JAKARTA // The fanatics of ISIL may be increasingly on the ropes in their Middle East stomping grounds, but in Indonesia there are fears that when those strongholds collapse they will scatter battle-hardened extremists across South-east Asia.
Eager to build networks and plan bomb attacks, the hundreds of returning militants could end the hiatus that came after they slipped out of their homeland in 2013-2014 and joined what they regarded as an historic mission to protect the ISIL caliphate.
Since the start of this year, six terrorists have been killed in domestic attacks that have claimed four victims, all of them during a January 14 pistol-and-bomb assault in Jakarta in which at least one explosive backpack detonated prematurely.
Another 40 militants have been arrested in that time, testimony to the continuing effectiveness of Indonesia’s elite Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit which was formed after the 2002 Bali nightclub bombings carried out by the now-decimated Jemaah Islamiyah regional terrorist network.
While ISIL was quick to claim responsibility for the Jakarta attack, the militants were ridiculed on social media in the Middle East for botching the operation and senior pro-ISIL figures in Indonesia said it had been too hastily put together.
Indeed, within weeks of the incident, Detachment 88 had effectively dismantled five of the 11 active ISIL cells known to Indonesian authorities at the time, compounding the persistent failure of local supporters to form a unified branch.
Other embarrassments followed. On July 5, a motorcycle-borne suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Solo police headquarters in Central Java province, after being refused entry into the compound.
A few hours later, an audio recording of the bomber’s voice began circulating on the internet in which he said, “Don’t live like sheep in the land of the kaffir, but live and die like a lion.” The manner of his death did not seem appropriate.
The attacker was a member of a Central Java anti-vice group that turned to terrorism after being radicalised by Bahrun Naim, a leading Indonesian ISIL figure in Syria who has been calling for such attacks for the past year.
Police captured six of Naim’s followers a month later on the island of Batam, off the east coast of Sumatra, while allegedly plotting a rocket attack on Singapore’s upmarket Marina Bay district 15 kilometres away.
The most recent incident was on August 28 when a knife-wielding assailant stabbed a Catholic priest in the arm and then unsuccessfully sought to trigger an explosive device in a church in Medan, Sumatra’s largest city.
Political coordinating minister Wiranto said the 17-year-old attacker’s cell phone showed he was obsessed with Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the ISIL leader, although he did not appear to have other affiliations to the organisation.
Outside of Indonesia, the only confirmed ISIL-inspired incident in the region has been a grenade attack on a Kuala Lumpur cafe on June 28, which wounded eight people and put nine suspects in custody – the first terrorism violence in Malaysia in years.
The police in the Philippines have yet to determine whether ISIL elements of the Abu Sayyaf terror group were behind the bombing of a night market in president Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown of Davao on September 2 that killed 14 people and wounded 17 others.
The southern Philippine island of Mindanao has been the scene of frequent bombings since the 1970s as government forces have periodically sought to crack down on heavily-armed Muslim rebels seeking independence from Manila’s bumbling rule.
Intelligence sources say the explosion had the hallmarks of a notorious bomber-for-hire, one of 15 Filipinos trained in the mid-1990s by Jemaah Islamiyah.
Only the Maute faction of Abu Sayyaf, based on the southern Mindanao island of Basilan, has declared its allegiance to ISIL. The rest of the loose alliance spend more time carrying out kidnappings for ransom than espousing radical beliefs.
Published figures for the number of Malaysians and Filipinos fighting in the Middle East vary widely, but most reports suggest it may be no more than 150 to 200 – and even that may be exaggerated.
In Singapore, security agents rounded up eight Bangladesh immigrant workers last May for allegedly plotting the overthrow of the Bangladesh government. Another 27 Muslim migrants were deported last year for the same reason, but Singapore never appears to have been a target or a genuine source of recruitment.
Indonesia’s concerns rest with the estimated 500 Indonesian nationals who are believed to still be in Syria and Iraq – about 200 fighters and the rest made up of women and children.
More than 100 Indonesians have died in the conflict so far, including the 19-year-old son of executed Bali bomber Imam Samudra, who was killed in Syria in October last year. Among six killed last week was a 13-year-old fighter.
Terrorism expert Sidney Jones, director of Jakarta’s Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, says while about 285 Indonesians have been stopped from entering Syria, only 12 of the deportees were arrested on their return to Indonesia for crimes allegedly committed before they left.
Only two dozen militants have returned from the battlefield since last year, said Ms Jones, but they are not automatically detained and it is unclear what systems the National Anti-Terrorism Bureau has in place – if any – to keep track of them.
In February, in the first case of its kind, seven Indonesians were jailed for between three and five years for conspiring with ISIL and propagating extremist ideology, including four who had travelled to Syria to undergo military training.
Given Indonesia’s poor record of reforming convicted terrorists, and indeed for monitoring them effectively, even those released from jail in recent years could provide the weapons knowledge that the current crop of jihadists is missing.
Most members of the old Jemaah Islamiyah network learnt bomb-making skills at training camps in Pakistan and Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s and then moved on to wreak havoc in a series of bombings in Indonesia which claimed hundreds of lives between 2001 and 2009.