What Indonesia Knows About Blocking the Islamic State

Joshua Kurlantzick
January 20, 2016

Smart strategy has made the largest Muslim-majority nation a tough environment for the Islamic State.

In the wake of last week’s attacks in Jakarta, which killed seven people, fears are growing that the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world is going to be hit by a wave of Islamic State-linked bombings and shootings. The potential for mayhem seems obvious. Indonesia’s open society and high social media penetration make it easy for young Indonesians to access Islamist sites and Facebook pages, and the Sunni Muslim insurgency has released several videos in Indonesian in an apparent recruiting effort.

Indonesia is a country of thousands of islands, with porous borders and many soft targets: The militants launched bombs and opened fire in broad daylight in one of the busiest neighborhoods in Jakarta. And Indonesians have fought in Syria and Iraq and returned. The Soufan Group, a consulting security consulting group, believes that at least six hundred Southeast Asians have traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State and then come back to their home countries. Indeed, the alleged ringleader of last week’s Jakarta attacks, a militant named Bahru Naim, is currently living in Raqqa, Islamic State’s hub.

Fighting Islamic State

In reality, however, Indonesia has enjoyed far more success than most nations against Islamist militants, including those linked to the Islamic State. The country has witnessed numerous militant attacks over the past 15 years. Unlike some of its neighbors, however, Indonesia has not experienced increased public support for the Islamic State, and the government has not resorted to draconian measures to crush militant cells. Indonesia’s political leaders, security forces, and religious leaders offer varied lessons for combating the appeal of Islamic State.

For a time during the early 2000s, Indonesian government and religious authorities seemed paralyzed by the waves of militant attacks battering the archipelago. The country was in the early days of a political transition from authoritarian rule, when security forces harshly repressed many Islamic groups, frequently with brutal tactics. Government leaders such as former President Megawati Sukarnoputri, also seemed unsure how to combat terrorist cells without seeming to be doing the bidding of Western nations pressing the global war on terrorism.

As the 2000s continued and militants launched attacks all over the archipelago, Megawati’s successor, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, oversaw a more aggressive, yet almost revolutionary approach to combating Islamist militants—both those linked to al-Qaeda and those linked to Islamic State. Joko Widodo, Indonesia’s current president, has continued many of these strategies.

With aid from the U.S. and other countries, Indonesia created a special unit of anti-terrorism police known as Detachment 88. In contrast to such countries as Pakistan, whose military handles counterterrorism efforts, often with minimal oversight, Indonesia made sure this was a police unit, not an army unit, because the army was still associated with past abuses. Detachment 88 soon developed a reputation for effective intelligence-gathering that allowed it to surprise members of militant cells in their homes, schools, and training facilities, sweeping up recruits and defusing plots.

The Indonesian government, hardly without blemishes on human rights issues, has seen its counterterrorism forces accused of fewer serious abuses than those of other governments in the region. By contrast, some Thai army units have been implicated in killings and disappearances in southern Thailand, where the military battles insurgents who are fighting for a separate, Muslim-majority state. Alleged abuses by Thai security forces have fostered extremism in southern Thailand, said Don Pathan, an expert on the conflict in Thailand.

At the same time, Indonesian presidents have aggressively utilized the bully pulpit to persuade their people that militants pose a threat to Indonesia, not just to Western nations. Presidents have used nationally televised speeches to highlight the militant threat and have supported government television programming that features interviews with survivors of militant attacks. The publicity campaigns are effective. In a poll taken in November by the Pew Research Center, nearly 80 percent of Indonesians held an unfavorable view of Islamic State, a much higher unfavorable figure than in Malaysia, Turkey, and Pakistan, among other countries.

While this bully pulpit strategy might seem obvious, many leaders in South Asia and Southeast Asia have been reluctant to aggressively rally populations against militants, perhaps out of fear that public denunciations will hurt their political parties’ popularity with religious (but not extremist) voters. For example, in Bangladesh, the government has mostly declined to aggressively condemn militants who have hacked to death five secular bloggers over the past year. (Instead, the Bangladeshi government has begun charging bloggers with crimes for defaming Islam.)

These national campaigns have helped Indonesia’s security forces, which rely on tips from the populace. Although militants were able to strike last week in Jakarta, that followed a month in which Indonesian security forces made a string of arrests in five cities of people allegedly linked to Islamic State and planning a larger attack. Over the past decade, Indonesian authorities have crippled Jemaah Islamiah, one of the largest militant networks in Southeast Asia.

It helps that the largest Indonesian religious organizations have added their weight to the campaign against the militants. Nahdlatul Ulama, an Indonesian religious movement with some 50 million members, has developed a sophisticated public campaign promoting a tolerant version of Islam. The campaign emphasizes to Indonesians that Islamic State’s Salafist jihadism is alien to Indonesia’s Islamic traditions.

Militants could undoubtedly pull off another attack against bars, cafes, hotels, and other unguarded targets in Indonesia. Over the past 15 years, there have been multiple bombings in Bali, Jakarta, and other major cities, despite successes in arresting terrorist cells and reducing the appeal of militancy among young Indonesians. The country has no immigration controls on many of its smaller and remote islands.

Even in the face of such pressing counter-terrorism challenges, Indonesia appears to have figured out how to limit the deep inroads made by the Islamic State and its allies in other countries.

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