Ba’asyir were detained. A photo of the inductees, together with an ISIS flag, was posted on the Internet.

It remains unclear whether anyone who attended the pledging ceremonies left for Syria on the strength of the oath alone, but the number of people believed to have taken part in the ceremonies across Indonesia in July and August alone was estimated to be about 2,000.

In Syria

Information on how to get to Syria was available from several different sources. One was from social media sources. One of the teenagers who left his studies in Turkey to join the fighting was particularly active, sending photos and information back to his friends in Indonesia. Another husband-wife team, known on Facebook as Abu Qaqa and Siti Khadijah, wrote detailed accounts of how they left, where they crossed, how much money they spent, how they made contact and what their lives were like when they finally reached Aleppo.

Another source was prison networks. It became clear in early 2014 that some of the extremist prisoners were a key node in the sending networks. One such individual was Iwan Dharmawan alias Rois, the field coordinator for the 2004 Australian embassy bombing. Rois remains an important leader of the old West Java Darul Islam network known as Ring Banten that split off from the main DI body in 1999. He was sentenced to death for his role in the bombing and remains on death row in the same prison as Aman Abdurrahman, where he has become a strong pro-ISIS ally. Sometime in January, a former prisoner from Ring Banten, who had been by all accounts fully rehabilitated and not interested in conducting attacks in Indonesia, visited Rois as an old friend. He spoke to Rois about wanting to go to Myanmar to help defend Muslims under attack from Buddhists. Rois convinced him to go to Syria instead and gave him a contact number in Bogor. He followed up the lead, left for Turkey via Doha and by February was in Syria, on his way to battle in Iraq. He died in Ramadi in May 2014.

In Porong prison, Surabaya, another prisoner named Sibghotullah played a similar role, advising would-be mujahidin in the East Java area who came to visit whom to contact. After he was released in mid-2014, he wasted little time in leaving himself, except that he was caught en route and returned to Indonesia. Another prisoner was reportedly playing a similar role in Malang prison.

The prison network was only one of several operating in Indonesia for assisting those who wanted to leave to join ISIS. Unlike the generation that left for the Pakistan-Afghan border twenty-five years earlier, the fighters going to Syria have to pay their own way. Neither the Saudi funding, nor an equivalent of the “services bureau” set up in Peshawar to guide foreign fighters to the training camps, exists for the thousands making their way to the ISIS armed forces. A rudimentary system of vetting takes place, however, so that Indonesians leaving have to have a recommendation from someone already there before they are given the contact number on the Turkish-Syrian border and helped to cross over.

ISIS has made appeals for women to join, as teachers, nurses, cooks and wives for the fighters. All of Indonesian women known to be with ISIS in late 2014, however, were wives of men who went to fight.

These men seemed to have mostly joined a unit for Indonesian and Malaysian fighters initially called Kabila Nusantara and as of 26 September 2014, called Majmu’ah Persiapan Al Arkhabily, or the “Archipelago Group-in Preparation”. The goal of the new unit was to facilitate the incorporation of Malay- and Indonesian-speaking fighters into the ISIS forces because language had proved to be a serious problem, with few Indonesians fluent in either Arabic or English. It would also help widows and women left behind when their husbands went to fight; offer religious instruction; and provide the basis for a future Indonesian-Malaysia army of the Islamic state.

An announcement posted on Indonesian websites noted that “the new group is recruiting members so that it can meet the qualifications that IS requires for all its elite units: each majmu’ah must include fighters with combat experience and skills in sniper shooting, heavy weaponry, field engineering, military strategy and war tactics, and military management.”

The exact size of the unit was not known but one estimate was that it had or was aiming to have the strength of a military company, about 100 men.

Impact on Terrorism at Home

The fact that those most committed to violence in Indonesia have been those most excited about going to join ISIS in Syria has advantages and disadvantages for the Indonesian Government. On the one hand, it has meant that the groups most focused on committing terrorist attacks in Indonesia now have another goal that may be at least temporarily diverting them from planning operations at home, especially as very few of those operations have worked. As of late 2014, there had not been a successful bombing in five years, and the three attempts at suicide bombing had killed only the would-be bombers.

If the Indonesian Government turned a blind eye to departures of men who wanted to fight, some of them might well be killed. At least eight Indonesians and probably more had died either in battle or as suicide bombers between November 2013 and October 2014, three of them killed by Kurdish forces in the battle for Ras al-Ayn near the Turkish border in October. If they did not return, one view held, that meant fewer terrorists to worry about.

But the bigger worry was what would happen if even a small percentage returned with the leadership credentials, ideological commitment, combat experience and weapons skills to turn the largely incompetent Indonesian extremists into a more serious risk. The danger was high enough to warrant trying to prevent anyone from leaving; the problem was that Indonesia had no tools to do so. It is not against the law in Indonesia to go overseas to fight or even to join an organization that has been put on a terrorist list by the United Nations. There is no precedent for cancelling passports, as some other countries have done.

Even though the government’s concern was high enough to declare ISIS a banned organization on 4 August 2014, the declaration had no force of law. It was more a policy directive and was followed by instructions to step up security at prisons, be more selective in the issuance of passports and improve monitoring of those known to be in Syria and those who had returned. One challenge for the new government of President Jokowi installed in October 2014 was whether additional legal tools could be developed.

The Corrections Directorate of the Indonesian Ministry of Law and Human Rights, responsible for overseeing prisons, was well aware of the problems it faced, with terrorists detained or serving sentences in twenty-seven different institutions, and most having access to handphones. By mid-2014 it had begun a concerted effort to improve security and training for prison officials, with some indication by the end of the year that it was paying off, as support for ISIS seemed to be declining.

Jemaah Islamiyah

Another challenge for the Indonesian Government is how to respond to the many extremist groups in Indonesia who rejected the caliphate announced by al-Baghdadi but supported the al-Nusra Front, the official al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria. These groups included JI, Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and a significant part of JAT. Indeed, when Abu Bakar Ba’asyir as the founder of JAT declared his support for ISIS, many in the organization, led by its chair, Mochammad Achwan, broke away to found a new group, Jamaah Anshorul Syariah (JAS).

If the groups who support al-Nusra in Syria do not support violence in Indonesia, what is the problem if they go there to fight? The problem is that al-Nusra, while focused more on bringing down Assad than on establishing a global caliphate, also employs brutality and a harsh system of Islamic law, and has also engaged in terrorism. Anyone fighting with al-Nusra is also likely to return to Indonesia with increased skills and ideological commitment and could well move away from the positions now espoused by the JI leadership. Moreover, there have been many reports of defections from al-Nusra to IS since the caliphate was announced; at least one Indonesian from IS has defected the other way. The point is that al-Nusra is not a moderate organization, and Southeast Asian governments, including Indonesia, should also be monitoring their nationals allied with it.

The alliance of JI with al-Nusra raises a particularly difficult set of issues. JI since 2007 has focused on dakwah (religious outreach) and education. Its imprisoned leaders have been models of cooperation with prison authorities and have preached that if jihadists do a cost-benefit analysis of attacks, they will see that at the moment, without community support, the costs far outweigh the benefits. The problem is that no one is quite sure when the calculus will shift. Of all extremist organizations in Indonesia, JI has the longest history, the most resilient membership and the best capacity for thinking long term. Its leadership remains committed to the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia. What impact will Syria have on that goal?

A partial answer was provided in March 2014 when police discovered a military camp in Klaten, Central Java where new JI recruits were training. In September they arrested a man who had been taking part in monthly JI fitness trainings in the hills outside Bandung and Semarang in Java. The man in question had been inducted into JI at the height of its strength in 2000 but became inactive after 2007. In early 2011, he was approached by a JI leader and asked to resume his activities in the organization, suggesting that a systematic rebuilding was underway. In late 2013, police discovered an end-of-year report that showed the extent that JI was concentrating on attracting professional recruits from universities—engineers, doctors, linguists, chemical technicians and IT specialists.

If the recruitment has been successful, JI’s link to Syria and its early involvement in providing humanitarian aid through HASI may have contributed to its appeal. As of late 2014, police and prison authorities saw the senior JI leadership as partners in combating IS and generally had no problem with their going back and forth. Senior JI figures were indeed very critical of IS. They argued that IS was an organization, not a state, and that al-Baghdadi had not been selected as caliph by a religious council (majelis syuro), as Islamic law mandates. They also strongly objected to IS’s practice of declaring anyone who did not swear a loyalty oath as an enemy and a legitimate target for killing.

But JI’s rejection of IS does not make them moderate. Especially given its past, it is important that the organization not be seen as having abandoned violence or jihad. They decided in 2007 it was counter-productive, not illegitimate, and conditions could change.

Looking Forward

The Syrian conflict will reverberate in Indonesia for years to come. There are several ways it could have an impact. As noted, fighters could return with skills. Indonesians and Malaysians who fought together could retain those bonds at home and attempt to found a cross-border alliance for jihad—something that has not existed since JI had a presence in five countries just before the 2002 Bali bombing (Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Philippines and Australia). IS could try to set up a structure in Southeast Asia through returning fighters or sympathizers. In the near term, would-be fighters who have not had the chance to leave for Syria could decide to undertake an action in Indonesia to attract the attention of IS leaders and demonstrate their own commitment.

All of this suggests that the current lull in terrorist activities could be temporary. Just as there were no major attacks in Indonesia between 2005 and 2009, the lull could be shattered as it was then by the attack on two luxury hotels in Jakarta.

The government of Jokowi may have been given some breathing room to decide on a strategy but this is a problem that is not going to go away.