SINGAPORE -- The Indonesian government remains concerned about the threat posed by the self-described Islamic State, despite the group's recent territorial losses in Iraq and Syria including the ceding of the key city of Ramadi to the Iraqi army in late December.
"Indonesia is very vulnerable," said Dewi Fortuna Anwar, an adviser to Indonesian Vice President Jusuf Kalla, airing Jakarta's fears that Indonesian members of IS could return home to carry out terrorist attacks.
"We are exploring the role played by religious leaders to develop counter narratives," Anwar said, discussing the ideological appeal of the extremist group to hundreds of Indonesians thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria in recent years. Anwar was speaking in Singapore at a regional forum organized by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.
Indonesia is home to 210 million Muslims -- more than any other country -- and tens of millions of Indonesians are members of two mass Muslim organizations, known as the Muhammidiyah and the Nahdlatul Ulama. The latter has campaigned loudly against IS, which it describes as promoting a "shallow" interpretation of Islam to justify violence.
Indonesian Islam, often described as "moderate," is infused with pre-existing beliefs such as Buddhism and Hinduism -- the "Islam Nusantara" (Islam of the archipelago) brand promoted by Nahdlatul Ulama. However, the country has seen several deadly terrorist attacks carried out by groups linked to al-Qaeda, including a 2002 bombing on the island of Bali, one of around 6,000 inhabited islands across the vast Indonesian archipelago; 202 people, many of them foreign tourists visiting the popular resort island, died in that attack.
To help counter extremism, Anwar said, the government is planning a new Islamic university which is intended as an alternative for pious students seeking to pursue religious studies in the Middle East where, the government fears, some Indonesians pick up a more confrontational take on Islam than is taught at home.
For now, however, the Indonesian government faces the threat of attacks by Indonesian IS members who have returned home, or by fellow travelers.
About 400 Indonesians and several dozen people from neighboring Malaysian are thought to have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join IS in recent years. Although IS had lost around 15% of its territory in Iraq and Syria by the end of 2015, those recent military losses have not "diminished the desire to leave [for Iraq and Syria]" among those Indonesians who want to volunteer, said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. "We are still seeing families trying to leave," she added.
According to Jones, most Southeast Asians who travel to the Middle East to join IS do so without intending to return home. In contrast, those from the region who fought alongside al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden against the former Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s did so with the intention of acquiring fighting skills to be used subsequently in their homelands.
Most IS leaders believe that the creation of a caliphate -- a form of Islamic empire -- in the Middle East is a divinely ordained mission. Deserters face execution and experts say that the threat of punishment, along with the religious zeal of volunteers mean that those who join IS are likely to remain, even in the face of battlefield losses.
"They believe that they can start a new life, a utopia," Maszlee Malik of the International Islamic University Malaysia told the conference.
In proportion to population, very few Indonesians are thought to have joined IS compared with recruitment from European countries. Jones estimates that about two per million have signed up from Indonesia, compared with 40 per million from Belgium, for example.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of European citizens who traveled to fight in Syria and Iraq have since returned to their home countries, prompting concerns about sleeper cells that may be awaiting orders from IS for terror attacks on the scale of the Nov. 13 Paris shootings, which left 130 people dead.
In December, Indonesian police said they had foiled an IS-linked terrorist attack planned for the Christmas and New Year period, suggesting that IS could replicate the attacks it has carried out in France, Lebanon and Turkey, where yesterday 10 foreign tourists were killed in an IS suicide attack in Istanbul. Almost 2,000 police and troops are on a manhunt in Sulawesi, a mountainous island east of Borneo, for Santoso, a fugitive described as Islamic State's most high profile supporter in Indonesia.
Asked by the Nikkei Asian Review if IS could lash out in Indonesia or Malaysia if it continues to suffer losses in Iraq and Syria, Jones compared the aggressive tactics of IS in Europe with its seeming reluctance so far to launch attacks in Muslim-majority countries in Southeast Asia.
"We may be on the cusp of a change now, but there hasn't been any indication so far that 'ISIS Central' [the group's leaders in Iraq and Syria] has an interest in Southeast Asia," she noted.
In an effort to halt the spread of militant Islam and sectarian tensions, Indonesia is broadening its diplomacy, dispatching Foregn Minister Retno Marsudi to Riyadh and Tehran this week in an attempt to mediate between two antagonists who back different sides in the brutal conflict in Syria.
Shi'ite Iran backs the Syrian government, while Sunni Saudi Arabia has supported and funded the Syrian rebellion which started in 2011.
Since then, the rise of IS has sharpened sectarian tensions in the Middle East and in Persian Gulf states, where Sunni and Shia factions, backed by states in the region and outside, are at war in several theaters, including Lebanon and Yemen as well as Syria and Iraq.
Iran, the world's biggest Shia majority country, was incensed by Saudi Arabia's recent execution of a prominent Shi'ite cleric from eastern Saudi Arabia, prompting concerns that the complex and interlinked wars in the region could spread, in turn increasing the possibility of terrorist attacks elsewhere, including in Indonesia, where the country's Shi'ite minority was listed by police as a target of the foiled New Year IS plot to mount terrorist attacks.