Beyond Performativity: Islamic State (ISIL) and Indonesia’s Counter-radicalization Challenge

By Joshua Snider | Assistant Professor of International Relations - University of Nottingham - Malaysia | Aug 25, 2016
Beyond Performativity: Islamic State (ISIL) and Indonesia’s Counter-radicalization Challenge

This essay is part of a series that explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...


Recent attacks in Solo, Central Java (July 2016) and Jakarta (January 2016) claimed by Islamic State (ISIL)-affiliated cells demonstrated not only that the group has an interest in Southeast Asia but that it seems willing to engage in violent activities in the region. In order to grasp the nature and severity of the challenge that ISIL recruitment poses for Indonesia and to properly assess the latter’s responses, it is necessary to set these recent developments in historical context. The proliferation of Islamist movements in Indonesia and the expressions of violence associated with some from among them occurred in the late 1990s against the backdrop of a very messy political transition, which brought to the fore questions related to secularization, the role of Islam and deeply contested ideological moorings of Indonesian nationalism.[1]

This essay explores the counter-radicalization landscape in Indonesia with reference to the current challenge posed by ISIL. I will argue that rather than adopting “ISIL-specific” strategies, the Indonesian state should engage more comprehensively with the problematic of counter/de-radicalization policy and, more controversially, the nascent mainstreaming of extremism. Essentially, the deficiencies in Indonesian’s counter-ISIL struggle mirror the deficiencies in its broader counter-extremist agenda. To unpack this theme I will discuss the current threat environment surrounding ISIL, explore the evolving Salafi-Jihadist space in Indonesia and discuss some of the main trends and contestations in the execution of counter/de-radicalisation strategy.

ISIL and the “Threat Environment”

Even by the most conservative estimate, it is clear that ISIL is regards Southeast Asia as fertile ground from which to draw recruits and as a region ripe for violent activism.  According to Indonesia’s National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT), there are approximately 500 Indonesians fighting with various Jihadist militias in Syria and Iraq.[2] Moreover, ISIL formed a brigade composed entirely of Bahasa-speaking Jihadists—originally known as Katibah Nusantara (based in Rakka) and supplanted sometime in early 2016 by Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiah.[3] We also know that, to date, Indonesians have comprised four of the 12 ISIL suicide bombers from Southeast Asia.

In the Indonesian context, dealing with ISIL poses two somewhat distinct challenges: first, stemming the tide of Indonesians traveling to join the fight as well as monitoring and/or detaining people as they return home; and second, dealing with the problem of domestic support for ISIL. The latter presents perhaps more complex of these challenges. According to a recent report published by the Indonesian think tank IPAC, approximately 2,000 Indonesians have “pledged loyalty” to (and/or publicly expressed support) for ISIL in Indonesia itself. [4] If correct, this statistic raises a number of questions: First, what is the relationship between “soft support” for extremist causes and violent activism? Second, as ISIL embeds itself in Indonesia’s Jihadist landscape, is it capable of drawing “new constituencies” into its ranks, or is the 2,000-person figure comprised of people who are already affiliated with hardline Islamist causes? Is the appeal of ISIL qualitatively different from other violent Islamist organizations working in the archipelago? In other words, is ISIL a uniquely capable, dangerous actor?

ISIL and the Islamist Space

While it is unsurprising that Salafi-Jihadist movements like Jemaah Islamiyyah (JI) have failed to gain mass appeal, the upsurge in populist Islamism and persistent (if infrequent) spasms of violent activism from groups engaged in violent religio-political contestation warrants an ongoing discussion. [5]  It is important to note that the ‘Islamist space’ in Indonesia is occupied by a wide range of groups, from mass mainstream Modernist organizations such as Muhammadiyah to doctrinally extreme but apolitical Salafist organizations such as Hizbut Tar’rir and, on the extreme fringe, Salafi-Jihadist organizations that advocate a mix of austere theology and violence.[6]

In an effort to clarify the types of groups and methodologies of activism, Write-Neville offers a useful (if basic) classification system, arguing that these movements are essentially “siloed” to the extent that one type of activism and/or group identification does not lead to another.[7] He argues that groups can be categorized as being either “activist,” “radical,” and/or “terrorist.” He also argues that each of these types represent distinct modes of activism and recruitment.  In a similar vein, Sidel offers a contextualized and de-securitized survey of the Islamist spectrum. He argues—quite rightly—that, in essence, Indonesia’s Islamist space is fragmented, with actors playing a distinctly local game.[8]  While dated, Wright-Neville and Sidel’s contributions were important correctives in a field of scholarship dominated by security experts who either greatly exaggerated and/or miscalculated the context.[9]

Undoubtedly, not all Islamist groups are connected; however, the case of ISIL shows that there is a pattern of fluidity and fragmentation, particularly on the right flank of Indonesia's Islamist spectrum.

Notwithstanding the need for context, ISIL’s push into Indonesia problematizes attempts to rigidly silo Islamist actors. Undoubtedly, not all Islamist groups are connected; however, the case of ISIL shows that there is a pattern of fluidity and fragmentation, particularly on the right flank of Indonesia's Islamist spectrum. At present, support for ISIL comes from two somewhat distinct branches within Indonesia’s Islamist spectrum: hardline Salafist-Jihadist organizations  (ones with a record of using violence) and loosely affiliated Salafist organizations that encourage support (mostly non-violent) for ISIL’s vision of a “pure” Islamic State.[10] The latter includes Forum of Islamic Activists (FAKSI) and Forum Pendukung Dualah Islamiyah (FPTI), both of which evolved from non-violent Salafist Hizbut Tahrir and other Salafist organizations.[11] The former emerged from what was the Salafi-Jihadist Jemaah Islamiyah—the region’s prototypical and most effective Jihadist organization.[12] In the mid-2000s a set of internal disagreements in regards to tactics and ideology saw JI fragment into 2 entities, Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT) and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT).[13] And even within the Salafi-Jihadist space there appear to be points of divergence; for example, it has been reported that some factions within JAT did not support declarations of support of ISIL.[14] Apparently, the son of JI founder Abu Bakar Ba’ashir did not support his father’s pledge of loyalty to Raqqa, preferring a more localized operational idiom.[15]

Undoubtedly, ISIL’s ability to link two distinct constituencies and the synergistic effect of these is an area of concern. Of course, it remains to be seen if this alliance will be temporary and wane as ISIL is quashed or if this will result in a permanent increase in the number of people committed to violent (as opposed to rhetorical) extremism. One possible outcome is that this commingling phenomenon will spawn a “supra-constituency,” comprised of groups who previously had little to do with one another. Here, it is possible to argue that their points of convergence on the “righteousness” of ISIL’s struggle will outweigh their well-established differences. The other possibility is that beyond affiliations based on convenience and broad sympathy with ISIL’s agenda, the likelihood of a long-term radicalized supra-constituency will remain limited. In the first instance, it is understandable that some Salafi groups sympathize with ISIL’s goal to create an “emirate.” What is less clear is their willingness to support violent activism at home in the service of ISIL’s vision. Additionally, another problem with the ‘alliance thesis’ is that the groups in questions have traditionally had markedly divergent recruitment strategies and target audiences. Essentially, ISIL is a mass movement that not only broadcasts its presence but also actively seeks followers to engage in its struggle at various levels.[16]  Over the past five years, the group has become adept at using social media to draw new constituencies into their brutal and Neolithic worldview. Conversely, Indonesia’s Jihadist movements have traditionally been a closed, tightly knit and often inter-generational social networks whose success has been predicated on operating in the shadows.[17] Even though JI fragmented, the cells and/or splinter organizations that emerged from its first iteration remained disciplined—operating under the leadership of known “rock-star” Jihadists, such as Santoso and Noordin Mohammad Top. [18]  ISIL relies on criminality as well; and in the context of planning operations, though it functions clandestinely, it operates more publicly than do local groups. The Salafist space is more difficult to read and is in the midst of something of a transformation. Traditionally, these movements, while not clandestine, often not did not seek media and/or public attention and enjoyed a tense though predictable relationship with the state.[19]

The facts of the two recent ISIL-attributed attacks in Jakarta in January of 2016 and Solo, Central Java in July of 2016 provide an interesting elucidation of the dynamics discussed so far: In the case of the Jakarta attack, gunmen launched a guerrilla style attack near the Serena Shopping Complex in Central Jakarta. The attack was planned by Naim Bahrun, an on-again-off-again MIT affiliate and known Jihadi figure who was detained in 2010 and served time for terror charges. [20]  According to Indonesian security officials, he moved to Syria with his family in 2014 and then returned home sometime in late 2015. Similarly, the recent attack on a police station in Solo, Central Java, while tactically different (a failed martyrdom operation) was organizationally similar, to the extent that is was perpetrated by an ISIL veteran with connections to local Jihadi networks.[21]

In sum, these attacks show that while operations in Indonesia are being sanctioned by ISIL “central,” they are being planned and carried out by Jihadists with operational links to other (local) Jihadist organizations. So, despite ISIL’s stated interest in the region, and Indonesia in particular, it would appear that current dynamics present a classic ‘old wine in a new bottle’ phenomenon whereby acts of violence attributed to ISIL have thus far come from people with prior connections to existing local Salafi-Jihadist networks. The influence of rhetorically extreme but non-violent Salafi groups is difficult to assess, and no doubt will be an emerging area of exploration.[22]

Responding to ISIL?

Having established where ISIL sits in the lexicon of Indonesia’s Islamist space, we can now explore responses to ISIL in Indonesia, specifically the operationalization of counter and re-radicalization agendas. Despite claims of a distinct  “Southeast Asian way” of dealing with extremism there is little evidence to suggest that nation-states in this region have adopted particularly novel approaches.[23] Nationalist grandstanding and academic entrepreneurialism aside there is very little (open source) evidence to suggest that Indonesia’s response has evolved beyond models used by other nation-states.[24] Indonesia’s de-radicalization programs, as elsewhere, are involuntary, usually occur in prison settings, and often blend religious re-education with counseling. Counter-radicalization programs are more nebulous and use shorthand to describe a range of activities, including: media campaigns, religious education, inter-faith events, workshops and employment creation programs. And in Indonesia, as elsewhere, the operationalization of these sorts of programs has been stymied by definitional, conceptual and legal complexity.[25] For example, what constitutes “radicalized behavior”? When does the radicalization process begin? What is the role of religious ideology in the radicalization process? And what types of activism should result in being subject to coercive counter/de-radicalization programs?

In the Indonesian context, reliable data is difficult to come by in this area. Nevertheless, based on confidential conversations with NGO employees and counter-terrorism officials, there seems to be a set of common criticisms both in relation to the design and delivery of programs. In terms of design aspects, NGO staff lack definitional parameters; moreover, operational objectives are often unclear and relationships between aid agencies, foreign and local NGOs tend to be dysfunctional.[26] In relation to the delivery of in-prison programs, frequent issues include: 1) mixing different categories of people detained on religious incitement and terror charges (i.e., a one-size-fits-all approach), 2) imprecise and less-than-sophisticated ad hoc group therapy sessions delivered by staff who lack appropriate training, and 3) chronic under-funding, despite large grants.[27] Finally, few resources are devoted to post-release activities, and few resources allocated to the ongoing rehabilitation and/or monitoring for graduates of de-radicalization programs.

... over the past few years there has been a tectonic shift in Indonesia's counter- and de-radicalization landscape, both in the overall governance of the agenda and in the delivery of programs.

It should be noted that over the past few years there has been a tectonic shift in Indonesia's counter- and de-radicalization landscape, both in the overall governance of the agenda and in the delivery of programs. With respect to the agenda, the state is clearly taking ownership of the issue, at the very least paying lip service to the idea that counter-radicalization is a national security priority. For most of the 2000s the Indonesian government seemed comfortable outsourcing the funding, design and delivery of these programs to foreign development agencies and NGOs. Now, the Indonesian government is directing more state funds to the issue. With respect to program delivery, there seems to have been a shift towards sectarianized de-radicalization programs whereby Islamist organizations such as Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) and traditionalist Nuhdlatul Ulama (NU) are now embedding themselves as counter/de-radicalization actors, for better or worse.  

It is hard to predict what all of this means in terms of countering ISIL. While ISIL might not be a “game-changer” in the overall execution of counter and/or de-radicalization strategy, the facts of the Bahrun case show that the stakes are high. To recap: Bahrun was arrested on terror charges, matriculated from an in-prison program, was released from prison, fell off the radar, travelled to Syria, returned home and succeeded in perpetrating an attack. This case not only shows the complexity of de-radicalization regimes but also a series of very serious systemic weaknesses in terms of post-release follow-up and, of course, how he was able to travel. Even if in-prison de-radicalization and post-release programs improve, the counter-radicalization agenda faces serious headwinds in terms of the pervasiveness of online extremism and the general mainstreaming of extremist discourses at a societal level.


This essay has tried to shed light on the current dynamics related to ISIL in Indonesia and some of the underlying challenges faced by the state in operationalizing a meaningful counter-radicalization agenda. There is no question that ISIL is unique in its ability to draw people who might not have otherwise been associated with the Islamist idiom of religio-political violence. And there is no question that Indonesia must think about ISIL-specific strategies. That being said, the problem of extremism in Indonesia is not a new one, and the underlying dynamics remain fundamentally unchanged. Despite the very serious threat posed by ISIL, it would be unwise to regard the issue as being singularly transformative. Islamist violence has embedded itself as a structural feature of Indonesian political life and thus the state will be dealing with this issue in one way or another long after ISIL (as we know it) implodes. So, rather than responding to ISIL, Indonesia’s policy makers would be wise to address the weaknesses in its national counter and/or de-radicalization policy, including engaging civil society and Islamic institutions in a set of complex and very difficult conversations over definitions and contexts of extremism.


[1] C. Van Dijk, Rebellion Under the Banner of Islam: The Dural Islam in Indonesia (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979); and Audrey Kahin, Islam, Nationalism and Democracy: A Political Biography of Mohammad Natsir (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2012).  

[2] Yantoultra Ngui and Celine Fernandez, “Malaysia Arrests After Jakarta Attack Fuel Fears of Islamic State’s Reaction,” Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[3] Martin Carvalho, Hemananthani Sivanandam, Loshana K. Shagar, and Rashvinjeet S. Bedi, “Malaysians who joined ISIS made to clean toilets,” AsiaOne Online, March 9, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[4] Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, “Disunity Among Indonesian ISIS supporters and the risk of more violence,” IPAC Report No. 25, February 1, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[5] Greg Fealy, “Islamic Radicalism in Indonesia: the faltering revival,” Southeast Asian Affairs (2000): 104-121.

[6] In the Indonesian context, Jihadist groups cannot be characterized in monolithic terms to the extent that the Islamic Defenders Front to Laskar Jihad and Jemaah Islamiyah and affiliated splinter groups. These groups are rhetorically similar but have different operational goals and use different tactics.

[7] David Wright-Neville, “Dangerous Dynamics: Activists, Militants and Terrorists in Southeast Asia,” Pacific Review 17, 1 (2004):  

[8] John Sidel, The Islamist Threat in Southeast Asia: A Reassessment (Washington, D.C.: East-West Center Press, 2007).

[9] There are many scholarly exemplars of this type of scholarship, including: John Gershman, “Is Southeast Asia the Second Front?” Foreign Affairs 81, 4 (2002): 60-74. Works by Rohan Gunaratna and to a lesser extent Zachary Abuza cross the line into unsubstantiated conspiracy-making.

[10] Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, “Disunity Among Indonesian ISIS supporters and the risk of more violence”; and Peter Chalk, “The Black Flag Rising: ISIL in Southeast Asia,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, December 2015, accessed August 25, 2015,

[11] Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” IPAC Report No. 13, September 24, 2014, accessed August 25, 2016,

[12] There is a well-developed literature on JI: Greg Barton, Indonesia’s Struggle: Jemaah Islamiyah and the Soul of Islam (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2004); Solahuddin, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Dural Islam to Jema’ah Islamiyah (Singapore: Ridge Books, 2013); and S. Osman, “Jamaah Islamiyah: Of Kin and Kind,”  Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 29, 2 (2010): 157 -175.

[13] Solahuddin, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia.

[14] Ibid.

[15] There has always been operational and ideological tension within “JI” and successor cells. This has been discussed at length in various International Crisis Group reports and in academic works by Solahuddin (2013) and Barton (2004).

[16] For a discussion on ISIL’s agenda see Lina Khatib, “Islamic State Strategy Lasting and Expanding,” Carnegie Endowment Middle East Center, June 29, 2015, accessed August 25, 2016,

[17] S. Osman, “Jamaah Islamiyah: Of Kin and Kind.”   

[18]  “Indonesian Police Say DNA Confirms Most Wanted Terror Suspect is Dead,”  New York Times, July 16, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[19] For a discussion on shifts in the Salafi space, see Chris Chaplin, “Global Salafi activism and Indonesian Islam,” New Mandala, July 29, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[20] “Jakarta attacks: Profile of suspect Bahrun Naim,” BBC News online, January 14, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[21] “Suicide bomber in Solo police station attack learnt bomb making from ISIS militant,” Straits Times, July 5, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[22] For a discussion on extremist discourses see Muhammad Iqbal Ahnaf, The Image as the Other as Enemy: Radical Discourse in Indonesia (Chiang Mai: Asian Muslim Action Network / Silk Worm Books, 2006).

[23] Exemplars of this view include: Kumar Ramakrishna, “The Southeast Asian Approach to Counter-Terrorism: Learning from Indonesia and Malaysia, Journal of Conflict Studies 25, 1 (2005), accesed August 25, 2016,; and “Persuasive approach is a sustainable solution to counter terrorism,” Jakarta Post, July 21, 2016, accessed August 25, 2016,

[24] Search for Common Ground, Mid-Term Evaluation, “Reducing Recidivism: A Process for Effective Disengagement of High-Risk Prisoners in Indonesia,” December 2013,

[25] T. Metzger, “Caught Between ‘Deradicalization’ and ‘Disengagement:’ Clarifying Terms in the Discourse of Terrorism,” Student Pulse 5, 11 (2011): 1-4, accessed August 25, 2016,

[26] Author’s interview with anonymous NGO official, Jakarta Indonesia, July 2013.

[27] Author’s interview with anonymous counter-terrorism official, Jakarta Indonesia, July 2013.