Indonesia’s War on Terror is Far from Over

By: Alicia Chavy, Columnist

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Amid recent concerns about the terrorist attacks in 2016 and the spread of extremism, Indonesian President Joko Widodo ramped up security measures in Indonesia. Yet, despite Indonesia’s success countering extremism and thwarting terrorist threats over the past two decades, the return of foreign jihadists and homegrown radicalization pose a long term threat to stability in Indonesia and the region. If the Indonesian government does not exploit existing political will and public support to enhance counterterrorism measures, the country could become a sanctuary for returnees and homegrown jihadists.

Indonesian Counterterrorism and Counter-Extremism Policies

Over the past 20 years, Indonesia has experienced a series of terrorist attacks. Local al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiya (JI) coordinated and executed several attacks, including the devastating 2002 Bali nightclub bombing that left 202 dead and 300 injured. While the Bali attack remains the most lethal terrorist incident in the region,[i] it was followed by other devastating bombing attacks at the JW Marriott hotel in Jakarta in August 2003, at the Australian Embassy in October 2004, and in Bali in October 2005.[ii] Since 9/11, JI’s attacks have resulted in 43 deaths and over 440 injured.[iii]

After the shock of the Bali bombings, the Indonesian government enacted a counterterrorism law in 2003. This legal framework led to the creation of Densus-88 (Detachment-88), a well trained, well paid counterterrorism police force under civilian control.[iv] Security officials have also focused on gaining significant evidence against suspects that could stand in a court of law. According to Southeast Asia expert Zachary Abuza, “This allowed the police to uncover more cells and gain a greater understanding of both the extent and modus operandi of terrorist networks, including those associated with JI.”[v]  Counterterrorism measures have thus been implemented in accordance with the rule of law; since 2003, about 450 terrorism suspects in Indonesia have been charged and tried in courts of law or released.[vi]

Since 2003, these measures helped delegitimize JI.[vii] Authorities arrested top JI leaders in July 2007, including Zarkasih (also known as Abu Irsyad) and “seized large caches of explosives.”[viii] In November 2006, JI’s master bomb-maker, Dr. Azahari bin Hussin, was killed and his stock of 23 bombs was seized.

The Indonesian government also boosted its countering violent extremism efforts through a hearts and mind approach. The government initiated a deradicalization program for its radical extremists and jihadist prisoners; the program includes helping these prisoners debate religion with authorities and reconnecting them with their families.[ix] The government also helped former jihadists publish memoirs and books to counter the terrorist narrative. Key JI terrorists received cash payments from the government in exchange for turning their backs on radical extremism. Despite the public’s strong criticism of these methods, the government claims they were essential to deradicalizing important terrorists involved in the Bali bombings.[x]

Rise of Violent Extremism and Islamic States’ Growing Presence

Since 2014 several militant groups in the region pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), such as East Indonesia Mujahidin (MIT), and there has been a rise in the number of homegrown and radicalized individuals in Indonesia. IS claimed responsibility for several attacks perpetrated in the country in 2016 and in 2017: a January 2016 attack in Jakarta that led to eight deaths, a July 2016 suicide bombing in central Java city of Solo, and three other terrorist attacks throughout in 2017.[xi]

The escalation of the civil war in Syria, IS’s declaration of a caliphate in July 2014, and the group’s subsequent military successes electrified the jihadist cause worldwide and had a magnetic appeal for many Southeast Asian jihadists. Since 2011, IS’s supporters who could not join the group in Iraq or Syria began to attack a wide range of targets in Indonesia. Southeast Asian authorities estimate that between 600 and 1,200 individuals from the region who did travel to Syria and Iraq have since returned to Southeast Asia.[xii]

Additionally, IS boosted its propaganda to connect with potential sympathizers through social media platforms, diversifying the scope of recruits and speed of radicalization in Indonesia.[xiii] This radicalization poses a threat to Indonesia’s national security and permits core IS to portray vast sympathizer networks across Indonesia. Self-radicalized individuals may be inspired and able to execute more lethal attacks in the name of IS and other terrorist groups.[xiv] The return of Southeast Asian militants fighting with IS may also help improve the tactical effectiveness of attacks plotted by domestic extremists in Indonesia and the region.

Terrorism Remains A Ceaseless and Imminent Threat

While violent extremism and terrorism do not pose existential threats to Indonesia’s stability, they remain ceaseless and growing issues in the country and across the region. Over time, JI adapted to Indonesian’s counterterrorism apparatus, becoming an increasingly difficult group to penetrate and disrupt.[xv] The terrorist group maintains the capacity to attack soft targets, recruit new members, and transmit bomb-making expertise. In fact, a new generation of leaders and inspired recruits continue to emerge despite the arrest of most of JI’s current leadership. Since 2014, 18 individuals have been arrested for supporting or joining JI, and in 2015 the Indonesian police estimated that JI had a network of about 1,000 members that supported the group financially.[xvi]

In light of recent terrorist attacks, Indonesia ramped up its counterterrorism and defense apparatus, tripling Detachment 88’s funding to USD 100 million in 2016. Despite these efforts, the country will likely face additional terrorist activity.[xvii] To meet this threat the Indonesian government must boost its domestic and multilateral counterterrorism measures to face the long-term terrorist threats facing both the country and the region. For instance, it could prevent the threat of foreign fighters returning in the region by enacting a law criminalizing travel to conflict zones in support of a terrorist group. The government could also provide tools and new powers to its police to detain people who have traveled abroad to fight with IS. However, these detainees should remain isolated from others to prevent potential radicalization in prisons, a central problem in Indonesia.[xviii]

On a multilateral level, Indonesia must work with its neighbors to bolster existing legal frameworks and intelligence tools designed to combat terrorism and violent extremism.  Southeast Asian countries, namely the Philippines, have also experienced a rise in radicalization and homegrown terrorism. These countries could establish formal procedures to provide one another access to detained suspects, including the right to interrogate them while upholding the rule of law. Codifying transnational and multilateral procedures, including extradition treaties, could also reinforce the region’s domestic counterterrorism apparatus and support network.


[i] Zachary Abuza, “Indonesian Counter-Terrorism: The Great Leap Forward,” Jamestown Foundation, January 14, 2010.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Bilveer Singh, “Explaining Ceaseless Jihadism and Jihadi Violence in Indonesia,” Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, August 24, 2010.

[iv] Abuza, “Indonesian Counter-Terrorism.”

[v] Zachary Abuza, “War on Terror Yet to be Won in Southeast Asia,” Yale Global, June 15, 2004.

[vi] Prodita Sabarini, “An Integrated Approach to Arrested Terror Suspects in Indonesia,” Common Ground News Service, April 20 2010.

[vii] Abuza, “Indonesian Counter-Terrorism.”

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Warren P. Strobel, “Indonesia Fights Terrorism with Power of Persuasion,” McClatchy, October 22, 2008.

[x] Mark Dunn, “Indonesia Pays Former Terrorists to Give Up Jihad,” Daily Telegraph, June 28, 2010.

[xi] “Indonesia: Extremism & Counter-extremism,” Counter Extremism Project, 2017;

Yenni Kwok, “Police Say They Have Killed Indonesia’s Most-Wanted Terrorist,” Time, July 19, 2016.

[xii] Joshua Kulantzick, “Is the Islamic State Making Gains in Southeast Asia?” Council on Foreign Relations, January 26, 2016.

[xiii] Shannon Tiezzi, Huang Nan, and Zhang Juan, “Interview: Zachary Abuza on ISIS in Asia,” The Diplomat, August 3, 2016.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Leighton G. Luke, “Counter-terrorism Challenges in Indonesia and Beyond: Sidney Jones,” Future Directions International, May 3, 2016; Abuza, “Indonesian Counter-Terrorism.”

[xvi] Rina Chadijah, “Jemaah Islamiyah Re-emerges as Threat in Indonesia, Think Tank Says”, Benar News, April 28, 2017.

[xvii] Avantika Chilkoti, “Terror Threat Tests Indonesia’s Traditional Anti-terror Stance,” Financial Times, March 16, 2016.

[xviii] Dunn, “Indonesia Pays Former Terrorists to Give Up Jihad.”

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