The past year has seen extensive media coverage of Australians fighting with Syrian jihadist groups. Less noticed, however, has been the case of Indonesians fighting overseas.
Indonesian Islamist organisations have been closely monitoring the Syrian civil war since mid-2012, raising funds and dispatching teams of medical volunteers. But some have also travelled for combat, with counter-terrorism officials estimating there are around 50 Indonesians fighting in the conflict. In November 2013, the first Indonesian ‘martyr’ in Syria was announced after a man named Reza Fardi was killed in battle. He was a graduate of Ngruki, the boarding school founded by Abu Bakar Bashir, the former leader of Jama’ah Islamiyah (JI) and current head of Jama’ah Ansharut Tauhid.
Experts like Sidney Jones have expressed concern that Syria veterans will return home with new skills, experience, contacts, credibility and deadly intentions. Jihadists certainly see the conflict as an opportunity, with Bashir describing Syria as a ‘university for jihad education’.
Historically, foreign fighting has been crucial to the development of Indonesian jihadism. In the mid-1980s, Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar (JI’s founder and leader until 1999) arranged for their followers to join the mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. Some of these men fought with Osama bin Laden in the battle of Jaji in 1987, while others trained in jihadist camps in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. These ‘Afghan Alumni’ would go on to play leading roles in the formation of JI and were behind major terrorist attacks such as the Bali bombings.
However it’s far from clear whether a similar threat will reoccur, or be of the same nature. The numbers fighting appear to be smaller and the circumstances quite different.
One key factor shaping the threat from returning foreign fighters, as pointed out by Timothy Holman, is framing: that is, how the fighters perceive the conflict, and whether they draw parallels with their own circumstances upon return. Combining this with Thomas Hegghammer’s typology of Islamist rationales, we can anticipate some of the different ways the Syrian conflict could impact Indonesian jihadism.
Previous destinations for jihadist foreign fighters (Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kashmir, Iraq) fitted with a frame that Hegghammer terms ‘classical jihadism’, based on defending a Muslim population from a non-Muslim occupier. The Syrian conflict partly fits this frame, but also fits a ‘sectarian frame’, as the enemy is an Alawite regime backed by Shia Iran and Hezbollah. It also fits a ‘socio-revolutionary frame’, where Muslims are oppressed in a Muslim country by a secular regime which must be overthrown to create an Islamic State. I’ll examine the consequences of each of these frames in turn.
The sectarian framing of the Syrian conflict creates the possibility of increasing sectarian violence in Indonesia. Indonesian jihadists have recently turned to virulent anti-Shia rhetoric, and the country’s Shia minority has found itself under increasing attack. However the sectarian aspect also limits the conflict’s popularity, with Syria-focused Islamist organisations being asked why Indonesians should take sides in a Muslim country’s internal conflict instead of focusing on causes such as Palestine.
Some Indonesian jihadists may view the Syrian conflict through a socio-revolutionary frame that could resonate with their own situation. Throughout the history of jihadism in Indonesia, the most enduring strategic focus has not been the West but the secular state. JI’s origins lie in Darul Islam, a deeply-rooted Islamist movement that had waged an insurgency against the Sukarno regime until 1962. In the following decades, a revived Darul Islam and various splinter groups (of which JI was one) continued the violent efforts to create an Islamic Indonesian state. The turn towards Western targets that began with the 2002 Bali bombings hasn’t persisted in recent years, and the jihadist’s key focus has returned to local state-associated targets.
For example, in 2010 former JI member Dulmatin established a training camp in Aceh, attracting members of all major Indonesian jihadist groups. His aim was to launch an insurgency from territory that had once proved useful for the Free Aceh Movement. Further, Indonesian jihadists regularly draw on strategic texts by Middle Eastern Islamist writers that call for assassinations of ‘thaghut’ (‘oppressive’) officials, and since 2010 most attacks have targeted police, with 24 Indonesian police killed by jihadists between 2010 and 2013. Consequently, Indonesian veterans of the Syrian conflict may see parallels between the fight against the Assad regime and their own conflict with the secular Indonesian state, and continue the war at home.
Alternatively, it may turn out that returning fighters have little inclination to bring violence home with them. Those who view the Syrian conflict through a classical jihadist frame may see no place for such violence in Indonesia, as it’s not a conflict zone with a Muslim population under attack (unless communal violence returns in Sulawesi or Maluku).
In addition, Indonesian Syria veterans will likely be returning to a less hostile domestic environment than their Western counterparts; facing less social isolation and less overt attention from the security services. An Indonesian returning fighter won’t necessarily have broken laws (whereas many Western countries will be aggressively prosecuting returnees) and therefore may be less likely to view their home circumstances within a frame that necessitates violence.
There are many other factors influencing the potential threat, such as whether the jihadist organisations in Syria decide it’s in their strategic interest to assist attacks elsewhere, or whose influence the veterans come under when returning home. However, it’s clear the return of a ‘Syrian alumni’ could impact Indonesian jihadism in several different ways and needs sustained attention.