Fears Grow Over Islamic State’s Influence in Southeast Asia
Indonesia’s president says radical group is his country’s greatest international concern
JAKARTA, Indonesia—Support for Islamic State is quickly growing among Muslim extremists in Southeast Asia, and authorities worry they don’t have enough legal tools to keep them from spreading fundamentalist beliefs at home—or staging terror attacks.
Experts say the risk is highest in Indonesia. This nation of 255 million has the world’s largest Muslim population and a history of terror bombings carried out by an earlier generation of militants who trained with al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Authorities and analysts say hundreds of Indonesians, including entire families, have gone to Syria and Iraq to live in Islamic State territory and support its cause.
This is a striking change from what happened in Afghanistan, when mostly single males went to fight. Some of today’s volunteers aren’t necessarily fighters but professionals with specialized skills who have traveled to the Middle East with their wives and children to build new lives. “They have no intention of ever coming back,” said Sidney Jones,director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. “They are going to live and work in an Islamic State.”
Authorities worry that even those with no intention of leaving the radical Sunni group’s self-declared caliphate pose a threat by further inspiring hard-liners back home.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that Islamic State is Indonesia’s biggest international concern, and that it comes up in every discussion he has with other leaders. “When we have a meeting with a president or prime minister from another country, always they say that now the number one issue is ISIS,” he said. “Indonesia (is) also the same.”
Indonesia antiterrorism officials worry about how Islamic State might inspire militants at home and what veterans of the conflict might do if they ultimately return.
Arief Dharmawan, deputy head of Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency, said the organization first began warning in 2013 that Islamic State “would become a new international phenomenon and outshine al Qaeda.” He said the agency has urged the government to enact stronger laws to prosecute suspected terrorists before there is a repeat of the 2002 nightclub bombing in Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists.
After the Bali bombing, authorities succeeded in rolling back the country’s terrorist networks. The last major terror attack was the 2009 bombing of the Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta. But unlike the bombers of the previous generation, who painstakingly planned their attacks for months and years, terrorists inspired by Islamic State today often work quickly and independently to launch attacks, authorities say.
Indonesia’s antiterror agency is seeking greater legal powers for authorities to prosecute militants in the country for supporting Islamic State and those who go abroad to train and fight.
“I see it just like a cloudy day,” Mr. Dharmawan said. “When it’s cloudy, it tends to rain…Hopefully we don’t have to wait (for something) like the Bali bomb.”
But a proactive law enforcement approach faces challenges. The U.S. State Department last month noted that while nearby Malaysia has managed to disrupt terrorist plots before they are carried out—police have so far detained over 120 people for alleged Islamic State connections under new antiterror laws—it hasn’t done so well in prosecuting alleged perpetrators. In another antiterror move, Malaysia has recently adopted stricter detention laws that allow authorities to hold suspects for up to two years without trial.
Meanwhile, the risks are steadily building, experts say. Islamic State has formed a combat unit of fighters from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Brunei, Mr. Dharmawan said. Ms. Jones, a leading expert on terrorism, said most of the contingent is Indonesianand that many casualties occurred this year when it was sent up against battle-hardened Kurdish fighters in Iraq. Two Indonesians killed in the fighting had served long prison sentences for their part in bombings in Bali and Jakarta, she said.
The potential for spillover in Indonesia from the conflict in Syria and Iraq grew clearer in February when a small bomb exploded in a shopping mall in Depok, near Jakarta. No one was hurt, but authorities said the device contained chlorine gas, a substance often used by Islamic State bombmakers. Police say they are investigating whether Islamic State supporters were responsible for another small bomb that exploded in a Jakarta shopping mall restroom on July 9, also without hurting anyone.
Indonesian officials say Islamic State supporters now have a presence in nearly half of Indonesia’s 33 provinces. Among them are two Indonesian commercial airline pilots whose postings on Facebook indicated that they may have traveled to Syria, according to a report issued in March by the Australian Federal Police and was first posted online by the Intercept website. Authorities are alarmed by the possibility that pilots who embrace militant Islam could launch attacks similar to the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.
The two pilots are now in Indonesia and are no longer flying commercially, an Indonesian police official said without elaborating.
Longtime Indonesian militants also have sworn allegiance to Islamic State, including radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, the spiritual leader of the Bali bombers, and Santoso, one of Indonesia’s most wanted terrorists, who leads a militant group in the rugged Poso region of Sulawesi island.
A big problem is that, like other governments, Indonesia has trouble tracking citizens who travel to Syria and Iraq, Mr. Dharmawan said.
“The consequence of not knowing exactly who joins ISIS is that we don’t know how many of them have returned to Indonesia,” he said.
—Ben Otto and Celine Fernandez contributed to this article.