Indonesia needs to be vigilant to avoid becoming a home for terrorists again
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Indonesia needs to be vigilant to avoid becoming a home for terrorists again

AS BATTLE between Islamic State-aligned militants and state security forces in Marawi enters its fourth month, Indonesia is watching the events unfolding in the southern Philippines with increasing concern.

The situation on Mindanao – separated from the Indonesian islands of Kalimantan and Sulawesi only by the Celebes Sea – has raised fears that a new generation of battle-hardened jihadists may look to take advantage of the region’s porous maritime borders to spread their fundamentalist ideology and launch attacks in the archipelago home to the world’s largest Muslim population.

The threat from Islamist terror to Southeast Asia is at its highest level for more than a decade. At this critical juncture, Indonesia must seek to avoid a return to the dark days of the early 2000s, when Al-Qaeda linked terrorist groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) flourished and possessed the ability to launch mass-casualty attacks against civilians.

SEE ALSO: Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia eye joint task force for fighting IS


Foreign tourists carry their luggage pass the site of a bomb blast at Kuta Beach on the Indonesian island of Bali, October 2002. Source: AP

The 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali – which claimed 202 lives – signalled the height of the epidemic, and prompted Indonesia’s authorities to launch a crackdown which had until recently stemmed the tide of attacks.

The co-ordinated assault on Jakarta by IS-aligned militants in January 2016 provided the first sign of a resurgence in Islamist terror in Indonesia. Since then, toughened counter-terror laws have been proposed and are currently being debated in parliament; yet the new measures have been criticised by human rights groups. In the context of the evolving risk from Islamist terror in Southeast Asia, it must be asked: are the laws necessary, and will they be enough to contain the threat?

The conflict in Marawi – which erupted on 23 May after IS-aligned militants resisted Philippine troops attempting to capture a key rebel leader – has proven the catalyst for jihadist violence in the region after several years of militant activity simmering below the surface.

Since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011, around 400 Indonesians have travelled to fight alongside extremist groups in Syria and Iraq. An unknown number of Indonesians have also gained combat skills and experience in Marawi, raising concerns they could return home to radicalise others and carry-out attacks – adding to the existing threat posed by jihadist fighters returning from the Middle East.

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IS has bolstered its propaganda effort to target new recruits in the region, as it seeks to establish a Southeast Asian province to reinvigorate its supporters as it loses ground in Iraq and Syria. Islamic State has appealed directly to Indonesians through social media channels, encouraging radicalised individuals to either join the fight in Marawi or carry-out lone wolf attacks. These calls have added to existing concerns over radicalisation within the prison system, as well as through pesantren – or Islamic schools – run by extremists linked to domestic terror groups.

Even before the outbreak of violence in Marawi, terror plots in Indonesia were already on the rise. The attacks last January were followed by a series of foiled plots against high-profile targets, with one cell planning to bomb the Presidential Palace in Jakarta.


Police stand guard outside the Kampung Melayu bus terminal, the site of suicide bombings, in Jakarta, Indonesia May 25, 2017 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken May 25, 2017. Source: Reuters/Antara Foto/Puspa Perwitasari

More recently, several attacks have slipped through the net: on 24 May, two suicide bombers detonated their devices at a bus terminal in Jakarta, killing three people; whilst on 25 June, suspected ISIS militants stabbed to death a police officer in the western city of Medan. Indonesia’s elite police counter-terrorism force, Detachment 88 – established in the wake of the 2002 Bali bombings – has its work cut out to prevent further attacks. The unit foiled 15 plots and arrested 170 alleged terrorists in 2016 alone.

This upsurge in jihadist activity evidences a worrying trend that Indonesia is becoming increasingly fertile ground for terrorist recruitment.

Observers have witnessed a creeping Islamisation of society in recent decades as international air travel and technology have enabled the transfer of a more radical brand of Islam from the Middle East, confronting Indonesia’s traditionally-secular society and tolerant version of Islam – sometimes referred to as ‘Archipelago Islam’ – which encompasses varied strands of thought across a geographically diverse nation.

On the back of this gradual ideological shift Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) has seen once again its membership increase, whilst several other domestic terror groups have pledged allegiance to IS.

SEE ALSO: Indonesia: Is the future of terrorism female?


A Muslim man reads the Koran while waiting for the Iftar (breaking fast) meal during the last week of the holy fasting month of Ramadan at Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, Indonesia June 20, 2017. Source: Reuters/Agoes Rudianto

Despite these trends, opinion polls show that the majority of Indonesians – around 80% – strongly disapprove of IS, whilst the authorities have had remarkable success in containing extremism in the world’s most populous Muslim country. Yet recent developments have provided enough concern to prompt a review of Indonesia’s counter-terrorism laws, with the proposed changes currently being debated in parliament and due to be passed by the end of September.

The series of amendments to the country’s 2003 law on the Eradication of Terrorism, were initially put forward after the Jakarta attacks last year. The changes include a widened definition of terrorism to include those propagating hate speech, and those who have undertaken training or are proven to be members of banned extremist groups.

The new laws would facilitate longer prison sentences for those whose ‘‘speech, thoughts, behaviours or writings’’ encourage others to commit violence, whilst granting wider arrest powers and allowing for substantially longer detention periods for terrorism suspects. The legislation would also controversially allow the government to revoke the citizenship of Indonesians’ convicted of terrorist acts.

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International observers have criticised the proposed changes, highlighting the threat posed to basic human rights and freedoms whilst arguing that the new powers may have a counter-productive effect in the battle against terrorism. Human Rights Watch said the open-ended language used would facilitate ‘‘violations of the rights to free expression and nationality’’, calling on Indonesia’s lawmakers to scrap elements of the revisions which it describes as ‘‘over-broad’’ and ‘‘vague’’.

In May, Indonesian president Joko Widodo advocated a greater role for the country’s military in counter-terrorism operations, drawing further criticism. Rights groups have pointed to the often-repressive role played by the military during the era of the Suharto dictatorship, which lasted for 31 years until his downfall in 1998. And given the relatively impressive record of Indonesia’s existing counter-terror framework, many have labelled the proposed changes as an over-reaction.


Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo and Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong applaud as they watch Republic of Singapore Air Force F16s and Indonesian Air Force TNI-AU F16s perform an aerial flypast at the Marina Bay Cruise Centre in Singapore September 7, 2017. Source: Reuters/Edgar Su

Yet the Islamist terror threat to Indonesia is the highest it has been for some time: the potential for battle-hardened fighters returning from Syria, Iraq and the Philippines has drawn comparisons with the wave of returning fighters from Afghanistan in the 1980s, which spawned Al-Qaeda aligned groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, who went on to launch a campaign of terror in Southeast Asia which only subsided in the mid-2000s.

Ten years on, it is IS – rather than Al-Qaeda – who are now driving the ideological narrative of transnational jihadism. The outbreak of violence in Marawi, along with the stated desire of Islamic State to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate, has been a game-changer for the region’s governments.

There is a serious risk that instability in the southern Philippines could spread across the largely ungoverned waters of the Celebes Sea, with terrorists seeking to launch ambitious attacks in Indonesia and beyond.

SEE ALSO: Ties between Southeast Asia and Bangladesh’s jihadis growing – report

In the current climate, Indonesia has little choice but to implement tougher counter-terrorism measures to prevent a return to the days when recruitment flourished and attacks wrought havoc on civilians, shortly after the turn of the century.

This bolstered law enforcement approach must however be taken in conjunction with softer measures – such as the continuation of deradicalisation initiatives – whilst ensuring continued support for the more-tolerant Indonesian manifestations of Islam which remain dominant in society, to counter extremist ideology.

With a rapidly-evolving threat visible on the horizon across its porous maritime frontier, Indonesia must practice continual vigilance to prevent the country becoming a regional terrorist hub once more.