Indonesia’s Returning Foreign Fighter Threat

Soldiers in the Aceh Insurgency, Wikimedia Commons

By Sarah Khederian, Columnist

Reports of Western Europeans joining ISIS to fight in the Middle East have inundated Western media, but Southeast Asian nations have been dealing with significant homegrown terrorist threats of their own, in addition to the relatively nascent ISIS recruitment phenomenon. There has been well-informed analysis of this threat for some time, but it was not until mid-October that Secretary of State John Kerry asked Asian governments to assist in the fight against ISIS.[1]

Though the United States may be looking for tougher financial and judicial consequences for ISIS recruits, Indonesia has been combatting extremism at home for years, and since August 2014, implemented countering violent extremism (CVE) measures to prevent its citizens from joining the conflict in the Middle East. Based on the sheer number of Muslims concentrated in Indonesia, the country appears likely to face the greatest foreign fighter threat. However estimates place the number of Indonesians in Syria and Iraq between 60 and 200 – less than many Western European and other Southeast Asian nations and a disproportionately low number given Indonesia’s demographic makeup.[2] This is likely the result of Indonesia’s relatively successful CVE efforts, which are designed to prevent the radicalization of vulnerable populations.[3] While these efforts may stem the flow of foreign fighters, the real challenge for Indonesia (and any country with significant foreign fighter numbers) is the deradicalization and neutralization of returnees.

Much like it has elsewhere, ISIS targeted vulnerable Indonesians with social media propaganda and reached out to the country’s existing Islamist terrorist groups to recruit and radicalize on the ground. Indonesia’s Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) became one of ISIS’s leading allies in the region; their jailed spiritual leader Abu Bakar Bashir urged his supporters to join ISIS.[4] Recruitment and radicalization in Indonesia are therefore different than in the United States or Western Europe. Indonesian recruits may already have extremist experience and view the current conflict in the Middle East as the prophesized “end battle” of Islam,[5] while their Western counterparts are, as counterterrorism expert Clint Watts argues “driven more by psychological and social forces than ideological tenets.”[6] Therefore, unlike Western European nations whose foreign fighter returnees may return either disillusioned from battle, ideologically hardened, or somewhere in between, Indonesia’s foreign fighters may return with a more determined resolve to impose their will at home.

The Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict argued in January 2014 that the ability of returned fighters to bring the conflict back by making it “local” will be one of the key deciding factors in how much of a threat they pose to society: “Without local grievances to build on, no mujahid coming back from Syria or Yemen or anywhere else can build much of a movement, and without community support…no movement can succeed.”[7] Terrorism scholar Timothy Holman makes a similar point, that “how the fighters perceive the conflict, and whether they draw parallels with their own circumstances upon return” will either enable or deter them from carrying out destructive acts upon return.[8]

The case of when Indonesia’s Sharia Law-imposing northwestern province Aceh became a hotbed for extremist recruitment may provide insight into problems Indonesia will face as foreign fighters return. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Aceh was decimated. The international aid poured into the region appeared to wipe away the religious and ethnic tensions that fueled the decades-old Acehnese insurgency, resulting in a peace agreement between rebels and government in 2005. While this economic boom and long-awaited peace were heralded as a humanitarian success story,[9] Robert Kaplan argues in Monsoon that once the “NGO economic bubble…burst[s]…a dangerous vacuum [will be] created that could be filled by Islamic radicalism and chaos.”[10] Though this may be a dramatic assessment, a JI splinter group established a training camp in Aceh that was eventually shut down by the central government in February 2010. The International Crisis Group argues that after being rooted out of Poso, Indonesia in 2007, Aceh was the ideal “secure base” for terrorist operations given the conservative Muslim nature of the region and the presence of other extremist groups exploiting similar vulnerabilities.[11]

Though Aceh may not be a viable option for returning foreign fighters to cultivate a “secure base,” aid distribution disparities, increased reports of inter-communal violence and persecution of religious minorities could lay the groundwork for acceptance of more violent extremist tendencies.[12] These issues are not exclusive to Aceh; returning extremists could exploit any region with simmering ethnic and religious tensions. More research on foreign fighter origins and ideological and socioeconomic drivers should be done to identify these hotspots before there is an influx of foreign fighter returnees. Though Indonesia is not doomed toward another long-lasting insurgency or a populist theocratic revolution, its multiethnic demography and unique history and politics may act as a catalyst for an uptick in violent terrorist attacks if the state is not careful in how it handles returning foreign fighters. While reactionary CVE programming has been relatively successful thus far, deradicalization programs aimed at returning foreign fighters should become a primary pillar of Indonesian counterterror strategy.


Sarah Khederian graduated from George Washington University in 2010 with a BA in Political Science and International Affairs and is a candidate at Georgetown University for a MA in Security Studies with a concentration in Terrorism and Substate Violence (anticipated degree date, 2016). She joined Strategic Social, a small strategic communications firm that provides local insight to craft communication strategies for the USG, as an analyst and was promoted to lead an analytical cell focusing on these issues. In November 2013, Sarah began working with the Navanti Group as a Social Media Analyst. 


[1] David Brunnstrom, “Kerry in Indonesia Seeking Asian Support Against Islamic State,” Reuters, October 19, 2014,

[2] “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, No. 6 (January 30, 2014)

[3] Jon Emont, “The Islamic States Comes to Indonesia,” Foreign Policy, September 17, 2014,

[4] “Jailed Indonesian cleric Abu Bakar Bashir calls on followers to support ISIS,” The Straits Times, July 14, 2014,

[5] “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, No. 6 (January 30, 2014)

[6] Clint Watts, “How About Some Unconventional Warfare? Thoughts on Countering ISIL,” War on the Rocks, October 20, 2014,

[7] “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, No. 6 (January 30, 2014),

[8] Andrew Zammit, “The Impact of Syria Alumni on Indonesian Jihadism,” The Strategist, January 31, 2014,

[9] “Indonesia’s Aceh Makes ‘Remarkable’ Tsunami Recovery,”, December 22, 2010,

[10] Robert Kaplan, Monsoon (New York: Random House, 2010), 247.

[11] Sidney Jones, “Terrorism: What We Have Learned From Aceh,” International Crisis Group, March 11, 2010,

[12] Endy Bayuni, “Is Indonesia’s National Unity Falling Apart?,” Foreign Policy, November 2, 2012,; “Indonesia: Violence overshadows elections in troubled Aceh province,” Asian Correspondent, April 10, 2014,; Kate Lamb, “Banda Aceh: Where Community Spirit Has Gone But Peace Has Lasted,” The Guardian, January 27, 2014,


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