Could returning fighters extend Islamic State into Southeast Asia?

Since peaking in the years between 1990 and 2004, the activities of terrorist organisations in Indonesia have significantly declined thanks to the government’s counter-terrorism efforts after the Bali bombings. However, developments in Syria and Iraq threaten to encourage a resurgence of terrorist organisations in Indonesia and throughout the region.

After the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) declared it had established a caliphate on 29 June 2014, foreigners from around the world have been drawn to Syria and Iraq to participate in the ongoing conflict. Among these individuals, it is estimated that between 100 and 300 Indonesians have volunteered to join and fight for IS.

While it seems that many of the individuals who decide to travel to the Middle East to fight for IS don’t intend to return, it remains a possibility that some Indonesian jihadists wish to continue terrorist activities at home after fighting. The ambitions of these returning jihadists are a cause for concern. It may even be that some are intending to return to Indonesia in order to wage jihad in the interest of expanding the caliphate that IS has established.

This threat derives from the ambitions of Islamist radicals from Indonesia and the expansionist nature of a caliphate. In the Islamic State’s interpretation of Islam, in order to prevent ‘idleness’, Muslims are obliged to wage jihad in the service of the caliph and expand its territory.

Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, the senior spokesman for IS declared in August 2013 that; “Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn’t recognise borders, on the Prophetic methodology.” And Indonesian members of the Islamic State want to establish an expanded caliphate into Southeast Asia.

In July 2014 Indonesians fighting alongside Malaysian jihadists in the Middle East formed a Bahasa speaking unit within the ranks of IS. This group is committed to establishing a Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara (Islamic State Archipelago), an archipelagic Southeast Asian caliphate. Known as Katibah Nusantara, members from this group that are intending to return to Indonesia could facilitate a renewal of terrorist activity that could spread across Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Some members of this Malay speaking unit of IS have formidable contacts with terrorist organisations that are known to have remained active throughout Indonesia.

On 4 August 2014, an Islamic State propaganda video titled Joining the Ranks appeared on YouTube. This eight-minute call to arms released by al-Hayat Media Center, the propaganda wing of Islamic State operations, featured a man who identifies as ‘Abu Muhammad al-Indunisi’. In Bahasa, al-Indunisi demands other Muslim-Indonesian people travel to the Middle East to participate in jihad and defend the caliphate.

Al-Indunisi has been identified as Bahrum Syah, from Banten, 25 kilometres from Jakarta. A former student of the Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN), Syah has links to the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (East Indonesia Mujahideen), usually referred to as the MIT.

In recent years, the MIT has evolved into a network of terrorist organisations with high-ranking members who are connected to jihadist groups in Indonesia and abroad. On 1 July 2014, the MIT publically pledged allegiance to IS.

This raises the possibility that individuals returning from fighting with IS could increase inter-group cooperation under the MIT network of terrorist organisations. For example, it is known that Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), another Indonesian terrorist group, wishes to establish an Islamic caliphate throughout the archipelago.

Along with obtaining training, combat experience and leadership skills from the Islamic State, it is likely that individuals within the Katibah Nusantara group will have developed broader contacts with international jihadists who are willing to support their Indonesian counterparts.

Even those who have not left home to join the conflict in the Middle East have been connecting online with IS supporters in Malaysia and the Philippines. According to a report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, it is already apparent that Islamic State supporters from Indonesia and Malaysia are ‘friending’ each other from pro-IS associated Facebook pages.

While there are only 127 Indonesians confirmed to be fighting with IS, reportedly as many as 2,000 people throughout Indonesia have pledged allegiance to the group. If Indonesian jihadists returning from fighting in the Islamic State began to expand the influence and operations of terror networks throughout the archipelago, they could soon have a significant support base. From this support base, terrorists could easily recruit volunteers and spread their influence more widely.

The returning jihadists and local Islamic State sympathisers will attempt to expand their influence, and given their connections to the MIT network of terrorist organisations, pose a serious threat to the security of Indonesia.

After achieving relative success in reducing the activities of terrorist groups in Indonesia, the government now faces the potential for increased momentum and revitalisation of Islamist violence.

Jeremy Wilson is a research assistant and recently completed an arts degree at the University of Wollongong, majoring in history. His thesis examined anticolonial ideology and its influence on the 1963-66 Konfrontasi.