It has been more than a month since four militants claiming to be followers of the so-called Islamic State (IS) attacked a police post and a café in central Jakarta, killing four people. Following the attack, terrorism experts warned of more attacks from IS-affiliated groups. The reason for this is simple: launching more attacks would bolster their credibility in the eyes of IS, thus giving them some sort of official recognition — which would in turn mean more men, funding and training.
The good news is that the Indonesian police have been working overtime in preventing more attacks. Police are intent on preventing an encore and have raided suspected terrorist camps and are cracking down on suspected terrorist cells. Even though many of the suspects were in the end released due to weaknesses in Indonesian anti-terrorism laws, this could be seen as a limited blow to the terrorist networks in the short term.
The reason for this is that a terrorist network is necessarily one where, due to the constant threat of crackdown, it is very difficult for members to trust each other. And any successful arrest increases the sense of distrust among members. Questions arise as to whether there is an informant in the group and whether the authorities are able to persuade any arrested member to become an informant either during their brief incarceration or subsequently, since their identities are now known to the authorities.
Unsurprisingly, since the crackdown on the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) terrorist network after the first Bali Bombing in 2002, the JI organisation collapsed and fragmented into small cell groups. While they still managed to launch small-scale attacks, these cells’ sophistication, and thus the damage they were able to cause, were a far cry from the groups that successfully launched large-scale attacks in the 2000s. Small cells lacked the training and skills necessary for large-scale attacks.
This is the case throughout Southeast Asia, where growing cooperation among ASEAN nations in counterterrorism efforts — backed by generous support from the United States — managed to fragment and degrade terrorist organisations. While the growing prestige of IS is a cause for concern, IS faces challenges expanding its reach. The problem for IS is in determining which local organisation they can trust to bring favourable headlines that attract more recruits, instead of the ridicule that characterised public responses to the Jakarta attacks in January.
Unlike al-Qaeda, which was able to link itself with local groups thanks to personal connections from fighting together in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, personal connections between IS and its regional counterparts are tenuous. This may change should the Indonesian jihadists currently fighting in Syria manage to return home, a scenario that remains a cause for concern in the long run.
But that is not the most troubling development. Should Southeast Asian governments manage to maintain their vigilance, it is doubtful that these returning terrorists could actually do much harm. The main reason why the previous returnees from Afghanistan were able to form the JI network and launch successful large-scale attacks was regional governments’ complacency: they did not take terrorist threats seriously enough.
This complacency allowed Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Abdullah Sungkar, the prominent leaders in JI, to leave Indonesia and live openly in Malaysia while the Indonesian authorities were after them. It would be difficult for a similar scenario to be repeated today, especially with regional governments so aware of the threat from al-Qaeda and IS.
More troubling than the threat of returning fighters is the radicalisation of many Muslim youths in the region. In Indonesia the radicalisation process often takes place in university campuses, religious schools, and even state high schools where reportedly around seven per cent of students support Islamic State. This is not a new development. In 2011, an Institute for Islam and Peace Studies survey showed that a staggering number of both students and teachers supported radical activities and even violent acts in the name of religion. Even government-approved textbooks are not free from radical viewpoints, with one book bluntly stating that ‘those who worship other than Allah are infidels and must be killed’.
This troubling trend is not limited to Indonesia. In the Philippines, there has been a growing radicalisation among youth in Mindanao. In Malaysia, the politicisation of Islam has played a role in the growing radicalisation of Malaysian youths.
While al-Qaeda and IS are undeniably a threat, an effective counterterrorism strategy must have a wider focus that goes beyond just eliminating these extremist organisations. It must also address the underlying, and more dangerous, threat to the region: the radicalisation of impressionable Muslim youths in Southeast Asia. By solely focusing on the threat from al-Qaeda and IS, the government may win the battle against terror but lose the war.
Yohanes Sulaiman is Lecturer at the Faculty of Government, General Achmad Yani University.