As you drive towards the old port in Jakarta, a large sign appears on a footbridge over the road saying “Embrace peace, reject terrorism”. It may sound like an overly optimistic message for a country in which more Australians have died from Islamic terrorism than in the rest of the world put together.
But the truth is that, so far, Indonesia is proving to be more resilient than most expected in the global war against Islamic State. In theory, the largest Muslim nation should be more vulnerable to the terror group than many other parts of the world. Yet it is Europe, not Indonesia, that is being scorched by major terror attacks inspired by Islamic State.
“My impression is that, honestly, they are not too strong here,” says Taufik Andrie, executive director of Jakarta’s Institute for International Peace Building. “Even though there are a lot of fatwas and guidance and instruction from Indonesian fighters in Syria, their ability to carry out an attack here is very limited right now.”
This could all change quickly and with dangerous consequences for the thousands of Australians who holiday in Bali and elsewhere on this sprawling archipelago. But the key question is why Indonesia has so far been more resistant to Islamic State than even Australia which — on a per capita basis — had seen far more foreign fighters leave home to fight with the terror group.
According to figures released this month by Australia’s financial intelligence agency, the Australian Transaction Reports and Analysis Centre, 568 Indonesians out of a population of 250 million are fighting for terror groups in Syria compared with 110 from Australia, which has only 23 million people.
While Indonesia is subjected to frequent low-level extremist attacks, usually directed against police, the only major Islamic State-inspired attack in the country has been the incompetent attacks in Jakarta in January when four poorly trained gunmen killed four people before being killed by police.
This attack hardly strengthened the image of Islamic State in Indonesia; rather, it triggered that an outpouring of condemnation against the terror group.
Even so, Jakarta is alive to the risks posed by the lure of Islamic State ideology.
Indonesia has large numbers of terrorists due for release from its prisons; it faces a sizeable number of returnees from the Syrian war zone; and it is seen by Islamic State, also known as ISIS, as a potential site for a future caliphate in East Asia.
“I think they feel genuinely concerned,” Attorney-General George Brandis told The Australian at a counter-terror conference in Bali this month. “You have the fact that there is something in the order of 450 people in Indonesian prisons who are potentially going to be released in the next year or so. You have the declared ambition of ISIS to establish a caliphate in East Asia. You have the fact that of the 37 international declared affiliates of ISIS, seven of them are Indonesian-based.
“And this is an Islamic nation, of course, so I think the Indonesians feel very vulnerable, but they have a more sophisticated appreciation of their own vulnerability and the nature of the threat than most countries in the region.”
New Counter-Terrorism Minister Wiranto, a hardline and controversial commander in East Timor in the late 1990s, has vowed to pursue a “soft and hard power approach” to combating terrorism.
“We never underestimate security threats, including terrorism,” he says. “The hunt for terrorist groups, unfolding their networks and enforcing the law will be continued.
“(But) a successful strategy should also put forward a soft approach through the values of religion and culture. We are also aware of the need to address pockets of poverty, economic disparity and social justice. This approach is an integral part in supporting the deradicalisation and counter-radicalisation programs.”
The biggest stumbling block for Islamic State so far is that its form of extremist Sunni Wahhabism has struggled to take root in Indonesia’s secular democracy, where the state ideology, Pancasila, recognises six official religions, not just Islam. When Islamic State declared its self-proclaimed caliphate in the Middle East in mid-2014, imams in Indonesia’s mosques were quick to criticise the behaviours of the terror group as being incompatible with Islam.
The IIPB’s Taufik says moderates continue to be the dominant force in Indonesian Islam but he worries the balance is shifting and there is a “rising of conservatism in Islam in Indonesia”.
The Arab influence in Indonesian Islam has grown as a result of a concerted campaign from mostly Saudi Sunnis to fund school mosques and imams in Indonesia. Six satellite TV stations promote Wahhabi teachings around the clock. More women now wear the hijab in Indonesia than they once did. This is a battle of ideologies that will shape Indonesian Islam into the future even if, for now, the moderates still retain the upper hand.
Even so, the rise of Islamic State has revitalised jihadist networks in Indonesia, including ones that have been largely dormant since the spate of major attacks against Australians and other westerners in the 2000s beginning with the Bali bombing in 2002 and ending with the 2009 attacks on the Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott hotels.
But the impact of this revitalisation has been diluted by a rift between Indonesia’s formerly dominant terror group, Jemaah Islamiah, which carried out the Bali bombings, and the newcomer in Islamic State. This rift has slowed down the ability of Islamic State to tap into Indonesia’s jihadist base, despite the high-profile defection of former JI spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir to Islamic State.
“There is friction in prison between supporters of Islamic State and supporters of JI,” says Mira Kusumarini, director of the Jakarta-based conflict prevention think tank Search for Common Ground.
Taufik believes Islamic State is slowly gaining traction among the jihadist population in Indonesian prisons and he estimates that about 60 per cent of extremist inmates now back the terror group. But Taufik fears Islamic State’s weakness in Indonesia may be only temporary and that the terror group is taking a long-term strategic approach in Indonesia.
“I think they (Islamic State) are adopting the old strategy of JI and that is to softly and calmly prepare their support base here,” he says. He points to how the Indonesian fighters who returned from Afghanistan in the 1990s “hibernated for a while” before launching attacks in the 2000s.
While many terror-watchers have warned of the dangers posed by Indonesian fighters returning home after fighting in Syria, no returnee — and AUSTRAC claims 183 foreign fighters have already returned to Indonesia — has yet participated in a major attack.
Newly released prisoners have posed more of a threat, as many still hold on to their extremist views. The Indonesian government, like the Australian government, is embarking on a range of deradicalisation and counter-radicalisation programs.
Indonesia has established a deradicalisation centre for terrorist inmates, and programs include rehabilitation, more integration, re-education for terror inmates and the empowering of religious leaders and psychologists to provide counter-narratives.
Ironically, Bali bomber Ali Imron now works for the authorities trying to convince prisoners that violence is counter-productive. But as in Australia, these programs are young and still largely experimental, and it remains to be seen how effective they will prove to be.
Another key reason for the failure of Islamic State to gain traction to date has been the often ruthless efficiency of Indonesian counter-terror apparatus, in particular the special forces unit Detachment 88.
The killing last month of Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, head of the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia, by the elite army unit Kostrad, was the latest in a long line of terrorists who have been killed by Indonesia’s counter-terror units that shoot first and ask questions later.
These Indonesian units continue to be quietly but strongly supported by Australian intelligence agencies and the Australian Federal Police, which have maintained close links and sharing arrangements. This counter-terror co-operation was the only part of the bilateral relationship that was not harmed by the diplomatic tensions between 2013 and 2015 over asylum boat turnbacks, beef exports and capital punishment.
But it is also the shoot-first tactics of Indonesia’s counter terror police that have helped make the public wary of fast-tracking new, stronger, counter-terror laws to tackle the rise of Islamic State.
Indonesian counter-terror laws are surprisingly weak given the country’s history of terrorism. It is still not illegal for Indonesians to fight abroad or to voice support for Islamic State.
After the terror attack in January, the government introduced into parliament a bill that proposed greater police powers and outlawed support for terror groups and for Indonesians to wage jihad on foreign soil. But the legislation is still moving at a snail’s pace through parliament. Some say this lack of urgency reflects an ultra-slow legislative process, under which parliament passed only four major bills last year.
“Parliament is hopeless with these things despite the fact that everyone can see that the police have their hands tied because they are powerless to act on certain things,” Deakin University terrorism expert Greg Barton says.
Others says there is only tepid public support for stronger police powers in a country that until relatively recently was subject to authoritarian rule.
“I think political parties think twice before processing that law,” says Arif Zulkifli, editor of the influential Tempo magazine. “The police is an institution that has low public trust.”
Taufik says the government needs to be careful not to give the impression counter-terror laws are an attempt to control Islam or religious expression. “Some of the bigger Islamic organisations have given advice to the Indonesian police on how to behave in arresting terror suspects,” he says.
But the cumulative effect of Indonesia’s counter-terror efforts so far has been to ensure Islamic State has not yet gained the foothold in the country that many were predicting. This month, Indonesia initiated counter-terror and counter-terror finance conferences in Bali attended by 20 nations, including European countries, which called for closer collaboration against Islamic State.
“I think Indonesia is handling this (challenge) very competently,” says Brandis. “It has a clear appreciation of the magnitude of the problem and a realistic understanding of its own vulnerabilities.
“And it has a willingness at all levels of the government to tackle the problem in co-operation with international partners and in particular with Australia.”
Cameron Stewart travelled to Indonesia as the recipient of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Elizabeth O’Neill Journalism Award.