Indonesia’s fighting an uphill battle against Islamic State

Terrorist group is gathering support in the world’s most populous Muslim nation

Indonesian counter-terrorism commandos march after a raid on a house in eastern Java in March. Three men were arrested in the raid, which was part of a government campaign against a growing threat by the IS terrorist group. (Photo by AFP)

It’s shocking to realize that there is a growing number of Indonesians who have either participated directly or are in favor of the cause of the group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS), the terror organization responsible for the deaths of thousands in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Its latest attack in Paris on Nov. 13, killed 129 and injured hundreds of others, and drew worldwide condemnation, including from Indonesia’s Sunni community that comprises the majority of the country’s Muslims. There is no doubt that the IS group manipulates Islamic teaching to stir chaos and install its politics of violence against humanity.

Despite this knowledge of brutality and terror, it is indeed surprising that there are many Indonesians joining or casting their support for such a radical movement.

Indonesian coordinating minister for political and legal affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan revealed recently that about 800 Indonesians had joined the IS group in Syria. More than 100 have since returned home.

Unlike the IS-influenced bombing of a Shia festival in Bangladesh or the beheading of a Malaysian national in the Philippines, the IS group in Indonesia at this stage has not shown off its power. But one thing for certain is that Indonesia could be sitting on a time bomb.

Early this year, Ansyaad Mbai, former director of the anti-terrorism agency, uncovered 16 radical groups — including the East Indonesia Mujahideen — that had been initiated and had declared loyalty to IS leader Abu Bakar Al-Baqdadi.

The East Indonesia Mujahideen is small in numbers but has still managed to launch attacks on police and military in Poso in Central Sulawesi province. Last year the anti-terror squad Densus 88 arrested four Turkish nationals suspected of being IS messengers. Santoso, the group’s leader, is believed to have received financial support from the IS group to expand its proxy in Indonesia.

Terrorism expert Sidney Jones warned that although the number of IS-affiliated individuals in Indonesia is relatively small and have not carried out any significant activities, they have the potential to breed new jihadists and re-activate a terrorism seed that is still alive in Indonesia.

Such a warning is becoming more relevant considering that 10 million Indonesians favor the IS cause, according to a recent Pew Research Poll survey released in November.

Pew’s poll may have revealed the tip of an extremism iceberg, an extremism that has grown since Suharto’s dictatorial regime ended in 1998. The Internet and social media have allowed jihadists a platform to promote their propaganda.

Since Indonesian authorities have monitored the movement of radical groups on the Internet and social media, the IS group has shifted its approach to meeting face-to-face with families who are trapped in poverty — promising them high incomes and better education.

Most of the IS-affiliated individuals or groups are unable to travel to Syria, due to tight travel restrictions. Instead, they stay home, wait and see what they can do next. Analysts said they have not openly planned attacks, but there is possibility of consolidating power.

IS rise

The IS movement began to surface in Indonesia, sometime in February 2014.

Immediately leaders of Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah, two moderate Islam organizations with a combined membership of 120 million people, urged the government to ban the IS group from expanding in Indonesia.

Leaders of both organizations, however, reminded the government and security forces that using military action is not the answer. They believe retaliation perpetuates the cycle of violence, just as what has happened in Iraq and Syria, where millions of people have been forced to flee to other countries. A better approach, they say, is through education.

In the past, radical groups — such as the al-Qaida-funded Jemaah Islamiyah — could easily recruit young Muslims to Islamic boarding schools, mainly due to a poor state education system that led to an openness to radical ideologies.

A few years ago, after a series of terrorist attacks on public facilities and threats to blow up Christian places of worship, the government and security forces launched a “deradicalization approach.”

Leaders of Nahlatul Ulama lamented the government’s lack of commitment to deradicalization. Ma’ruf Amin, one of its leaders, even blamed authorities for an inability to prevent the rise of radical ideology from growing. De-radicalization should be impartial, systematic and done continuously, he said.

Religious leaders warned that since another root of radicalism is poverty, the IS playing field in Indonesia remains huge. They called on the government to improve people’s welfare at all levels, to ensure a peaceful atmosphere and justice that will narrow the chances for radical ideology to grow.

Officials at the national anti-terror agency said they have taken various measures to stop the spread of IS propaganda on social media by shutting down many websites and social media accounts.

The IS group, however, has found a way to infiltrate, not only Islamic groups but government institutions. According to a police report, two government employees were identified to have joined the IS group. Though both isolated cases, analysts cautioned there will be more IS sympathizers within the government if no measures are taken to monitor the activities of government employees.

Intelligence analysts Prayitno Ramelan in his blog Ramalan Inteligen said IS jihadists have the mission to establish a caliphate in Indonesia. With the IS having access to enormous financial resources and young, impressionable recruits, Indonesia needs to fear the unthinkable.

This commentary by Siktus Harson was published in UCA News on 9 December 2015


Timor-Leste’s ticking time bomb

Economy grows yet unemployment is worsening rapidly

Christovao Freitas Almeida finally managed to find work at the Education Ministry. (Photo by Siktus Harson)

When Christovao Freitas Almeida graduated from high school in 2007, work was thin on the ground. Too poor to go to university, the 26-year-old found himself stuck in his village in Timor-Leste’s northwestern district of Aileu, close to the capital Dili. Young and jobless, the future looked bleak.

For six years Christovao was among a worryingly large proportion of Timorese without a job. The country, which for 24 of the past 40 years was engulfed in war, has Southeast Asia’s highest unemployment rates, at 11 percent according to the country’s Labor Ministry. The youth has taken the brunt of the crisis, and even a university degree no longer provides anything close to a guarantee of work.

By dint of his geographical location, however, Christovao became one of the lucky ones. Staff from the NGO Plan International arrived at his village one day in 2013, offering free skills training for unemployed villagers. He spent six months honing his computer and communication skills, and this year landed a job at the Education Ministry in Dili. He now earns a monthly salary of $160, above the $115 minimum wage set by the government, but he remembers well the hard years.

“Most of my time was spent playing, drinking, and sometimes getting drunk. That’s what jobless people often do, drinking and get drunk, and can easily get provoked [to fight],” he told

This came to the fore in 2006 when, triggered by upheaval within the Timorese military, the country became embroiled in a major crisis, with soldiers and police taking over the streets of Dili, forcing 150,000 people to flee. In the aftermath of the crisis, the UN warned that underlying problems that had contributed to the spread of violence among civilians were not being addressed, one of them being mass unemployment.

Top of Form

Bottom of Form

On paper, things don’t look bad for the Timorese economy. The country’s GDP grew by eight percent last year, according to the Asian Development Bank, and this is set to continue into 2015. But, warns Paulo Alves, director of employment at the Secretary of State for Vocational Training and Employment, that doesn’t always translate into job creation in Timor, the region’s poorest country.

The proof is in the figures. Timor has accumulated more than $10 billion since independence in 2002 from offshore oil and gas reserves, yet it remains a low-income country, with extreme levels of poverty and complex social problems.

“The problem here is that the labor force grows rapidly, while employment opportunities are growing at slow phase,” Paulo told

Every year, he said, about 15,000 to 20,000 people graduate from high school. Only about 2,000 to 3,000 of them can afford to continue to university, while those from poor families seek immediate work to improve their families’ financial wellbeing. According to a World Bank report last year, by 2030, 470,000 individuals will have attempted to enter employment, a consequence of the fact that Timor-Leste has one of the world’s highest birth rates, with more than 40 percent of Timor Leste people below 15.

At present, the country does not have labor-intensive sectors such as a garment industry, which in many other countries – such as Bangladesh or Indonesia – draws a huge amount of even unskilled labor. Agriculture, which employs more than 60 percent of Timorese, is only seasonal, and therefore not considered a fix. “When crop seasons [rice, corn, and coffee] end, people will again be jobless,” said Paulo.

One government response to the problem has been to create a “three dollar program” in which it pays people $3 a day to work in government-sponsored projects such as road construction.

“One of most important things is to encourage more private companies to invest in sectors that can recruit many local people, such as in tourism and commercial sectors,” said Alves. He cited Dili’s first and only shopping mall, Timor Plaza, as an example. The business center inaugurated last year has employed hundreds of local Timorese.

While the energy sector is presently not a solution to the problem, the government’s ambitious $1.3 billion Tasi Mane oil and gas project will focus on recruiting locals, and become the backbone of the country’s petroleum industry.

“We estimate that the project will cut unemployment by 95 percent, as it will need more than 100,000 local people,” said Paulo, adding that the Labor Ministry has established a subdivision that will be in charge of training oil and gas workers.

Another strategy to curb domestic unemployment has been a deal struck in 2008 with Korea and Australia, in which young Timorese are sent to work in both countries, focusing mainly on the fisheries, agricultural, and industrial sectors. More than 1,400 people have been sent to both countries, with total remittances of $2.9 million.

Etha Mota, head of Plan International’s youth empowerment for sustainable development program, said in the last two years the group has been involved in training more than a hundred young people like Christovao aged 15 to 24 with different skills depending on their needs.

Yet this training will only be more effective when employment opportunities are made available nationwide.

“On the one hand the huge labor force is an opportunity for the country,” Etha said. “On the other it is a threat because not everybody has the chance to work, even though they want to.”

Published in UCA News, May 12, 2014


Treading the path from terror to repentance

Ex-terrorist commander now works to deradicalize fellow Muslims

Nasir Abas (photo by siktus harson)

When a bomb ripped a Bali nightclub apart in 2002, killing more than 200 people and sending shockwaves across the globe, Nasir Abas realised he needed an exit plan. Having homed in on the Middle East as the principal spawning ground for extremism, the international community suddenly learned of the growing terrorist threat in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country. Nasir was a key part of this threat.

As a senior member of the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist outfit Jamaah Islamiyah (JI), Nasir underwent three years of training in militant camps in Afghanistan and scouted possible sites for JI bases across Asia. In 1990 he became a weapons instructor at the academy in Afghanistan, and was then elevated to the seat of commander of JI’s Mantiqi 3, covering Sabah, Kalimantan, and Central and North Sulawesi in Indonesia, and Mindanao in the Philippines. It was his colleagues who engineered the Bali blast, having become the largest and most feared Islamic militant group in Indonesia.

“All I felt at the time was anger, confusion, and other mixed feelings. I could not believe that JI members used bombs,” he tells, explaining that the attack was an unacceptable move in the group’s fight to carve out an Islamic state in Indonesia.

The shock of the attack and the thoughts that sped through his mind in the following days came as something of an epiphany. It precipitated a sea change in Nasir’s thinking about violence in the name of Islam, and 12 years on, he is now spearheading a programme to deradicalize Indonesian terrorist convicts.

Backing the program is the government’s National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), working alongside Sarlito Wirawan Sarwono, head of police studies at the University of Indonesia in Jakarta.

Abas has weathered threats from other JI members, who consider his work traitorous, and penned the book, Inside Jamaah Islamiyah: A Former Member’s True Story, which details his life in the group.

Around 100 militants have gone through the program since it launched two years ago. One of these, Ahmad Sajuri, knew Abas from his JI days. As a 22-year-old in 1986, Ahmad travelled to Afghanistan and underwent three years of training in a mujahedin camp. Returning to his native Malaysia, he joined the terrorist outfit as a clerk, before being jailed in 2001 for five years on charges related to terrorist threats in Singapore and Malaysia.

“The recruitment of terrorists doesn’t stop,” says the 50-year-old father of seven. “To counter it we need an approach that really explores the life of perpetrators.” He says the approach taken by the program “helps soften the radical mindset of many Jamaah Islamiyah militants”, many of whom have been convicted following bombings and other violent attacks.

The team reaches out to university students, whom they deem to be particularly susceptible to radical teachings, and explains the processes and influences that often lead to someone becoming a militant. Workshops have taken place in various towns and cities across Indonesia – Nasir brings with him terror convicts to share their experiences and explain the psyche of the militant.

There is also a strong propaganda element that Nasir says encourages convicts or would-be terrorists to understand that “Islam is a religion of peace, not violence.” He adds: “We tour around with a police guard to see how non-Muslims care about Muslims.”

Despite the plaudits the program has received, funding is low (the government allocates only five percent of its budget to counterterrorism programs) and its scope remains limited. Ansyaad Mbai, head of the BNPT, said in March that the police had detained about 840 terrorists since the Bali bombing in 2002. Hundreds have yet to join the program, and instead remain confined to their jail cells, their radical mindsets intact.

Adrianus Meliala, an expert on terrorism at the University of Indonesia, said in a seminar recently that the fight against terrorism had become a political issue. “Fighting terrorism in the next few years will depend on who will be elected president in 2014,” he said, adding that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono had done well to prioritize the anti-terror drive during his tenure.

Meliala also says that key stumbling blocks in the battle to eliminate terrorism are also found in the fact that the moderate Muslim majority allows extremist Muslim groups to infiltrate public institutions such as religious centers and schools. He also criticized the government for not acting to shut down blogs or sites that broadcast radical teachings, unlike its ongoing all-out war against online pornography.

There is also the matter of complicity of security forces. Sidney Jones, head of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said at a seminar in Jakarta last month that since 2005 many sharia bylaws have been passed by local politicians, many of them belonging to the Golkar Party and the ruling Democratic Party.

She added that radical groups continue to grow because elites in national police have not ordered them to be stopped, “and also because sometimes the police use those groups.”

For Abas, the terrain is pockmarked with uncertainties. “I don’t know what lies in their heart,” he says of the people who pass through his program each year. “I do hope through this program the extremists will open their minds and let God choose them to become an instrument of peace once they are freed.”

Published at UCAN, Nov.3 2013