ISIS and Indonesia: Thoughts on Combating ISIS in Indonesia

— By Christopher Linnan —


A little over a year ago American President Obama said “that he considered ISIS to be al-Qaeda’s weaker partner…[and that]if a jayvee team [ISIS] puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant [al-Qaeda].” (i) Frankly, that statement is not true as al-Qaeda was and remains a dangerous threat, but unlike the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), (ii) it never controlled large swathes of territory, it did not govern anywhere, nor did it have billions of dollars in revenue. The president of the International Committee of the Red Cross has estimated that more than ten million people live under ISIS control in former parts of Iraq and Syria. (iii) The aforementioned statement from President Obama is especially troubling because it reflects a tendency of world leaders to downplay ISIS and what it is capable of. Most countries outside of the Middle East seem to have made the decision that direct military intervention does not make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. However, that has not stopped ISIS from sponsoring attacks in France, the U.S., and most recently several coordinated bombings in Jakarta, Indonesia.

The latter attacks are especially noteworthy because they signal the desire of ISIS to expand to Indonesia. (iv) Thus far, Indonesia has successfully contained the appeal of ISIS despite being the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. The government and national religious organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama, which boasts over fifty million members, have done an excellent job of preventing terrorist attacks and promoting the notion that “Islamic State’s Salafist jihadism is alien to Indonesia’s Islamic traditions.” (v) However, the threat of ISIS to Indonesia and the rest of the world is not going away and will continue to grow. The attacks have led to a lot of soul-searching over how to deal with ISIS and its supporters, which has manifested itself in a debate over how to combat it including whether Indonesia should revoke the citizenship of Indonesians who join ISIS. This debate is not unique to Indonesia, but it is especially noteworthy, because if countries are unwilling to intervene directly, (vi) there are other ways to combating it. However, there is still an ongoing discussion about how to counter ISIS in Indonesia, so this article will seek to give a brief overview of what ISIS is, why it is especially important to Indonesia, and examine ways Indonesia and the rest of the world can combat it.

What is ISIS

To better understand ISIS one has to realize that the primary group it claims to represent, Sunni Arab Muslims, are a minority in Iraq, which is where ISIS started in the chaotic post-U.S. invasion environment. During Saddam Hussein’s nearly thirty-year reign Sunni Muslims held the vast majority of powerful positions despite their minority status, but due to Saddam’s harsh rule and other factors, sectarian strife was largely avoided. (vii)(viii) The only exception was the regime’s tenuous relationship with the Iraqi Kurdish population, who are largely Sunni Muslim, but were constantly at odds with the government due to their desire to establish an autonomous Kurdistan. Their struggle included being the victims of the Hussein’s most notorious atrocity, the chemical weapons attack on Halabja, which killed over 5,000 people and injured countless others. (ix)

The majority of Iraqis are Shia Arab Muslims, who used their newfound political power post-Saddam to elect Nouri al-Maliki, who would be Iraq’s prime minister from 2006-2014. Almost immediately upon assuming the post, al-Maliki was criticized as being too sectarian and divisive, but with little real political opposition he remained in office. (x) The result was his government gradually alienated non-Shiites, and seriously mismanaged the country’s finances and military. (xi) This included the existence of over 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in the Iraqi army, e.g. soldiers who had deserted, been killed, or never existed, but whose commanders had not noted this, so that they could collect the “ghost soldiers’” paychecks. (xii) Unfortunately, the practice was only discovered and halted by al-Maliki’s successor, Haider al-Abbadi, in late 2014. (xiii) The issue is that mismanagement such as this has allowed ISIS and other militant groups to grow and thrive as the disorganized and underprepared Iraqi military has been unable to effectively combat it.

The power vacuum created by the removal of Saddam Hussein combined with the inability of the al-Maliki coalition to create a legitimate government that appealed to all Iraqis (xiv) led to a variety of militias and other organizations such as ISIS fighting to fill that vacuum. According to Austin Long of Columbia University “the Islamic State is really the descendent of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which began under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.” (xv) However, as time passed ISIS has gradually separated itself from and even antagonized modern al-Qaeda leadership, especially due to its harsh treatment of fellow Muslims, so that the two are now very distinct organizations with very different agendas. (xvi)

ISIS obviously came out on top and yields more power now than al-Qaeda or any other modern jihadist organization ever has, and now legitimately threatens to engulf all of Iraq and Syria. It controls a significant portion of those countries, although it is difficult to estimate the actual amount of land and people it rules. However, its ideology is much less difficult to define if viewed through apolitical lenses. Princeton scholar Bernard Haykel points out that ISIS followers “are smack in the middle of the medieval [Islamic] tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” (xvii) One can find justification for their archaic practices such as slavery, crucifixion, polygamy, etc. in the Quran, just like one can find justification for similar practices in the Old Testament. The difference is that most Christians and Muslims treat their holy books as living documents to a certain extent, but ISIS does not.

In fact ISIS considers itself to be a direct descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s kingdom. Muslims believe that the Prophet Muhammad established the first “caliphate,” or form of Islamic government, and that he was the first “caliph,” or leader. Sunnis and Shiites are divided on the question of who his legitimate successors were, but ISIS claims that there have been seven legitimate caliphs and that there will be twelve before the end of the world. (xviii) That makes reclusive ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the eighth according to ISIS, which believes that all devout Muslims are under the obligation to travel to and live in the newly established caliphate. (xix) This includes Indonesia, which is host to the highest number of Muslims in the world.

Indonesia and ISIS

Indonesia, despite the aforementioned large Muslim population, has seen relatively limited domestic support for ISIS. For example, there are more than twice as many French foreign fighters who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq than Indonesians. (xx) Various Indonesian Islamic extremists, most notably the wanted fugitive Santoso, have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State, (xxi) and you will occasionally ride in an angkot (xxii) and notice that the person sitting across from you is wearing a shirt featuring a large picture of Osama bin Laden or the ISIS flag. However, in 2014 the total death toll from terrorism in Indonesia was four people and in 2015 it was eight. (xxiii) The precise reasons for these low numbers are difficult to determine, but there are several likely ones. They are that Indonesia has a well-functioning political and economic system, the absence of the same type of extreme sectarianism that plagues much of the Middle East, the limited appeal of a caliphate centered in the Middle East for most Indonesians, and the efficient job that Indonesia has done combating terrorism over the past ten years.

Photo credit to Annabelle Wilmott.

Photo credit to Annabelle Wilmott.

Extremism tends to thrive when people are dissatisfied with their political leaders and do not see another option. Indonesian politicians have come under scrutiny for a variety of issues from voters, most notably corruption, but the overwhelming majority of the Indonesian electorate still believes in the current political arrangement. (xxiv) Indonesia’s current democratic system is relatively new having only been introduced in 1999, and its status as a developing country means there are hurdles that have yet to be crossed, but it is very encouraging that Indonesian democracy is alive and well seventeen years after its introduction. Furthermore, far-right Islamic parties have had relatively limited success on a national level. (xxv) One should bear in mind that in one Indonesian province, Aceh, a form of Sharia law is practiced, albeit less brutal than ISIS’s. The creation of Sharia law in Aceh was at least partially the result of the tragic 2004 tsunami that claimed over 130,000 lives in Aceh. (xxvi) So, there are places in Indonesia where people have stricter and more conservative interpretations of Islam. However, this has yet to become a national phenomenon nor has it resulted in widespread support for ISIS.

The second reason is that while there is occasional religious disharmony in Indonesia, it is much more limited than the Middle East. Indonesia has a population of over 225 million Muslims, but of these, there are less than 2 million Shiites. (xxvii) Occasionally, this manifests itself in tensions, but that is not unique to Indonesia. (xxviii) There are most certainly other issues, such as the recent mob violence against members of the Gafatar Movement, which resulted in the evacuation of hundreds of members. (xxix) However, the relative homogeneity of Indonesia’s Islamic population makes it harder for groups such as ISIS to sow or exploit discord.

The Middle East is a powder keg in the sense there are so many historical sectarian and national issues, which politicians have exploited for centuries and continue to do so today. One can make a reasonable argument that the current quagmire in the Middle East mirrors the Yugoslav Wars, which were fought by various relatively impoverished ethnic groups trying to divide Yugoslavia post-Tito. Unfortunately, that conflict was only abated by the intervention of NATO troops, which is most likely the only way ISIS can be defeated. (xxx) However, Indonesia does not share the same issues. It is lucky in the sense that there have been and still are occasional ethnic and religious issues, but again it is not comparable to Eastern Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, or in the Middle East today.

The third reason is that Indonesia is far removed from the Middle East, so the appeal of a caliphate there is much more limited. Islam is not a monolithic religion and ISIS’s caliphate has a stronger historical appeal for Middle Eastern Muslims than Southeast Asian ones due to the latter group’s own separate traditions and values. One needs to bear in mind that many Middle Eastern Muslims are displeased with the current geo-political realities of the region, e.g. the continued existence of Israel, the presence of foreign, i.e. American and European troops in several countries, and dysfunctional governments, among other things. The early Muslim caliphates are generally regarded as a golden age for many Muslims in the Middle East. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they are attractive to dissatisfied Middle Eastern Muslims, but they do not have the same historical value for most Indonesians.

One needs to bear in mind that Indonesia is not inherently immune to terrorism as the spate of terroristic attacks, most notably the 2002 Bali bombings which killed more than 200 demonstrated. However, the government’s swift response, which included the creation of the elite anti-terrorism police unit, Detachment 88, proved very successful. (xxxi) In the interim, jihadist groups have struggled to operate effectively, but with ISIS’s almost limitless resources and ability to unite various factions under one banner, the need to fight it is crucial to Indonesian and global long-term interests.

Ways to Combat ISIS in Indonesia

The most obvious way to combating ISIS in Indonesia is maintaining Indonesia’s political and economic stability. Christopher Cramer points out that “it is not simply a lack of money that spurs young men to rebel…it is more that having a job is a source of status and identity.” (xxxii) Of course, ISIS has wealthy supporters too, but one of the most common attributes of ISIS recruits from outside the Middle East is that they were young, male, and usually frustrated. It is impossible to prevent all young men anywhere from being disillusioned, but having a legitimate and functioning political and economic system means you can reduce the amount. However, there are several specific ways that Indonesia and other countries can confront ISIS short of a military intervention.

One of the primary and most controversial ways of dissuading people from pledging their allegiance to ISIS is by stripping the citizenship of people who immigrate to or support ISIS. The most pressing issue is the question if ISIS can be considered a state. I realize that there is a certain reluctance to accept that it is one and in no way am I advocating foreign nations establish diplomatic relations or recognize it, but it has all the characteristics of a state in the sense that it controls a large amount of territory, administers said territory with its own justice and tax systems, and even provides state services to people living in its borders as long as it has not killed or enslaved them. (xxxiii) The question of whether ISIS is a state is especially important because most countries have laws that allow the revocation of citizenship of citizens who pledge their allegiance to other nations or join foreign militaries. This includes Indonesia, where according to Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan that “once an Indonesian becomes a foreign fighter, we [can] revoke his passport.” (xxxiv)

While it is largely a symbolic gesture to revoke somebody’s citizenship after pledging allegiance to ISIS, there are also pragmatic reasons for doing so. The most important one is that it prevents these fighters from returning to their home country and carrying out attacks after having received military training abroad. The worst terrorist attack in recent Indonesian history was the aforementioned 2002 Bali bombings, which was planned and carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah militants who had fought in and returned from Afghanistan. (xxxv) ISIS foreign fighters who return to their home countries have the know-how to plan and organize terrorist attacks, and recruit others to their cause. Furthermore, they have the contacts necessary to find funding for these activities.

Some critics have argued that we should try ISIS returnees in courtrooms, but there is one glaring weakness with this argument which has manifested itself in Europe, as The New Yorker points out, and this is that “most returned European fighters never see the inside of a courtroom for one frightening reason: nobody really knows what they did abroad.” (xxxvi) Most modern judicial systems require a fairly high burden of proof to convict somebody of a specific crime, and prosecutors in Copenhagen or Jakarta are going to have difficulties documenting what specific activities somebody does for ISIS in Syria or Iraq. Some returners may truly feel disillusioned after their experiences in the Middle East, but that does not excuse or mitigate their actions. Nobody who travels to ISIS can claim ignorance about what it is, as ISIS regularly broadcasts its executions and constantly issues documents justifying its most barbaric practices such as crucifixion and slavery.

Some policymakers have advanced the notion that we should forgive people returning from ISIS, but that would be the height of naiveté. If we are going to allow somebody to get away with treason, one of the most serious offenses one can commit in Indonesia or in almost any other country, then there seems to be no need for a penal code at all. Furthermore, if we give them prison sentences, this could very well also backfire because prisons, especially in Indonesia, are often excellent recruiting ground for radical Islamists. (xxxvii) Michael Radu sums up the problems when he points out that “every (terrorist) attack has converts, and most of them have criminal records and were converted within prisons.” (xxxviii) Thus, by revoking somebody’s citizenship if they join ISIS we are protecting law-abiding citizens and preventing future radicalization.

The final step Indonesia has taken and must continue to do so in the battle against ISIS is enforcing its previous ban on the group and its supporters, even if they choose to remain in Indonesia. (xxxix) People who endorse ISIS in Indonesia, or anywhere else in the world for that matter, are endorsing the overthrow of their country’s government, because ISIS does not recognize other foreign governments due to their belief that they have the obligation to topple them and create a worldwide caliphate. (xl) This includes overthrowing democratically elected Muslim governments such as Indonesia, which means that Indonesian ISIS supporters are committing treason. Free speech in Indonesia and most other countries does not protect sedition or inciting violence, so it does not protect anybody advocating for ISIS.


One of the most common tongue-in-cheek remarks you will hear from Indonesianists is that Indonesia “is the largest country that we talk about the least.” Yet it is a growing economic and political superpower that has a unique position as arguably the best functioning (xli) Muslim-majority democracy in the world. However, ISIS has clearly signaled their intentions to challenge this, so it remains imperative that Indonesia and its allies do everything possible to combat it. This starts by taking an aggressive stand against ISIS and its supporters. If we don’t do this, we risk letting extremists gain a foothold in society from which it will be difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge them from and, thus, create a more dangerous world for our children.

Christopher Linnan is a second year Indonesian Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA) placed in Medan, North Sumatra at SMA Unggulan CT Foundation. Last year he taught at SMAN 2 in Palangkaraya in Central Kalimantan. He graduated from Emory University in May 2014 and enjoys sports, eating candy, and solving his Rubik’s Cube.  You can read more from him at 

(i) Graeme Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants,” The Atlantic March 2015,, accessed 16 January 2016.
(ii) There are many different names for “ISIS,” all of which carry different meanings and connotations, but for the sake of consistency I will refer to it as “ISIS” throughout this article.
(iii) “What is Islamic State,” BBC 2 December 2015,, accessed 24 January 2016.
(iv) Joe Cochrane and Thomas Fuller, “Jakarta Attack Raises Fears of ISIS’ Spread in Southeast Asia,” The New York Times 13 January 2016,, accessed 24 January 2016.
(v) Joshua Kurlantzick, “What Indonesia Knows About Blocking the Islamic State,” Bloomberg 20 January 2016,, accessed 24 January 2016.
(vi) Please note that this is not an endorsement of direct military intervention.
(vii) Obviously there were issues, but compared to what has happened post-Saddam, they were relatively tame.
(viii) Rafid Jaboori, “Iraqi Sunnis’ Long Struggle Since Saddam,” BBC 31 December 2013,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(ix) “Iraqi Kurds Mark 25 Years Since Halabja Gas Attack,” BBC 16 March 2013,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(x) Beth Fouhy, “Clinton Urges Ouster of Iraq’s Al-Maliki,” Washington Post 22 August 2007,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xi) Zaid Al-Ali, “How Maliki Ruined Iraq,” Foreign Policy 19 June 2014,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xii) Suadad al-Salhy,” How Iraq’s ‘ghost soldiers’ helped ISIL,” Al-Jazeera 11 December 2014,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xiii) Ibid.
(xiv) Although it is a fair question whether any democratic regime could have done so.
(xv) “The Complicated Origins of ISIS Explained,” AOL 19 November 2015,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xvi) Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.”
(xvii) Ibid.
(xviii) Graeme Wood, “What ISIS’s Leader Really Wants,” The New Republic 2 September 2014,, accessed 4 February 2016.
(xix) “ISIS in Iraq: What is a Caliphate,” CBC News 30 June 2014,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xx) Edward Delman, “ISIS in the World’s Largest Muslim Country,” The Atlantic 3 January 2016,, accessed 4 February 2016.
(xxi) Syamsul Huda M. Suhari, “All-out Hunt for Santoso After Jakarta Attacks,” The Jakarta Post 18 January 2016,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxii) This is an Indonesian taxi that is a mix between a minibus and van, and travels a pre-determined route around the city. For more details see
(xxiii) Sidney Jones, “Battling ISIS in Indonesia,” New York Times 18 January 2016,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxiv) Vikram Nehru, “Survey of Recent Developments in Indonesia,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 26 July 2013,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxv) Ibid.
(xxvi) “Indonesian Province Turns Up Sharia Law After Devastating Tsunami,” PBS 19 August 2014,, accessed 27 January 2016.
(xxvii) Azis Anwar Fachrudin, “Endless Sunni-Shia Sectarianism in Indonesia,” The Jakarta Post 11 March 2015,, accessed 29 January 2016.
(xxviii) Ibid.
(xxix) Wahyoe Boediwardhana and Tama Salim, “Gafatar Evacuations Begin Among Criticism,” 24 January 2016,, accessed 27 January 2016.
(xxx) I am not suggesting NATO should send troops to fight ISIS, which would most likely only lead to more problems since all NATO states are North American or European. However, I do think it will take a multi-nation coalition willing to commit a large military force and significant financial resources to defeat ISIS and I think it is essential it is comprised of Middle Eastern states.
(xxxi) Ed Davies and Olivia Rondonuwu, “U.S.-funded Detachment 88, Elite of Indonesian Security,” Reuters 18 March 2010,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxxii) “Of Men and Mayham,” The Economist 23 January 2016,, accessed 27 January 2016.
(xxxiii) Joseph Thorndike, “How ISIS is Using Taxes to Build a Terrorist State,” Forbes 18 August 2014,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxxiv) Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja, “Jakarta May Revoke Passports of IS Members,” The Jakarta Post 23 December 2015,, accessed 24 January 2016.
(xxxv) Ibid.
(xxxvi) Ben Taub, “What Happens to Former ISIS Fighters?” The New Yorker 3 September 2015,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxxvii) Randy Fabi and Kanupriya Kapoor, “Jail to Jihad: Indonesian Prisons a Breeding Ground for Militancy,” Reuters 18 January 2016,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxxviii) Jennifer Carlile, “Islamic Radicalization Feared in Europe’s Jails,” NBC News 8 July 2006,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xxxix) Ina Parlina and Yuliasri Perdani, “Government Bans Support, Endorsement of ISIL,” Jakarta Post 5 August 2014,, accessed 30 January 2016.
(xl) Wood, “What ISIS Really Wants.
(xli) This is a debate we will save for another essay.

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