Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict

[Jakarta, 29 January 2014] Indonesian extremists are more engaged by the conflict in Syria than by any other foreign war in recent memory, including Afghanistan and Iraq.

IPAC’s latest report, Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict, notes four reasons why the conflict has become so popular. It is linked to sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham (Greater Syria). It is the subject of a book, The Two-Arm Strategy, translated from the Arabic that has become a runaway bestseller in the Indonesian radical community, showing how chaos in the Middle East following the Arab Spring can be used by jihadis to restore the caliphate. Atrocities of Syrian government forces have been widely covered in Indonesian media, sparking outrage well into the Muslim mainstream. And it is relatively easy to get to Turkey from Indonesia and go into Syria over the border.

“As far as we know the number of Indonesian combatants is still in the dozens, but it could climb,” says Sidney Jones, IPAC director. “Jihadi humanitarian assistance teams now appear to be facilitating the entry of fighters as well.”

The Indonesian organization that has been most active in Syria since the conflict erupted has been Jemaah Islamiyah, the organization responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings that since 2007 has disengaged from violence in Indonesia. Its leaders, who have been vilified in recent years by more militant groups for abandoning jihad, are now regaining their prestige. They argue that the “jihad experiment” in Indonesia is just wasting energies that could be more appropriately be deployed in a war with global consequences.

While the conflict has brought some rival Indonesian groups together, it has also created new divisions. The tensions in Syria between the al-Nusrah Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) are playing out in Indonesia, where the most militant groups, including imprisoned ideologue Aman Abdurrahman, are siding with the latter, while other jihadis are disturbed by ISIS excesses. Many of the Indonesians who get to Syria work through Ahrar al-Sham, an al-Nusrah ally.   

Indonesian involvement in Syria could have an impact domestically in several ways. Returning mujahidin could infuse new life and leadership into what has become a weak and ineffectual jihadi movement. It is already reviving JI’s fortunes but it could strengthen other groups that prove adept at fund-raising for Syria. It could also connect Indonesia again to the global jihad, from which it has largely been removed since the demise of terrorist leader Noordin Top.

The dangers should not be overdrawn. Indonesian terrorism has always depended on local drivers, and without major internal conflict, political instability or hostile neighbours, those drivers are weak. Still, says Jones, it is worth keeping an eye on Syria.  

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©2013 Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.