By Iis Gindarsah
December 31 2014
Every year in the build-up to the Christmas and New Year celebrations, the Indonesian police beef up security throughout the archipelago. The sense of precaution, however, is slightly different this year.
In the wake of the latest hostage-taking in Sydney and the arrest of 12 Syria-bound Indonesian nationals in Kuala Lumpur, the country’s counterterrorism authorities are increasingly concerned with the domestic ramifications of the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
While Iraq attracted militants from around the world between 2003 and 2011, Syria is increasingly become a new hotspot for jihadist activities. The latter development is arguably comparable to Afghanistan during the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s.
This year, the Islamic State (IS) movement emerged as the main jihadist group in Iraq and Syria. Unlike al-Qaeda’s slow-paced approach to jihad, the group employs “total war” and “mass casualty” approaches, giving it credibility within the jihadist community.
The brutal reputation of IS fighters on the battlefield have further inspired radical-minded individuals seeking instant outcomes and combat experience to join the notorious terrorist group.
In Indonesia, the operational dynamics of IS have had a profound impact, radicalizing local Muslim youths and drawing many to the theater of conflict.
Here, the ultimate challenge for counterterrorism efforts is to assess whether the country remains a peripheral source of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, or whether the radicalism and violence inspired by IS pose a clear and present danger to homeland security.
According to the latest official estimates, at least 500 Indonesians have joined either IS or other militant groups.
They travel to war-torn Iraq and Syria for various reasons, including fighting the authoritarian regime and eliminating the Shiite population.
Having confiscated numerous IS standards and publications in many parts of the country, the national police’s anti-terror squad arrested seven suspected IS sympathizers in Poso, Central Sulawesi, in mid-September 2014.
This further suggests a potentially growing relationship between IS and local militant groups, although the risk of major terrorist attacks is currently low.
Learning from the experience of former anti-Soviet combatants in Afghanistan, some Indonesian militants in Syria and Iraq are potential leaders of future terrorist cells in the country.
Despite significant improvements in counterterrorist capabilities, Indonesia has not made meaningful progress in de-radicalizing home-grown militants and terrorists.
The country’s lack of de-radicalization programs means its security architecture is ill-prepared to anticipate the future threat of returning Indonesian militants and the further expansion of violent IS ideology.
The Indonesian government has declared any form of affiliation to the group to be categorically “a crime against the state”, according to Article 139 of the Criminal Code.
Referring to the 2006 Citizenship Law, counterterrorist authorities have further warned that Indonesians “who pledge allegiance to any foreign country or entities based in other countries will lose their citizenship”.
Nevertheless, preventing radicalized individuals from traveling to the conflict zones and joining IS is a challenging task for many governments, not excluding Indonesia.
At one level, the current trend appears temporarily expedient as extremists being drawn out of the country will reduce the risk of immediate terrorist attacks at home.
At another level, high-profile government participation in the anti-IS international coalition could alienate some elements of the local Muslim population, potentially undermining the level of domestic support for the incumbent administration.
While improving its de-radicalization programs, the Indonesian government should consider other possible options.
First, to deal with growing support for the IS causes, it must attempt to crackdown on electronic communication between militant groups outside the country and the local population.
Relevant regulations and concerted efforts are crucial to limit the volume of hate speeches, ferocious ideologies and violent broadcasts.
Secondly, while closely monitoring the movements of IS sympathizers at home, it must work on a comprehensive, integrated and ready-to-use database of local terrorist networks and radical-minded individuals.
This capability will enable relevant agencies and personnel on the ground to detect and identify suspected militants either heading to or returning from Iraq and Syria.
Third, the Indonesian government should increase the overseas presence of counterterrorism officers working with its embassies in countries where foreign fighters transit before entering Iraq and Syria.
This way, it could intensify coordination with local security authorities on identifying Indonesian militants and preventing their passage through these countries.
While tracking the newly arriving fighters is of importance, keeping an eye on those returning home must be the top priority.
Despite the uncertain future of the conflict in Syria, the government should ponder the grave danger posed by the country’s militants when they return to Indonesia. While a persuasive approach is essential to engage moderate combatants, it must prepare another alternative for worst-case individuals.
Preemptive measures are necessary to deal with violent and uncooperative militants on their way back to conduct major terrorist attacks at home.
Here, the military’s special forces are valuable assets for Indonesian counterterrorism. Given the sensitivity and political risks of the matter, this option requires selective target acquisition and sophisticated covert operations for an optimal outcome.
The use of lethal force remains the last resort; it must be taken only if the goal of a persuasive approach is deemed unattainable.
Iis Gindarsah is a researcher at the Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Jakarta