Indonesia Targets Islamic State’s Pacific Smuggling Network
Malaysian militants travel to Syria and back
Authorities in Southeast Asia have been reporting more traffic — both suspected and confirmed — of radicals traveling to and from Syria in Iraq. Recently, Indonesia’s Counter-Terrorism Agency mapped out what it believes is the militant group’s people smuggling network between Malaysia and Indonesia.
“Indonesians arriving from fighting for ISIS abroad present a significant problem for domestic terrorism,” analyst Anthony Ortiz wrote in the November edition of OE Watch, the U.S. Army Foreign Military Studies Office’s monthly newsletter. “Similar to foreigners fighting in Afghanistan, they have received requisite training to conduct domestic terrorist activities when they return home.”
“We see that some foreign terrorist fighters from overseas come to Indonesia. First they leave Malaysia and head for Pekanbaru (Sumatra) to Puncak (West Java) – it’s all facilitated by asylum seeker networks, then from Puncak they would leave to Makassar and Poso, with facilitation from ISIS network,” explained Indonesia’s counter-terror chief Saud Usman Nasution in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“At least 300-500 Indonesians have been in Syria training for battle, and there has been at least one case of a mall bombing in Jakarta that has ISIS trademarks associated with it,” Ortiz observed, referring to a shopping mall bombing in April.
Fortunately, the explosion in the men’s bathroom of a children’s play area caused no deaths because the bomb did not detonate properly.
However, the fact that it was a chlorine bomb alarmed officials. National Police Inspector-General M. Tito Karnavian told The Sydney Morning Herald that Islamic State favors the crude chemical weapons and that led police to suspect the group.
Soon after, the Indonesian National Police’s Detachment 88, a counter-terrorism unit, tied the bombing to militants who recently returned from Syria. SWAT teams raided homes and detained several suspects. “The direct link is very clear that Islamic State’s presence in Indonesia is growing,” Ortiz asserted.
Above — the overland and maritime route from Pekanbaru, Sumatra to Poso, Sulawesi. Illustration via OE Watch. At top — police drill in Kuching, Malaysia. Jason Thien/Flickr photo
Prisons have been one of Indonesia’s major terror recruiting grounds, as convicted terrorists are often in close contact with other inmates. Nasution told the Jakarta Globe that Indonesia has shifted to a new effort to separate “cooperative” terror-convicts from their more defiant cohorts.
“Indonesia’s de-radicalization program is a step in the right direction to prevent prisons from continuing to incubate terrorists,” Ortiz wrote. “If implemented effectively, Islamic State fighters will be unable to spread their ideology within domestic prisons, which should result in fewer homegrown Islamic militants.”
But the movement of fighters around the region remains a problem. “We need to stay vigilant, more so because there is information that in Malaysia, there are thousands, a lot of foreign terrorist fighters there who are about to be deployed – we don’t know where to – under the network,” Nasution told the ABC.
Ties between Indonesia and Malaysia have occasionally strained … for a litany of reasons. Most recently, wildfires caused by reckless Indonesian companies producing palm oil resulted in giant clouds of smog that drifted over Malaysia, Singapore and even as far as the Philippines. Troops from both Malaysia and Singapore aided Indonesian firefighters and soldiers with the blaze.
But the Nov. 17 beheading of Malaysian engineer Bernard Then in the Philippines has shocked Malaysians, and could force Indonesia and Malaysia to work together more closely in tackling the network. Militant group Abu Sayyaf beheaded the 39-year-old Then when a ransom demand wasn’t met.
Historically linked to Al Qaeda, Abu Sayyaf has both Indonesian and Malaysian members and recently began voicing support for Islamic State. Then is the first Malaysian the group has killed thus far.
“To improve its capacity to track foreign fighters throughout the archipelago, [Indonesian] officials also need to coordinate with Malaysia among requisite ministries and with local Malaysian officials,” Ortiz concluded.