Terrorist Threats and Trends in Asia: Rising Challenge of ISIS in Indonesia


Dr Jolene Jerard  is  Manager,  Capacity  Building  at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a  specialist  Centre  of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. She has conducted fi research in several threat zones including Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Southern Thailand. In that connection she interviewed numerous leaders and members of terrorist and politico-religious groups Asia, Africa and the Middle East.

In this era of perpetual insecurity, the looming threat of terrorism has imprinted an indelible mark on the way in which governments and nations have channeled resources towards the safety and security of its people. While the phenomenon of terrorism in it of itself is not new, the speed at which security, intelligence and law enforcement services have had to embrace the challenges in this new security environment is at an unprecedented pace especially over the last few years. The threat of terrorism continues to dominate the security agenda. The ensuing conflict in Syria, the spiralling downhill of Iraq, the insecurity in Pakistan, the tenuous security of Afghanistan in the aftermath of the US Pull-out from Afghanistan, will have a ripple effect on the security of the Asian Region writ large. Asia and by extension Indonesia as a result is significantly impacted by the increasingly tumultuous global climate of insecurity vis-à-vis terrorist threats. Despite the preparation that governments globally have had over the last decade since the dawn of the new era of insecurity since 11 September 2001, the present threats and trends have steadily continued and have seemingly appreciated over the last five years.

The Global Threat Landscape: Rippling Effects on Asia

 As a whole, Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) along with Al Qaeda and their affiliate and hybrid groups continue to threaten global security. Historically, ISIS has its roots in the larger Al Qaeda movement. Just as Al Qaeda and the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) is presently viewed as Al Qaeda’s most dangerous offshoot vis-à-vis the group’s ability to launch attacks outside of Yemen, ISIS too has its early roots in Al Qaeda and is on a rise garnering both support and territory. The increased focus on ISIS in turn should not relegate the threat emanating from Al Qaeda and its associate groups to the side-lines. The more virulent groups from the Al Qaeda affiliates – AQAP predominantly operating in Yemen and Saudi Arabia; Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) whose areas of operation are in Algeria, Morocco and sub-saharan Africa; the recently formed Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operating in Pakistan, India, Myanmar and Bangladesh – continue to pose a threat to security. Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi on 7 March 2015 and the rising possibility of Al-Shabaab following the same path have increased fears amongst security analysts who reiterate the growing presence of ISIS spanning from Africa to Asia. The recent attack by Al-Shabaab gunmen at the Garissa University College in Kenya by Al-Shabaab on 2 April 2015 where approximately 147 people were killed reinforce the growing strength of a once thought of to be fledgling group under its new leader Ahmed Omar Abu Ubeyd. Al-Shabaab’s former leader Ahmed Abdi Godane was killed in US airstrikes in September 2014. It is against this tumultuous global backdrop of prevalent and emerging groups that terrorist and extremist groups in Asia are operating. The global threat landscape will undoubtedly affect the activities within the Southeast Asian region and result in cascading effects on its own security.

In the near term threat posed by ISIS, Al Qaeda affiliated groups and the ISIS-Al Qaeda hybrid as seen in the recent attacks in France in January 2015 is a trend that is anticipated to dominate the security landscape in the near future. The challenge of self-radicalised individuals, lone wolves and sleeper cells threaten the manner through which the security of the global landscape is affected. This challenge in turn resonates with much of Asia as it struggles to manage the future threat amidst its growing appeal.

Threat and Appeal of ISIS

A foremost security challenge that regional governments in Southeast Asia are facing is undoubtedly the rise of the ISIS and the impact emanating from Asian fighters joining in the battle remain a visible challenge. Echoing the aftermath of the Soviet Afghan war whereby individuals including Southeast Asians returned to Asia radicalised by the war, the resonating fear is that the foreign fighter returnees from Syria would radicalise communities in Asia.

On 4th August 2014 the Indonesian government declared a ban on ISIS as it was against the government’s stand of Pancasila1. The ban came swiftly after the release of a video – Joining the ranks – where an Indonesian named “Abu Muhammad al Indunisi” attempted to galvanise support for fellow Indonesians to come and join the ranks of ISIS. In Asia, the attraction to ISIS like in many parts of the Asia arises from the notion of “Khilafah Minhaj Nebuwwah” or the “end-of-times caliphate” and the ensuing war between the forces of Imam Mahdi and the Dajjal or the anti-Christ. The strong anti-Shia stance of ISIS renders its radical ideology attractive to the predominant Sunni leanings of the majority of its supporters in Asia.

Of the more than 30 terrorist and extremist groups and splinter movements over the last 3 decades, the aspiration has constantly been for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. Today, ISIS epitomizes this long held aspiration through the presence of its self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi and its securing of territory through its battle field victories. In mid-2014, using a small force, ISIS captured Mosul despite the presence of an apparently larger and skilled Iraqi military. Since then, ISIS has grown from strength to strength changing the threat landscape both within the Middle East and beyond. The paroxysms of emotional appeal of ISIS is presently further exacerbated by three dominant trends across Asia, affecting the Indonesian threat landscape.

Trend 1 – Recruitment and Radicalisation through the Social Media

Against the backdrop of the threat emanating from the rise of ISIS is the use of the social media to recruit and radicalise individuals. The speed through which ISIS managed to spread its message and recruit is seen through the group’s use of social media and social networking sites to propagate their ideology and battlefield successes.

The challenge for governments in much of Asia stem from the fact that the new generation of terrorists are digital natives, whose command and ability to capitalise on the technology has reinforced its ability to spread radical message and propaganda amongst the people. The unfortunate reality is that individuals who are tasked to clamp down on the use of the social media are typically digital migrants who had earlier underestimated the speed through which ISIS has managed to reach out to like-minded individuals whilst inspiring individuals to join their cause through the social media. Most regional governments are unfortunately playing catch up in a domain that the terrorists and extremist groups have dominated. Gaining back the strategic communications battle-field is an uphill task. Indonesia has most recently attempted to engage with an Austrian university with the attempt to counter the ideological narratives posed by ISIS through “a digital campaign designed to penetrate jihadist discussion forums and undermine ISIS’s theological arguments”2.

Trend 2 – Loose Network of Operatives, Splits and Schisms

Unlike the hierarchical nature of the groups in the past, the present loose network of operatives results in the difficulty in identifying the perpetrators. Amidst the chatter, noise and growing intelligence gathered on terrorist and extremist groups, operatives in loose networks are assumedly in a better tactical position to hide their activities. In this instance, terrorist leadership acts as propagandists and strategists and does not directing participate as ground commanders of operations. The ISIS and Al Qaeda hybrid operation in France is a case in point. Just as Al Qaeda has devolved into a less centralised, less hierarchical structure, ISIS through the formation of its various wilayats or governates (including the attempt at an Indonesian wilayat) aims to devolve its power and uses these governates as a platform to expand the influence of ISIS.

Numerous groups in Asia in particular Southeast Asia have sworn their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi over the last 6 to 8 months. In the past where the oath of allegiance was expressed in person to the leadership, today this pledge is undertaken either through a video as an articulation of support for the leadership and a pledge to follow in the ways of the leader. Instead of having control of individuals who are gradually accepted as part of the terrorist group, today the members control their allegiance to the leader and ultimately the group.

In Indonesia, these loose networks and outcries of allegiance have additionally resulted in the splitting within the ranks of the terrorist groups in Indonesia. The groups as such profess to being either pro-ISIS or anti-ISIS. For instance, Abu Bakar Bashyir swore allegiance to ISIS and issued a decree that all members of Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid should also support ISIS or leave the group. This resulted in the splitting of Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid and directly led to the formation of Jamaah Ansyarusy Syariah in August 2014 by his own sons who had left Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid in response to this.

Trend 3 – Foreign Fighters and Recidivists

The trend of foreign fighters returnees and recidivists who were initially arrested but not deradicalised and since have re-joined the terrorist and extremists groups will continue to pose a challenge to governments in Asia. While considerable effort has been placed on taking down terrorist cells and networks, the effort placed on strategic counter terrorism measures is far fewer. More needs to be done to strategically counter terrorism aim at building an environment that is hostile to terrorists and extremists.

Asians Joining ISIS

Several Singaporeans had become radicalised and a few have gone to Syria and Iraq.

In Malaysia, since February last year, the Bukit Aman Special Branch Counter Terrorism Division has arrested approximately 92 suspected Malaysian militants, with 63 presently believed to be in Syria. Malaysian Ahmad Tarmimi, became the first Malaysian to die as a suicide bomber in Iraq in late May 2014.

The Philippines is estimated to have approximately 200 of its citizens in Syria.

Central Asia is reported to have between 2,000-4,000 individuals fighting with ISIS in Syria.

In December 2014, 12 Indonesians, including five children were arrested in Selangor during a large-scale operation. They were planning to fly from KL airport to Turkey and then to Syria. In an interview with the Jakarta Post in December 2014, Indonesian National Counter Terrorism Agency (BNPT) Chief Commander General Saud Usman Nasution reported that there were approximately 514 Indonesian citizens fighting in Syria. It was emphasised that in June 2014, there were approximately 86 individuals, in October 2014: 284 individuals – an alarming rise of close to three times in less than four months.3 The news of the formation of a Khotibah Nusantara for Indonesian and Malaysian foreign fighters in late 2014 was similar to the formation of similar groups in Afghanistan for Southeast Asian fighters during the Afghan-War of 1979-1989.

The numbers from Indonesia have been the largest in Southeast. Beyond the lure of the radical ideology, in a recent report, it was noted that several factors acted as incentives for Indonesians to join ISIS – the promise of homes, money of up 20 million rupiah (1,540 USD) and a job. The training of young children reiterates the notion that they are garnering the strength needed to sustain their ranks over the next generation.

Why are these numbers staggering? The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) Director Sidney Jones noted that the number of Indonesians who went to fight in Afghanistan from 1985 to 1994 did not exceed 300. The use of a viable platform such as the social media has multiplied the impact of the message and has in turn rendered it far reaching beyond the Iraq and Syria. The challenge will continue when these fighters return to Asia. In the aftermath of the Soviet Afghan War, there was a revival of terrorist and extremist activity within the region. The entrenched fear is from the radicalised citizens who return back to their home countries imbued with a radical ideology, able to galvanise the masses and rain blows of violence and discord amongst communities. The dangers arise from the tensions within the community, whose social fabric is often strained amidst these ever-present challenges.

Way Forward

As a visible show of unanimous support in the fight against ISIS, in September 2014, 62 nations including the European Union and the Arab League joined the US-led Coalition against ISIS. The support pledged range from providing air support, military equipment, humanitarian aid to political support. As a collective, the coalition aims to providing military support to Iraq, stop the flow of foreign fighters that seek to join ISIS, counter ISIS financing, and address the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the displacement of close to 2 million people. The core question and unenviable challenge that remains is who would be supplying the actual boots on the ground?

The way forward to defeat terrorist and extremist groups such as ISIS, Al Qaeda affiliated groups and Al Qaeda- ISIS hybrid is through a multi-pronged, multi-agency, multi-national effort where best practices are shared in a collective, calibrated manner in an effort to mitigate the threat posed by terrorist and extremist groups. It is important to build a network of trusted partners who are then able to reassess and re-examine strategies undertaken and to share best practices in order to mitigate the threat of terrorism and its impact on societies in the region.

To mitigate the threat from political violence and terrorism, a multi-pronged strategy that focuses on training, outreach and partnership is required. Similarly, governments, agencies and institutions need to be networked in order to improve the present security framework against terrorism. Built on the foundations of understanding the current and emerging threat, the ability for agencies and institutions to improve training, to explore platforms to educate the community against terrorism and extremism and expand partnership through a multitude of networks will ensure an effective security framework against terrorism and extremism.

The landscape of terrorism is both volatile and constantly evolving. In combating the threat of terrorism, academics and policy-makers alike need to continuously reassess the threat of terrorism. The asymmetric threat posed by terrorists is never static. Terrorists constantly respond to the environment within which they operate. Given the ability of terrorists to adapt to counter terrorism measures put in place, the measures undertaken by the counter terrorism community needs to adapt to this dynamic and the evolving threat. Sound knowledge of the enemy is quintessential for the creation of both an efficient and effective response to the threat.

Staying ahead of terrorist trends, tactics and procedures will remain a challenge within the field of counter terrorism. Moving forward, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) needs to have a collective response to the threat of ISIS. The long-term goal is to create an environment that is hostile to terrorists and extremists. While a collective response has proven difficult at an institutional level, individually countries that have been particularly afflicted by ISIS have responded in various capacities. In Indonesia, Jokowi’s government for instance has taken a forward step in their attempts to clamp down on ISIS. Unlike leadership in the past that have skirted around proscribing terrorist and extremist groups, attempts have been made to ban ISIS and criminalised support for the group as the ideology of ISIS goes against the core tenets of Pancasila as put forth by the Indonesian government.

Capacity building in Asia in particular acknowledges the long term, uphill battle ahead to mitigate the threat from terrorism and extremism and therein the role that institutions and individuals play in the efforts to mitigate the threat. Ultimately for Indonesia as it is with the rest of Asia, it will take a network of partners that are informed by intelligence and spearheaded by visionary leadership, armed with both political will and motivated towards working together in synergy to ultimately take down if not mitigate the threat posed by a terrorist network to the region in the near future.

1. Pancasila is the five principles that embody the Indonesian Constitution. These five principle are (1) Belief in the divinity of God, (2) Just and civilized humanity, (3) The unity of Indonesia, (4) Democracy and (4) Social justice.

2. Imogen Mathers, “Indonesia and Austria Counter ISIS on Social Media”, Sci Devt Net, 3 April 2015: http://www.scidev.net/global/ technology/news/indonesia-austria-counter-isis-social-media.html.

    1. Nani Afrida, “Alarming rise in IS support”, The Jakarta Post, 8 December 2014.