ISIS in the World’s Largest Muslim Country


ISIS may have gained less traction in Malaysia than in the Arab world or Western Europe, but Malaysia still has over six times the rate of Muslim citizens leaving for battle in the Middle East as Indonesia has.

Edward Delman, The Atlantic

In recent days, rumblings of ISIS have reached the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Security forces in Indonesia, which is home to some 200 million Muslims, launched a manhunt for the militant leader Santoso, who had publicly pledged loyalty to the Islamic State. Police arrested several suspected ISIS supporters amid chatter about terror plots, while Australia’s attorney-general warned that the Islamic State was intent on establishing a “distant caliphate” in the Southeast Asian island nation. But the flurry of activity doesn’t tell the whole story about ISIS’s inroads in Indonesia. Consider, for example, that while the number of foreign fighters traveling to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other violent extremist groups is estimated to have more than doubled between June 2014 and December 2015, relatively few are coming from Indonesia—at least for now. The question is: Why?

Indonesia has certainly experienced its share of terrorism and jihadist movements since declaring independence from the Netherlands in 1945. After proclaiming an “Islamic state” in 1949, the organization Darul Islam denounced the Indonesian state as apostate and staged a series of armed rebellions against it in the 1950s and early 1960s, before moving underground. The militant Islamist movement then split into numerous groups, from Laskar Jihad, which led an anti-Christian campaign across Indonesia, to Jemaah Islamiyah, which executed the 2002 Bali bombings. Indonesian jihadists have not solely focused on local targets; many went to Afghanistan during the Soviet invasion as mujahideen, though most only received training rather than engaging directly in the fighting there.

Moreover, there is clearly a base of support for ISIS in Indonesia. A September 2014 report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) details the Islamic State’s aggressive recruitment and propaganda efforts in the country, as well as mass professions of allegiance to the group. (As the report and a more recent one from USAID caution, these public declarations—in which roughly 1,000 to 2,000 people have taken part—are not necessarily accurate measures of active support for ISIS.) IPAC notes in another report that “the conflict in Syria has captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before,” for reasons ranging from the suffering of Sunni Muslims there, to the prospect of restoring an Islamic caliphate, to the fact that “Syria is directly linked to predictions in Islamic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel.”

Whatever the extent of ISIS’s support in Indonesia, that support has not translated into Indonesians heeding the call of jihad and heading to the Middle East in large numbers. A recent Soufan Group report on foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria (not necessarily fighting with ISIS) cited an Indonesian-government estimate that 700 of those fighters hailed from Indonesia as of July 2015—a number that the group says is probably an overestimate. In comparison, the official estimate for France is 1,700; for Russia, 2,400; for the United States, 150; and for Tunisia, 6,000. In France, 18 people per million Muslim citizens are thought to be fighting in Syria and Iraq, according to the USAID study. In Tunisia, that number is 280. In Indonesia, it’s just over one.

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