Indonesia has arrested a militant believed to be a supporter of the 'Islamic State' in a bid to clamp down on the activities of the militant group which is seeking new recruits in Asia, analyst Rodger Shanahan tells DW.
Authorities apprehended Afif Abdul Majid, a leader of the hard line Islamist group, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) in Bekasi, West Java on August 9. Indonesian National Police spokesman Ronny Sompie said Afif was arrested for allegedly being involved in financing the activities of Ubaid, a terrorism suspect, in Aceh in 2010, according to the Jakarta Post.
The spokesman was also quoted as saying that the JAT leader had declared his intention to join the militant organization 'Islamic State' (IS), which has recently taken control of vast swathes of Iraq and Syria. Formerly known as ISIS, the group has been banned by the Indonesian government but the country's counterterrorism agency say Indonesians are still being lured into extremist activities, according to Channel NewsAsia. Moreover, a jihadist recruitment video has sparked public debate in Indonesia about how to counter the influence of the militant organization.
The video shows an Indonesian fighter making an impassioned appeal for compatriots to join the jihadist cause abroad. Both the government and religious leaders have spoken out against the "Islamic State" and warned that it is a threat to the country.
Rodger Shanahan, an expert on international relations at the Lowy Institute for International Policy, says in a DW interview that while there has been some pro-IS activity in Indonesia, the population is aware of the government position and IS followers are very much on the periphery of Indonesian Islam. He adds, however, that the group poses a serious threat to the region, especially in Muslim-majority countries.
DW: How widespread is the "Islamic State" in Asia, especially in Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia?
Shanahan: IS itself has not set up operations in the region. Rather, it has set itself up as a group to which putative Asian jihadists can join. Its influence has been extremely limited however, particularly given the size of Indonesia's Muslim population.
Shanahan: "More than 50 Indonesians are known to have gone to Syria and at least three have been killed"
The group's extremist viewpoint tends to be at odds with mainstream Asian Islam, and the Indonesian authorities in particular are wary of the security threat of radical Islam after their experiences with Jemaah Islamiyah, an Indonesia-based clandestine terrorist network formed in the early 1990s.
In Malaysia, authorities are also alert to the potential for radicalization of members of its own majority Muslim population; however the relatively liberal Asian brand of Islam has not proven to be as fertile a recruiting ground for IS as it may have hoped. Few Malaysian Muslims have ethnic links to the Middle East that may increase their willingness to join the jihad in that part of the world.
Why has the group been able to recruit in these countries?
There is no significant indigenous presence of the group. IS is geographically specific and its main effort is in establishing a caliphate - people tend to travel to the conflict zones to partake in their version of jihad.
Those that have been lured by the call of IS appear to have been attracted, initially at least, through social media. There is relatively little that can be done to stop this, however Malaysian authorities are able to exert a greater degree of control over clerical activity than may be the case in other Muslim countries.
Do you have any indication as to whether East and Southeast Asians are joining IS in the fight in Syria and the Iraq?
Some Asians have travelled to Syria to fight. One Malaysian is known to have died in a suicide attack in Iraq and at least 20 Malaysians have gone to Syria as part of IS. More than 50 Indonesians are known to have gone to Syria and at least three have been killed.
Some Filipino Muslims are also known to have travelled to the Middle East to fight. There is financial assistance available to Asians to travel to the Middle East from IS which makes the mechanics of such a decision easier to navigate.
How big a threat does IS pose for democratic governments in Indonesia and Malaysia?
It is a serious threat and treated as such. In the past seven months, Malaysian authorities have arrested 19 people for links to IS - they allegedly believed that attacking the Malaysian government was one of their aims. In
Few Malaysian Muslims have ethnic links to the Middle East that may increase their willingness to join the jihad in that part of the world, says Shanavan
Indonesia, there has been some pro-IS activity, however the population is aware of the government position and IS followers are very much on the periphery of Indonesian Islam.
That does not mean, however, that they don't pose a threat - only that the authorities are much better prepared than they were a decade ago. The Indonesian authorities are much more aware of the security threat that returning jihadists pose than they were previously, and their ability to deal with them is similarly improved.
Dr Rodger Shanahan is a non-resident fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy.