Like in all democracies, the proscription of terrorist groups in Indonesia is a politically delicate and legally ambiguous process. It requires the government to articulate convincing justifications for a ban, as well as provide adequate legal mechanisms for its implementation. An examination of both suggests that when Indonesia banned ISIS in August 2014, it did so for much more complex reasons than fear of violent terrorism.
When ISIS captured large swathes of territory in Syria and northern Iraq and images of shocking violence made news around the world, the Indonesian public, and the government, remained largely pre-occupied with its most fiercely contested presidential election campaign in a decade. Despite signs throughout the first half of 2014 that Indonesia would eventually be forced to address the ISIS threat, the government and the public remained relatively uninterested. Back in March, even a public demonstration by ISIS supporters at the Hotel Indonesia roundabout in central Jakarta drew neither the media’s nor the government’s attention. It took the appearance of a video on Youtube, titled ‘Join the Ranks’, in which an Indonesian ISIS fighter in Syria urged fellow Indonesians to join ISIS, to sharply focus the government’s attention on the growing ISIS-threat to Indonesia.
On the face of it, the video should not have been a shock to officials or the public. It had been widely known that some elements of Indonesia’s Islamist community supported the various factions engaged in the anti-Assad insurgency that had been raging in Syria for years, and that at least 50 Indonesians had traveled to the region to take up arms. Jamaah Islamiyyah (JI), the group responsible for the Bali bombings, has in recent years renounced violence in Indonesia, but the closely allied organisation HASI have since 2012 channeled humanitarian volunteers and financial aid to the region. When ISIS split officially from the Al-Qaida aligned Jabat Al-Nusra (JN) in February 2014, Indonesian Islamists were similarly divided, breaking into pro-JN and pro-ISIS camps. While JI largely supported JN, JI’s former spiritual leader, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir made headlines from prison with a pledge of allegiance to ISIS. His two sons, meanwhile, split with their father as did many in Ba’asyir’s organisation Jamaah Ansarut Tauhidand, and joined a new rival organisation, Jamaah Ansharasy Syariat. Many other organisations, such as Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) vehemently reject ISIS.
Despite remaining indifferent for months to these increasingly complex – and dangerous – links between the conflict in Syria and Iraq and Indonesia’s Islamist community, within days of the video making headlines, pressure mounted on Minister for Communication and Information Tifatul Sembiring to block the video, and on the government to take firm action against the apparent growth of ISIS support in Indonesia. On 4 August the government’s most senior officials fronted the media and announced that henceforward ISIS is “banned” in Indonesia.
There are two important points to note about the announced ban. First, while local and international media reports of the announcement framed it as an unequivocal “ban”, it has become clear over subsequent weeks that it amounted to little more than a political statement. While the seniority of the ministers present at the announcement – the line-up included including Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs, Djoko Suyanto, Head of the Military, General Moeldoko, National Police Chief General Sutarman, Chief of the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) Marciano Norman, and Minister of Religious Affairs, Lukman Hakim Syaifuddin – succeeded in placating the Indonesian public as well as Western observers, the lack of a clear legal framework for law enforcement agencies and the judiciary means than in practice, uncertainty remained over what legal sanctions Indonesian supporters of ISIS would face.
Second, Indonesia arguably has more experience with the threat posed by the return of its nationals from foreign wars than most other countries. During the 1990s, Indonesians who returned from Afghanistan after joining the fight against the Soviet Union, were instrumental in providing the ideological inspiration and organisational know-how for a generation of jihadists in Southeast Asia, culminating in a series of mass-casualty terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including the Bali bombings. The threat that Indonesians with battlefield experience in Syria and Iraq would pose upon their return to Indonesia was clear to experts. But instead of justifying the ISIS-ban based on the threat posed by returning fighters, such as those that had appeared in the video, statements during the announcement emphasised ISIS’s ideological incompatibility with Indonesia’s national ideology of Pancasila. For example, Djoko Suyanto stated that ‘the government rejects and bans the teachings of ISIS […] ISIS is not in line with state ideology’. The most in-depth analysis of ISIS in Indonesia, a September 2014 report by IPAC, concluded that
it was not that IS was more violent or more of a security risk than earlier movements, although both may well be true; it was that it constituted a direct challenge to national loyalty that so alarmed officials.
But focusing on the threat posed by ISIS’s ideology, rather than its advocacy of violence, seems contradictive. After all, the government hasn’t banned any of the dozens of Islamist organisation that reject violence, but adhere to broadly similar ideological doctrines and goals as ISIS. One such organisation is the transnational Islamist organisation Hizbut Tahrir. In early June, month before ISIS declared the caliphate, Hizbut Tahrir’s Syria chapter was raving about the imminent declaration of the Caliphate:
Note that we in Hizbut Tahrir have been preparing for this moment a long time ago, and are competent, with Allah’s support to rally support for the new growing Khilafah state from all the countries of the Muslim world, in many different forms and shapes… Muslims are watching eagerly Ash-Sham [Syria], the abode of Islam, waiting for this final decisive moment that will change the world’s history, and are ready to sacrifice all to reach the great victory.
A prominent 2013 publication by a Solo-based publisher associated with JI, entitled Strategi Dua Lengan (The Two-Arm Strategy), was widely discussed amongst Indonesian jihadi’s and makes brief reference to the relationship between non-violent groups like Hizbut Tahrir and violent groups like ISIS. In laying out a roadmap to establishing a Caliphate in Syria and Yemen through violent means, its author notes the ‘important legacy left by the intellectuals of Hizbut Tahrir […] around the idea of the Caliphate’. But despite Hizbut Tahrir’s enthusiasm for the imminent declaration of a caliphate, only weeks later, when ISIS leader al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate on 29 June, Hizbut Tahrir distanced itself from ISIS, claiming that it fails to fulfill certain conditions, such as total control over the territory, and the provision of security to the population living under it.
Hizbut Tahrir’s Indonesia (HTI) branch is registered as a legal organisation at Indonesia’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, and holds public seminars, which are sometimes attended by Indonesian politicians or police officials, in which it promotes the need for the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate. But despite the group’s close ideological and organisational guidance from its Middle Eastern branches, Indonesian officials have not characterised Hizbut Tahrir’s vision of an Islamic Caliphate as an ideological threat. Evidently, unlike ISIS, the group is seen as an organisation, rather than a state-like entity that competes for the loyalty of Indonesia’s citizens. In addition, ISIS’s lack of an organisational structure or community support means that the firm government response against it carried few political costs for the government. In contrast, groups like Hizbut Tahrir have effectively leveraged their elite political connections and organisational networks in the wider community to avoid state-repression.
Ironically, while Hizbut Tahrir has downplayed ISIS’s claim to statehood, the Indonesian government appears to take the claim much more seriously. On 25 August, at a seminar attended by several Western ambassadors and diplomats, Indonesian deputy Foreign Minister Dino Patti Djalal carefully explained that ‘diplomatically, Indonesia would not recognise ISIS’. At the same seminar, Ansyaad Mbai, head of Indonesia’s Counter-Terrorism Body BNPT argued that Indonesian’s who pledge allegiance to ISIS could be charged with makar (rebellion). On a different occasion, Minister of Religion, Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, in referring to the act of baiat, the Islamic act of pledging loyalty to a Caliph, which several Indonesian Islamists had publicly done, suggested that ‘taking an oath and pledging loyalty to a foreign state or part of a foreign state can lead to the loss of Indonesian citizenship’. Such statements suggest that officials assessed the threat from ISIS as stemming from its claim to statehood, rather than its call to violent jihad.
That the threat from ISIS is defined as stemming from its ideology, rather than its violence, is already evident in the kinds of initiatives taken against ISIS. The first major trend in Indonesia’s response to ISIS, as already mentioned, has been the vigorous reaffirmation of the orthodox state-ideology of Pancasila. For example, on 9 August, Commander of the Armed Forces, General Moeldoko, announced he would visit schools and pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) to provide ‘guidance’ – presumably meaning the dissemination of Pancasila material. A second trend has been the excessive pursuit and attempted criminalization of symbolic expressions of support for ISIS, such as the arrests of Indonesians in possession of ISIS flags.
In Depok, ice-cream seller Firman Hidayat was arrested for hanging an ISIS flag on his balcony. After determining that Firman is merely a ‘fan’ who ‘idolises’ ISIS, police released him, but continued to monitor and ‘guide’ him. Near Surabaya police arrested Egy Darwanto, a fisherman who flew an IS flag on his boat. At his house, police found hundreds of books about terrorism. Egy was released, with a police official stating that ‘we haven’t found any criminal violations or violations under the terrorism law, so he is just forced to report regularly’.
But the pattern by which the Indonesian government responded to the ISIS threat is not new, nor inexplicable. In fact, the language Indonesian officials use to explain the threat posed by ISIS, and some of the responses on the ground, follow a very particular script. The language mirrors narratives officials frequently apply to several obscure, and indeed frivolous, “rebellions”, such as isolated groups of separatists in Maluku who express loyalty to the Republic of South Maluku (RMS) and obscure factions of the Islamic State of Indonesia (Negara Islam Indonesia, NII) in West Java – both remnants of long-defeated 1950s rebellions. Both movements, which in reality consist of little more than handfuls of isolated, unarmed and poor individuals, are routinely described by officials as a “state-within-a-state”, and hence rebellious. In recent years, dozens of RMS and NII members have been charged with makar(rebellion) – the same law some officials have recently suggested should be applied to ISIS supporters. In court proceedings, state prosecutors routinely point to the possession of RMS and NII flags and other paraphernalia as evidence for the crime of rebellion. Despite their lack of organisational capacity, community support or intent to commit violence, security officials and political elites consistently characterise these tiny groups as dangerous threats to the national ideology and the “NKRI” (Negara Kesatuan Republic Indonesia, The Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia).
That government officials have described ISIS in much the same terms as those used to describe worn-out anti-state rebellions suggest that officials similarly perceive ISIS as a threat against the NKRI. The alarming difference is, of course, that unlike the RMS sympathisers in Maluku and obscure NII factions in West Java, ISIS presents a real threat. The spectre of violence committed by returning Indonesian ISIS fighters is surely of concern to many officials. But some seem to be more concerned that returning fighters will re-enter Indonesia not as members of a terrorist organisation bent on committing mass murder, but as representatives of a foreign state.