ISIS war at our doorstep?

ISIS war at our doorstep?
A destroyed building with a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, is seen in the town of al-Alam.

Indonesia may be declared the next Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) province, said terrorism expert Professor Rohan Gunaratna.

And when an area is declared a "province", resources including foreign fighters move in and join local groups to impose ISIS' will - this includes its vision of a caliphate.

ISIS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baghdadi had earlier declared only areas in and around the Middle East such as Sinai, Libya, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as "provinces".

Prof Gunaratna of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) said: "There is a misperception that the IS (another name for ISIS) threat is Syria- and Iraq-centric.

"IS is going beyond its core area. It is sprinting while some governments are trying to play catch-up."

He said there are already several different groups affiliated to ISIS in South-east Asia. (See map on facing page.)

And last year, Malaysian security authorities said four new terror groups were planning to create an Islamic caliphate to rule parts of South-east Asia, including Singapore.

They planned to call it Daulah Islamiah Nusantara and it covers Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, southern Thailand and southern Philippines.

All this makes it clear that ISIS' aim is not just getting the self-radicalised - like M. Arifil Azim Putra Norja'i, the 19-year-old student who had planned to kill President Tony Tan Keng Yam and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong - to push its agenda.

The big prize is Indonesia as a "province", and exerting its influence in South-east Asia.


Foreign fighters, including four Uighur men from Xinjiang province in China, were arrested in Indonesia last year.

There are about 400 Uighurs in Syria fighting for ISIS.

Then there is Santoso, an ambitious, if somewhat inexperienced Indonesian terrorist, as described in an April report by Indonesia-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC).

In 2014, Santoso, head of East Indonesia Mujahedeen (MIT), pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Al-Baghdadi.

He also gave himself the name Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi Al-Indunesi. Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi is the founding father of ISIS, who was killed by the US in 2006.

Santoso had pushed for Poso in Sulawesi to be an IS "province".

Until recently, Al-Baghdadi ignored regions outside of the Middle East.

But earlier this year, he declared South Asia as an IS "province", a significant shift.

Describing Santoso as "the greatest threat", Prof Gunaratna said ISIS now has a global vision and is looking to link up with groups around the world.

ISIS is reaching out to conflict zones in Indonesia and the Philippines and will hijack issues like the expulsion of the Rohingya people, he added, The four Uighur men had been trying to reach Santoso after a failed attempt to make it to Syria.


A number of terrorists in Indonesia belonging to Jemaah Islamiah (JI) were killed and captured after the 2002 Bali bombing which claimed 202 lives.

But in 2009, a group under Abu Bakar Bashir, the emir of JI, formed a branch in Poso. The group reached out to former fighters, said Ms Navhat Nuraniyah, an associate research fellow at RSIS.

She told The New Paper the old network was revived and MIT was formed with Santoso as its leader. MIT's military camp has been running in Poso since 2011.

"Poso has a long history. It dates back to 1998 when a sectarian conflict broke out between Muslims and Christians," said Ms Navhat.

"JI and other jihadist groups first mobilised their fighters to defend Muslims there, and they subsequently used it as a training ground."

She added that MIT has carried out small-scale attacks in Poso including a botched suicide bombing and may not be a sophisticated group yet.

"However, IS gave them a new purpose and the situation could change if their members or former students come back from Syria or Iraq," she said.

They already have the funds.

In 2011, one of Santoso's supporters, IT expert Rizki Gunawan, hacked a multi-level marketing company website and stole 6 billion rupiah (S$606,000).

Part of the funds was said to have been used in a church bombing that year.


Official Indonesian sources say there are about 50 Indonesians fighting in Syria. Australian media has been reporting the figure as closer to 300. Prof Gunaratna said that like the experience in Afghanistan, returnees will have even greater resolve coupled with battlefield experience.

In February, militants, believed to be returnees, were suspected to have been behind an attempted chlorine bomb attack at a shopping mall in south Jakarta.

Indonesian police said it was the first such attack ever attempted in Indonesia and that it resembled tactics employed by ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

Besides combat experience and deepened ideological commitment, IPAC's director Sidney Jones reportedly said in March that returnees will also have international connections and legitimacy that could provide leadership for the terrorism network.

This article was first published on June 13, 2015.
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