JAKARTA – Indonesians who have joined fellow extremists fighting in Syria could help reinvigorate a once-powerful militant group responsible for major bombings in the world’s most populous Muslim country, a report said.
“The conflict in Syria has captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before,” said a report by the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.
It is a change of pattern for Indonesian militants who previously went to Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s mainly for training, or have visited the Palestinian territories to give moral and financial support to fellow Muslims, the report said.
“The enthusiasm for Syria is directly linked to predictions in Islamic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria, or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel,” the report said.
This notion has attracted Indonesians from different radical streams to try to go to Syria, including from Jemaah Islamiyah, a group responsible for the 2002 bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.
After the 2002 attack, a government crackdown that either killed or jailed the group’s leaders has crippled it and attacks carried by it or its splinter groups have shrunk. Some of the group’s leaders have now taken to nonviolent activities, such as preaching, inviting criticism from other militant groups.
However, the report warned that the Syrian conflict had convinced many extremists that their local jihad should be set aside for now to devote energy to the more important one abroad, as many Jemaah Islamiyah leaders have argued.
Despite the group’s decline “if the Syrian conflict helps both JI’s fundraising ability as well as its own recruitment, and if domestic political situation should take a turn for the worse, that calculus could change. No one should rule JI out of future actions,” the report said.
The report quoted the Indonesian Foreign Ministry as estimating there were 50 Indonesians among the 8,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries involved in the Syrian conflict.
Jemaah Islamiyah’s humanitarian wing, Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia, sent 10 delegations to Syria carrying cash and medical assistance to the Islamist resistance in an effort to open channels for more direct participation in the fighting, according to the report.
Five of seven men identified as having gone to fight are graduates of Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school on Java, an institute notorious for spawning Indonesian militants and whose founder, cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is in prison after being convicted of terrorism.
In January, after counterterrorism police killed six members of the Islamic militant group Western Indonesia Mujahideen, authorities announced that one of those killed had planned to go to Syria.
Testimony from a surviving member of the group said all six had intended to travel to Syria and had robbed a bank to finance the trip. A member of the group was already in Syria to assist upon their arrival, the report said.