Indonesian cleric’s support for ISIS increases the security threat

Jailed Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar recently declared his support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS). EPA/Adi Weda

Behind bars in Indonesia’s version of Alcatraz, radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir has declared his support for the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).

After taking over Iraq’s second-largest city Mosul last month, ISIS, a violent Muslim extremist group, declared areas it occupied in Syria and Iraq as an Islamic caliphate.

Bashir is the jailed spiritual leader of the southeast Asian terror network responsible for the Bali bombings. He gave his edict to support ISIS in front of members of Jama’ah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) who came to visit him. They quickly spread his word to Indonesian extremist groups via social media.

Bashir’s statement might encourage more young Indonesian extremists to travel to Syria and join ISIS. The Indonesian foreign ministry estimated in December that 50 Indonesians had already joined the war in Syria.

Involvement of Indonesia’s extremists groups in the Syrian conflict will potentially increase terrorist threats in Southeast Asia. Just like veterans from the wars in Afghanistan, ISIS recruits from Indonesia would bring back their combat skills and global terrorist links upon their return home.

ISIS popularity rises among Indonesian extremists

Before Bashir declared his support, convicted terrorist Aman Aburrahman had already translated and distributed ISIS publications on the internet since early this year.

On March 16, about 300 people from around Jakarta and Central Java cities Solo and Lamongan staged a rally declaring their support for ISIS at the iconic Hotel Indonesia roundabout. The media gave this little attention, possibly because it was the first day of the legislative elections campaign period.

The glossy brochures distributed during the event had endorsements from three convicted terrorists: Abdurrahman, Rois Abu Syaukat and Abdullah Sunata. All three are in the same prison as Bashir.

Abu Syaukat, on death row for his role in the Australian embassy bombing, wrote:

A caliphate is something that we long for. Today, its foundation is being built in front of our eyes … Do we want to just be dreamers who want to see a caliphate or be part of the movement as mujaheddin, fighters who struggle for the creation of a caliphate?

Abdurrahman echoed him by writing that all who are against ISIS were

infidels and hypocrites or they lust for power or are swayed by the media that have tainted the ISIS image.

Power struggle within jihadi groups

Analysts often mistakenly label ISIS as a “Sunni insurgency” simply because it has been demonstrating intense hatred toward Shi’a Muslims. In reality, ISIS fights Sunnis too.

ISIS have killed fighters from Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN). A Syrian Sunni extremist group, JN acts as an arm for al-Qaeda Iraq (AQI) in Syria.

ISIS, which started out as Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) under al-Qaeda Iraq, severed ties with the latter in 2014 after a power struggle between ISIS and JN for occupied territories in Syria.

This power struggle has affected Indonesian groups. Before ISIS declared its caliphate, Indonesian extremist groups were split in their support.

Abdurrahman, Syaukat and Sunata endorsed ISIS. But other extremists also supported JN and smaller extremist groups such as Katibat Suqour al-Izz. Indonesian Reza Fardi, who died in the Syrian conflict, reportedly joined Suqour al-Izz.

Bashir’s support for ISIS will tilt the balance to ISIS. It will also divide the Indonesian jihadi community and alienate Afghan veterans who tend to remain loyal to al-Qaeda.

ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has swept through parts of Iraq in recent weeks.

Prevention and deradicalisation

To solve the problems of religious extremism, a holistic strategy to prevent violent acts is needed. First, we need to understand the context of the emergence of extremist groups and the dynamics of their violent activities.

Second, the Indonesian and Turkish governments should share intelligence on combatant movements to prevent them from crossing the border. A humanitarian doctor from Turkey has stated that ISIS provides shelters for foreign fighters to stay for one or two nights before crossing the borders. There are many illegal crossing points that local people can easily access in Raihanly and Kilis, both cities on the Turkish border.

Lastly, the Indonesian government should help keep track of combatants and help returned jihadists to assimilate into normal society. Unless extremists are deradicalised, there will be no end to end this protracted conflict, which has already claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians.