ISIS is building a network in Indonesia: What we can do to stop it

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ISIS “study groups” are openly springing up across Indonesia.

Thousands of Indonesians have pledged allegiance to ISIS, and hundreds have gone to fight in Syria and some of these are starting to come back.

“In a much shorter space of time, more Indonesians are going to join ISIS than ever went to Afghanistan”, terrorism expert Sidney Jones told the Wall Street Journal.

It’s not against Indonesian law to support ISIS or fight for them in Syria.

Last week, ISIS has issued direct threats to murder six senior Indonesian federal police. Authorities have received specific intelligence of an attack planned on Shiites.

Terrorism experts believe Westerners will be next in line.

Authorities are clearly getting worried.

“We want Indonesia to be peaceful and not turn into Iraq or Syria,” Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan said.

Nevertheless, ISIS “study groups” are apparently free to recruit and build networks. One major group, Ansharud Daulah Islamiyah (ADI), operates in Java, Sumatra, Kalimantan, Sulawesi and eastern Indonesia, according to Inside Indonesia. The group is openly recruiting fighters for ISIS in Syria.

Syamsudin Uba, a leader in ADI, told Inside Indonesia “For now, jihad is only obligatory in Syria and not here.” He says he is ready to turn violent when an order is given.

There’s history here. Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) operated for years as an openly armed, radical organisation. Until one day… they blew people up.

Jokowo favours “soft” religious and cultural approaches to deradicalisation, rather than the firm-hand of the law. Reaching out to people at risk is undoubtedly important.

Nevertheless, let’s hope the Indonesians authorities are also well-prepared for a crackdown. With ISIS networks ready to go, an attack’s only a matter of time.

I would estimate with 90% confidence that within the next year there will be a lethal ISIS-aligned attack in Indonesia. Within the next three years, I estimate with 90% confidence that at least ten Australians will die in ISIS-related attacks. There is considerable variance in my estimates. I put a 5% chance on more than 200 Australians dying in ISIS-related attacks over the next three years.

It is true that the overwhelming majority of Indonesians are peaceful. But Indonesia has 250 million people, so it’s just a numbers game. Even if only one in one million had the dedication and skill to go to make a return trip to Syria, that’s 250 hardened ISIS operatives who want to kill people. By comparison, it only took 19 terrorists to carry out the 11 September 2001 terror attacks.

The nightmare scenario is that the returning fighters set up training camps. They can hide in the juggle, as Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, does. They then launch a full-blown recruitment campaign, leveraging off the existing network of ISIS “study groups”.

There’s certainly recruitment potential. In a recent Pew survey, 4% of Indonesians expressed a favourable view of ISIS. This is obviously low as a proportion of the population, but equates to more than seven million people aged 15 or over. That’s equivalent to almost 40% of the population of Australia aged 15 or over in ISIS supporters. I’m not suggesting we should panic over this. It’s possible many of Indonesia’s poor and uneducated don’t even actually understand what ISIS is. They might have just inferred that since there was something “Islamic”, they should probably favour it. Nevertheless, complacency about these numbers isn’t warranted either.

Indonesia’s demographics are vulnerable to ISIS recruitment. It has a large number of young men. In addition, 11.3% of Indonesians live on less than $1.25 a day. The World Bank has just released a report on the growing divides in Indonesia caused by inequality that is rising at globally exceptional rates. ISIS can lure young men with the promise of a wage that lifts them out of deep poverty.

As I discussed in a previous post, Indonesia’s day-to-day harmony is remarkable given its turbulent history of religious and ethnic conflict. But the strains of this history are unlikely to have disappeared, even if they’re below the surface.

As the post also discussed, religious intolerance is growing in Indonesia. In this environment a spark might trigger an explosion.

Australia can make a modest contribution to Indonesia’s deradicalisation initiatives. Firstly, there must be a trusting relationship between Australian and Indonesian governments and police. This will facilitate cooperation and information sharing to stop the terrorists. The Indonesian police, with support from Australia, did an excellent job in destroying Jemaah Islamiyah.

Secondly, we should fund programs that support Indonesian justice and intelligence. We should strategically support Indonesian educational systems and programs to build tolerance. Cutting the aid budget was a bad idea.

Finally, the Australian community must maintain its open and tolerant principles. Discrimination only gives the terrorist recruiters ammunition. The overwhelming majority of Indonesians are peace-loving people. I have found Indonesians to be more warm to me, despite my language limitations, than any where else I’ve been in the world.

The terrorists are a threat to both Indonesia and Australia. They hate our shared values of peace and democracy. We can fight them best by working together.

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