The Buzz

ISIS in Indonesia: A Warning Shot Across ASEAN's Bow

When four Islamic State militants carried out a series of bombings and shootings in the heart of Jakarta on January 14, they demonstrated the threat Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s 'caliphate' poses to Southeast Asia. In the event, the quick, effective response of Indonesia’s security forces limited the impact of what could have been a much more destructive attack. This highlighted both Indonesia’s experience in dealing with terrorist groups, and how much ground ISIS still has to cover if it wants to replicate in ASEAN members its affiliates' impact in Egypt and Libya. Every ASEAN member can take measures to limit ISIS expansion and consolidation, but divergent approaches to Islamist militancy means some of these countries are better equipped to counter radicalism than others.

Indonesia has been fighting jihadism within its own borders since the early 2000s. After the Bali nightclub bombing that killed 202 people in October 2002, the government cracked down on Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and succeeded in arresting or killing most of its top leadership, although splinter groups such as the Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) and Jemaah Ansyarusy Syariah (JAS) are still operational. In response to the Bali bombings, Indonesia began developing a multifaceted counterterrorism strategy, taking a holistic view of radicalism and resisting the temptation to make the extremist problem a purely military one. Counter-radicalization programs were developed to dissuade those considering jihad and to help reintegrate those arrested and sentenced to prison. Even so, President Joko Widodo has pushed to revise Indonesia’s anti-terrorism statutes since the Jakarta attacks. As it stands now, the approximately 500 Indonesians who have travelled to join ISIS have not broken any laws in doing so.

In many ways, the efforts of Muslim-majority ASEAN states such as Indonesia and Malaysia reflect wider challenges facing the Islamic world, where moderate voices and political leaders are working to define a mainstream narrative that undercuts radicalism’s appeal to the disaffected and the marginalized. Kuala Lumpur has invested heavily in this type of outreach, focusing on Prime Minister Najib Razak’s Global Movement of Moderates (GMM) approach. The Malaysian government and the GMM Foundation have followed up on Najib’s propositions by, among other measures, convening an international group of Shia and Sunni theologians to articulate an alternative vision of an 'Islamic State' and sponsoring (with Google) a content workshop on countering extremist narratives. As one of more than sixty countries in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, Malaysia is engaged in counter-messaging operations alongside the United States, United Kingdom and United Arab Emirates (UAE). Discrediting ISIS at home and abroad is an increasing focus for Malaysian authorities, with thousands of Malaysians reportedly sympathizing with the group, and two Malaysian ISIS fighters killing over 30 people in suicide attacks in Iraq and Syria.

In other states, such as Thailand and the Philippines, Islamist movements are wrapped up in wider issues of minority rights. The Muslim and ethnically Malay population of Thailand’s southernmost provinces has agitated against the Buddhist central government since the mid-twentieth century, although the insurgency kicked into high gear in 2004. In the Catholic-dominated Philippines, the Mindanao island region and its Muslim majority have hosted separatist movements since the 1970s. Even though the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) finalized a peace treaty with the government in 2014, at least one leader in the overtly jihadist and transnationally-minded Abu Sayyaf group officially declared allegiance to ISIS later that same year.