News analysis: Between threat of radicalized IS supporters and homegrown terrorists

Indonesia's Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Panjaitan (C) walks next to Australia's Attorney General George Brandis (R) and Justice Minister Michael Keenan (L) after a meeting in Jakarta on December 21, 2015.

The influence of the Islamic State (IS) in Indonesia has become more apparent along with the rapid increase of radicalization within society since IS declared a caliphate in June 2014, the year that marked the rise of one of the most deadliest terror groups ever to exist.

By December 2015, about 800 Indonesians had been reported to have departed for Syria and Iraq, with 169 people being caught on the Turkey-Syria border and deported by the Turkish government, before these potential foreign fighters had the chance to join IS, according to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).

However, the exact number of radicalized Indonesians returning from the conflict zones before Joko "Jokowi" Widodo took over the presidency on Oct. 20, 2014, is unknown. The former administration failed to keep track of Indonesians departing to join IS after the group announced that it would restore Allah's rule on Earth through sharia.

Over the weekend, the National Police's Densus 88 counterterrorism squad seized bomb-making equipment and arrested nine people across Java who were suspected of being among the more than 1,000 local IS supporters allegedly planning to attack government officials, including Jokowi and minority Shiite Muslims.

One of the homegrown terrorist groups, the Santoso-led East Indonesia Mujahidin based in Poso, Central Sulawesi, still poses a major threat to the government as the group was responsible for the killing of several police officers and local farmers in 2015 and has pledge allegiance to IS.

With national security at stake, counterterrorism forces are stepping up measures to protect the nation against possible militant attacks that have the potential to plunge the nation into violence.

Homegrown terrorist groups versus radicalized returnees

The history of homegrown radical Islamic groups dates back to the late 1940s, when Kartosuwiryo led the Islamic State of Indonesia (NII) movement, a radical group that led to the formation of the al-Qaeda affiliated Jamaah Islamiyah (JI) in 1993, a group responsible for the deadly 2002 Bali bombings.

Since JI's charismatic leader Abu Bakar Ba'asyir was arrested in August 2010, experts believe that younger JI members separated from the group when senior members decided to lie low, as they believed that Indonesia was no longer a land for jihad.

This led to the rise of the East Indonesia Mujahidin - a terrorist group that allegedly created terror in Poso - led by the former JI members who are presently being hunted by 1,500 security personnel.

"From the perspective of human safety, the most dangerous are homegrown terrorist groups," terrorist expert Rakyan Adibrata told

With the threat of radicalized Indonesian returnees increasing over the past few months, Rakyan said it was actually homegrown terrorist groups that had initially spread radical ideology among members, leading them to depart as foreign terrorist fighters for IS only to return to be a threat to the nation.

Mujahidin shares the same vision as IS to establish an Islamic caliphate. However, Rakyan said, there was still romanticism among the group's members about establishing their own caliphate in Poso as it was the location where they had previously been trained by al-Qaeda and the place where Santoso ran an extremist training camp.

Meanwhile, a terrorist expert from Yayasan Prasasti Perdamaian (YPP), Taufik Andrie, said radicalized Indonesian returnees posed a bigger threat to the nation as they could contribute to capacity building, networking and persuading homegrown terrorist groups to support IS.

Even though many homegrown terrorist groups such as Mujahidin promote dangerous ideology that includes use of violence to achieve their means, Taufik said that unlike IS, which hated all Western-influenced systems, these groups' bigger enemies were mainly police and law enforcers.

"In Poso, like the Santoso-led group, they are more contextual as the group consists of people who have been involved in conflicts and suffered from injustice and violence," Taufik said.

Similarly, a terrorist expert and former NII member, Al-Chaidar, said that besides fighting in its own way to establish a caliphate, Mujahidin was formed to take revenge for predecessor who were attacked by police and law enforcers during a Muslim-Christian conflict in Poso that claimed the lives of at least 1,000 people from 1998 to 2002.

"Mujahidin members still hold grudge toward Christians. They have not departed for Syria, but they are IS supports who are spread across Indonesia," Al-Chaidar said.

Home to various radical Islamic groups, Indonesia has experienced terrorist attacks targeting public places for more than a decade. Since the deadly Bali attack, the police have managed to counter and destroy homegrown militant cells. However, the rise of IS has brought new challenges for them to improve their counterterrorism strategy once more.

Re-thinking new approaches to counter radicalization

During Jokowi's presidency, the BNPT has adopted a softer de-radicalization approach to curb terrorism by emphasizing dialogue with captured or potential terrorists to reverse their radical thinking as it is believed to be more effective in countering the spread of radical ideology.

However in Rakyan's view, the government should try a new approach by adopting psychological and medical perspectives to better assess the thinking of radicalized Indonesian returnees, as they share similarities with soldiers newly returned from conflict zones and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"While soldiers may kill themselves or shoot a friend, a jihadist who suffers from PTSD may think his home country is enemy territory and everything before his eyes should be killed," Rakyan said.

Similarly, Taufik said that both radicalized Indonesian returnees who had been deported back home and IS supports who could not depart to join IS might experience frustration as they did not get the chance to wage jihad in Syria, resulting in the potential spreading of radical ideology or activities.

"They become a threat because they can move freely among citizens," Taufik said.

A similar approach should be implemented by the BNPT to counter the intensified dissemination of terrorist groups' propaganda through the internet and social media, Rakyan said, as the current counter-narrative measures taken by the BNPT through its online platform called "Peaceful Year in Cyberspace" had been deemed weak and ineffective in preventing radicalization.

According to Rakyan, counter-narrative measures against the IS campaign in Indonesia were instead actively taken by other radical groups that are against forming an IS caliphate, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and senior members of JI who were against IS but still wanted to establish a caliphate in Indonesia.

"In the end, this will bring much the same result. Either members of the public who empathize with IS will not believe the group anymore or they will join Jabhat al-Nusra or other non-IS rebels," said Rakyan.

Indonesia should engage moderate groups to actively take counter-narrative measures in their respective areas, Rakyan said, while at the same time co-operate with internet service providers to tackle radicalization through the internet.

Australia adopted this method, Rakyan said, as the government engaged all moderate groups in the country to create counter-narrative measures in co-operation with giant search engine Google and it had been very effective in curbing the spread of radical ideology.

"When people search keywords related to IS and other radical groups, page 1 and 2 in Google will display counter-narrative measures instead of information on those groups," said Rakyan.

Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones also told recently that various radical media outlets disseminated IS propaganda by re-making videos or audio statements in Indonesian and spreading the links through the internet every day, making effective use of Indonesia as the fourth leading Facebook user in the world with over 84 per cent of users active Twitter users by 2014.

BNPT deputy for international relations Insp. Gen. Petrus Reinhard Golose said he had addressed this issue, adding that the counter-terrorism body looked forward to cooperating with other countries to closely monitor websites in order to curb the spread of radicalism through the internet.

Potential radical group attacks, new method adopted

With IS now having thousands of supporters across Indonesia as well as other radical groups such as Mujahidin, experts have warned that the threat of terrorist attacks in December 2015 could be bigger and different from previous years.

Taufik said that while previously churches and Christian groups were the main targets of radical Islamic groups, threats of terrorist attacks this year were posed by more diverse groups that had different views of perceived enemies, as there were those who intended to attack government officials and minority Shiite Muslims also.

Counterterrorism forces succeeded in arresting nine suspected Muslim militants who were allegedly planning bomb attacks in towns across Java last weekend, with four of them suspected of being JI members.

However, as the National Police spokesperson said the force had captured "only subordinates" of a network of IS supporters, Taufik said supporters who escaped the raids could be more dangerous as they would strive to finish what their accomplices started.

"Right now the threats are IS supporters and those affiliated with Aman Abdurahman [vocal Indonesian promoter of IS]," said Taufik.

Meanwhile, Rakyan warned that IS might launch sporadic attacks instead of centralized bombings, with possible active shooters assigned to create terror in public places or at religious sites.

Citing the Paris attack, the deadliest attack on French soil since World War II that IS claimed responsibility for, Rakyan said that simultaneous coordinated terrorist attacks could become a rather effective method to distract government and security officials.

"Imagine five shooters at five malls in Jakarta and mass shootings happening simultaneously. This is a bigger danger and would create mass fear equal to that caused by the Paris attack and Bali bombings," said Rakyan.

Even though the trade-off between security and human rights is often debated, Rakyan said that in order to strengthen early detection capabilities, people entering malls, airports and other public places should be thoroughly searched.

Meanwhile in Poso, Al-Chaidar said the East Indonesia Mujahidin members were likely to launch terrorist attacks during Christmas, even though the scale might not be large as they would try to avoid detection as security officials hunt for their leader, Santoso.

However, Al-Chaidar said that Mujahidin's threat to attack National Police headquarters and the State Palace was a bluff, as it was a method it often used to divert attention.

"In the past, Mujahidin once threatened to attack Makassar, but it ended up attacking the Poso police," said Al-Chaidar.

In order to ensure safe Christmas and New Year celebrations, the National Police have deployed 150,000 officers to safe-guard churches and other public places around the country, as well as strengthen security and surveillance in a number of areas to prevent terrorist attacks.

"The government's preparations [to secure Christmas and New Year] are sufficient, but still we need to encourage members of the public to report anything suspicious to security officials," Rakyan added.