The Failure of Jihadism in Southeast Asia

6 MINS READJan 15, 2016 | 02:48 GMT

During a busy lunch hour in downtown Jakarta on Thursday, seven gunmen attacked a police kiosk and a Starbucks coffee shop with small arms and explosives. The Indonesian police killed five of the attackers and captured two. This was the first major attack in Jakarta since the terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah bombed the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton in 2009. True to form, the Islamic State quickly assumed credit — a claim not discounted by Jakarta's police chief, who identified an Indonesian militant named Bahrun Naim as the main instigator. But Naim, it seems, is currently in Syria. The attack and the association with the would-be caliphate immediately stoked fears that the Islamic State is establishing a sustained and systemic presence in Southeast Asia.

Any armed assault taking place in a capital city is significant in isolation, but after the shock of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks, simple acts of terrorism carry added weight. For Indonesia, however, fears that the Islamic State may be spreading its militant tendrils throughout the country are misplaced.

When looking at the Jakarta incident, a number of things immediately stand out. First, its lack of sophistication. The attack was conducted against extremely soft targets and carried out with handguns and pipe bombs: This is far below the level of sophistication shown by Indonesian militants in attacks such as the 2004 Australian Embassy bombing, in which Jemaah Islamiyah operatives managed to use a large car bomb to attack a well-guarded target, or even the 2009 hotel attack mentioned above. As a result of those attacks, Indonesia greatly stepped up counterterrorism training with the United States and Australia, conducting devastating raids that killed or captured some of Indonesia's most skilled terrorist leaders.

The second important thing to note is the lack of skill displayed by the gunmen. Despite attacking thick crowds of civilians at fairly close range, the seven perpetrators managed to kill only two civilians and wound 20. In contrast, a single attacker with a Kalashnikov rifle killed 38 civilians in a tourist resort during an attack in Tunisia in June 2015. Despite their purported links to the Islamic State, it is clear that the attackers received minimal training and direction from abroad. 

Finally, it appears that Indonesian intelligence on the attack was quite good, as shown by the rapid identification of a planner and reports from Indonesian intelligence services that radicals planned to conduct an attack sometime around either Christmas or the New Year. 

Nonetheless, even with high-quality intelligence that identifies suspects and potential time frames for an attack, it is impossible to secure all possible targets at all times, particularly in a city as densely populated as Jakarta.

What is most striking about the Islamist militant threat to Indonesia, however, is just how few Indonesians have actually turned to jihadism. Although Indonesia has more Muslims than any other nation — 203 million — the jihadist movement has struggled to gain a foothold. This is partly because of the particular character of Islam in Indonesia and throughout Southeast Asia. In that region, Islam was not spread by conquerors. It arrived with groups of Muslim traders visiting Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, parts of southern Thailand, the Philippines and western Myanmar. In the heavily forested, fractured geography of Southeast Asia, a form of "tropical Islam" developed, characterized by nuance and folk practice. This brand of Islam contrasts starkly with the Islam that took root in the high deserts of the Middle East. The austere Salafism prevalent in certain parts of the Arab world today is rare in Asia.

In modern times, the Islamic identity in certain parts of Asia has become closely tied to ethnicity, as with the Malays of Malaysia. Several Muslim minority groups — the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Moro people of the Philippines and the Malays of southern Thailand — have long-running insurgent movements. However, these groups want to gain ethnic autonomy or recognition, not to overthrow the existing authorities or implement a radical new Islamist system of government as part of a broader vision for a caliphate. Individuals and factions in these movements — and in Indonesia's wider Muslim community — might pledge allegiance to the Islamic State or al Qaeda for branding purposes, but they are still in the minority. Furthermore, fractiousness and infighting among Southeast Asia's jihadist groups has hindered their growth.

Although it may seem an intangible factor, cultural background has direct and concrete effects on the ability of militant groups to mobilize large segments of society. 

Jihadism holds very little appeal for most Indonesians.

The civilian casualties caused by militant Islamist attacks only alienate jihadists from the population rather than galvanizing support. This leaves terrorist groups in Indonesia unable to count on the population for protection or support. Indonesia's security forces and intelligence services can count on a cooperative population to provide ample tips, making it much more difficult for militants to plan and conduct sophisticated operations. The Jan. 14 attack in Jakarta will probably further alienate jihadists from the Indonesian public and intensify existing security measures the government put in place.

Faced with a hostile population supplying few recruits, Indonesian terrorist groups often try to borrow the brand of more sophisticated organizations to attract additional resources. For instance, Jemaah Islamiyah declared allegiance to al Qaeda. Some of Indonesia's remaining jihadists have declared allegiance to the Islamic State, but it is important to recognize that this is more of a rebranding than some sort of expansion. Because the Islamic State is the most feared terrorist group right now, it is only natural that some Indonesian jihadists would rebrand themselves in this way. But a new name does not change the fact that they will be pursuing the same local goals with the same limited capabilities and networks they had before rebranding. A majority of Jemaah Islamiyah's most skilled planners and bombmakers are dead or captured, and without replacements, attacks in Indonesia will remain unsophisticated, even if instigated by outside groups. It will be nearly impossible for the Islamic State to build a convincing presence that can pose the type of significant threat to Indonesia that the Islamic State does in Syria and Iraq, or even in Libya.

Nonetheless, Islamist militancy will remain a persistent (if low-level) threat to Indonesia, as it has been since the beginning of Indonesia's existence as a country. Indonesia's dispersed archipelagic structure and rough terrain provide militant groups with countless areas from which they can evade government operations. This geography contributed to the recent failure of the government's three-month campaign to capture Santoso, Indonesia's most wanted terrorist. The authorities simply cannot effectively police every Indonesian island, mountain and jungle all the time. But what the Indonesian government can do is continue hunting down terrorists and chasing them out of their havens. Although it will be nearly impossible for the government to eradicate every terrorist cell hiding out in the jungle, as long as those groups are fractured and on the run, they will find it difficult to carry out sophisticated attacks regardless of whether they carry the Islamic State brand.

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