JAKARTA/KUALA LUMPUR -- A total of at least 100 Indonesians and Malaysians are believed to be fighting for the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq. Several volunteers have died this year as suicide bombers or in combat.
Officials from the Southeast Asian nations are growing increasingly concerned that the survivors could return from combat to lead attacks on behalf of the militant group at home. Such a scenario played out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when veterans of the fighting in Afghanistan helped propel the rise of violent groups such as Jemaah Islamiyah, known for its bombing of nightclubs in Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people.
Already, some key figures from that period, such as imprisoned Jemaah Islamiyah leader Abu Bakar Bashir, have pledged their allegiance to Islamic State.
Taken by surprise
Indonesia and neighboring Malaysia are home to about 90% of Southeast Asia's approximately 250 million Muslims. While communal tensions between Sunni Muslims and other groups have long been a problem in both countries, lethal violence has been muted over the past decade due to the efforts of such agencies as Indonesian counterterrorism squad Detachment 88, formed after the Bali bombings.
But as elsewhere, the sudden rise of Islamic State to prominence as the de facto government of large swaths of Syria and Iraq has caught Indonesia and Malaysia off guard. Malaysians have been surprised to find that a number of volunteers inspired to join the Islamic State came from middle-class backgrounds, including an architect, a businessman and a drummer in a rock band. Indonesia has found it lacks a legal framework to block the flow of volunteers heading to the Middle East.
With volunteers now in Iraq and Syria issuing calls on social media for more compatriots to join them and preparing to form a special fighting unit based on their shared spoken language, Malaysia and Indonesia have belatedly recognized the threat Islamic State could pose.
"The government strongly rejects the propagation of the misguided teaching of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria in Indonesia because it is completely against, and even detrimental to, our identity," Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said in August in his final state of the nation address as Indonesia's outgoing president. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak similarly criticized the group in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly the following month. "They call our youth with the siren song of illegitimate jihad," he said.
The two governments have arrested around 50 people for alleged activities involving the militant group. Malaysian officials claim a group of 19 people was preparing to bomb a Carlsberg brewery in the state of Selangor. Others have been detained for recruiting and raising funds to benefit Islamic State or seeking to volunteer themselves.
Both Najib and Joko Widodo, inaugurated as Indonesia's new president last month, are stepping-up efforts to rally established Islamic organizations to take a stand against Islamic State. In August, the Brotherhood Forum of the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars said the militant group "does not put forward the compassionate and merciful aspects of Islam." It asked Muslims to "not be incited by the agitation and provocations of [Islamic State] that is trying to impose its teachings in Indonesia and the rest of the world."
Indonesian Religious Affairs Minister Lukman Hakim Saifuddin has suggested he may scrutinize his country's vast network of Islamic schools. "If there is an Islamic boarding school that teaches radicalism and violence, then to me that is not an Islamic boarding school," he said Nov. 4. Police earlier arrested a teacher at an Islamic school founded by Abu Bakar Bashir.
The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, a research center in Jakarta, said in a Sept. 24 report that Indonesia could readily take further steps to combat the spread of Islamic State's messaging in the country. "It is cause for concern that inmates of high-security prisons continue to be among the most active propagators of [Islamic State's] views and teachings," it said. The report suggested that prison officials deny convicts access to cellphones.
The Widodo government is considering further measures, according to Ahmad Suaedy, coordinator of the Abdurrahman Wahid Center for Inter-Faith Dialogue and Peace. "The Indonesian government is now looking for the legal basis to prohibit and provide sanctions that deter Muslims from involvement with [Islamic State] and other forms of radicalism and terrorism," he said.
But Widodo may have difficulty creating new laws to combat the militant group. The country's parliament is controlled by parties, including Islamist ones, that backed losing presidential candidate Prabowo Subianto and which have been gaining support. Some Subianto supporters tried to undermine Widodo's campaign by suggesting he was a closet Christian.
There is little worry that Islamic State's campaign will have wide appeal in Indonesia or Malaysia. Despite growing religious conservatism there, mainstream Islamic organizations retain wide influence. However, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict warned that the group's calls for attacks on Westerners could lead to a new wave of incidents like the Bali bombing.
But while Indonesia and Malaysia were late to recognize the risks posed by Islamic State, analysts are hopeful that officials are now serious about confronting the danger. "I am encouraged by some of the early statements by the Jokowi government," said Bonar Tigor Naipospos, deputy chairman of the Setara Institute, which monitors religious freedom in Indonesia. "They are indicating that they will act against jihadism and extremism."