Indonesia, Malaysia and the Fight Against Islamic State Influence

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Indonesia, Malaysia and the Fight Against Islamic State Influence

With ideology spreading via social media, authorities need to consider a ‘soft’ approach as well as traditional tactics.

Indonesia, Malaysia and the Fight Against Islamic State Influence
Credit: REUTERS/Supri

The Indonesian government recently banned the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI) also released a statement that it was “haram” or forbidden, for Muslims to participate in IS activities. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also recently issued a strongly worded statement condemning the IS for its actions, which run counter to Islamic faith, culture and to common humanity.

These are all positive steps. But they have been inadequate, given the spread of the ideological beliefs of IS via social media tools to preach and recruit others to join the extremist group.

Rise in Social Media Support

Following IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s message for Muslims worldwide to join the Jihadist cause in Syria and Iraq, new jihadist recruitment videos have surfaced from Southeast Asian terrorists. In July, a picture of firebrand Muslim cleric, Abu Bakar Bashir in his maximum security prison in Nusakambangan, Central Java, with an ISIL flag as its background, was widely circulated on Indonesian social media. Bashir had reportedly instructed his followers to support their “fellow brothers” who were part of the IS group. Another prominent jailed jihadi leader, Aman Abdurrahman, had also conveyed support for IS and had reportedly been translating and distributing IS publications over the Internet.

A video by the IS released in July featuring an Indonesian fighter named Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi showed him delivering an impassioned appeal to fellow Indonesians to “join the ranks.” A number of Indonesian IS fighters are reportedly also using social networking platforms such as Facebook to recruit fighters. A growing number are young individuals who are drawn to the cause. Among them is al-Indonesi, a 19-year-old Indonesian student who studied in Turkey and later joined the IS in Syria. According to Indonesia’s National Agency for Combating Terrorism (BNPT), 34 Indonesians have joined the IS. These numbers do not include Indonesians who have joined other groups in Syria and Iraq in the jihadist cause.

Malaysian authorities meanwhile say that IS sympathizers are attracting a small number of Malaysians from a wide variety of backgrounds through social media, particularly Facebook, and have also managed to raise funds through the same channels. In early August, photos of a dead 52-year-old jihadist Malaysian fighter who was formerly a member of the Kumpulan Mujahiden Malaysia (KMM) were uploaded and circulated via social media and blogs. The man allegedly died while defending the town of Arzeh with several other jihadist fighters. The photo was liked by thousands of online users, with some congratulating him on his “successful transaction.”

Radical Narratives

The IS justifies its radical narrative by making use of Islamic symbols and propaganda. According to the IS, Syria is said to be the epicenter of the Last Caliphate. The IS believes that the Final Battle against the false prophets will ensue in the ongoing battle in Syria.

The primacy of these theological arguments feature strongly in Indonesian militants’ motivation to fight in Syria. The activities of Malaysian IS supporters on Facebook on the other hand points to a more complex mix of factors that might motivate Malaysians to join the IS, most of which are political, financial or ideological.

The distinct divergences in the factors motivating these Indonesian and Malaysian fighters to join the IS, as well as the differences in contexts, highlight the need to personalize responses by state and community in each country.

Counterterrorism Approaches


In response to the 2002 Bali bombing, the twin bombings of the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton in 2009, and other attacks on Indonesian soil, Jakarta has adjusted its counterterrorism strategy. Indonesia has prosecuted more than 600 terrorists. Currently, responsibility for counterterror operations remains under the purview of the Indonesian police, particularly the elite counterterrorism unit, Detachment-88, which has captured hundreds of terrorist suspects and confiscated their weapons across the Indonesian archipelago.


Indonesia has stressed a hard approach to countering the threat of terrorism, primarily through the lens of law enforcement. In spite of the military’s success, two notable trends have emerged in recent terrorist attacks. The first is the growing incidence of attacks targeting the police. The second is an emergence of alliances between jihadist fighters and religious vigilante groups. The militant Islamist organization, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), has allegedly been acting as an liaison among like-minded radicals through radical preaching that serves to instill a commitment to jihad. In recent years, violence against minority groups has taken place in various parts of Indonesia. Attacks against Ahmadiyya and Shia believers have claimed lives and displaced hundreds, and Christian communities have been targeted for attacks by Islamist militants. The convergence between jihadist fighters and religious vigilante groups provide opportunities for the jihadist groups to recruit and enhance their influence in society.


In Malaysia, amid reports that four new Malaysian militant groups, identified by their acronyms BKAW, BAJ, Dimzia and ADI, are bent on creating a “super” Islamic caliphate in parts of Southeast Asia, including secular Singapore, authorities have stepped up their counterterrorism efforts and arrested several individuals. The BKAW was reportedly recruiting through Facebook and rallies. One of its members is said to be Ahmad Tarmimi Maliki, a 26-year-old factory worker – the first Malaysian IS-linked suicide bomber– who killed 25 soldiers during the attack in Iraq on May 26.

A ‘Soft’ Approach

This emphasis on hard approaches to countering terrorism has had some success in disrupting terrorist plots. But the rise of Internet provides the perfect medium for terrorists to recruit, promote their ideology, and attract financing. Research has shown that younger people are at greatest risk of being radicalized by extremist messages. Governments thus need to drive the debate on the Internet and through social media to ensure that their positive messaging is heard above the extremists’ messaging. Hence, the use of social media by radical groups to recruit, raise funds, and spread propaganda messages should not be taken lightly. The rising influence of social media and the popularization of IS ideologies via the Internet highlights the need for states to be innovative in using modern communications to counter the growing threat of radicalization.

According Techinasia, approximately 35.4 million Indonesians were already using Facebook in 2011, making it the second-largest population of Facebook users in the world. Indonesia also has the fourth-largest population of Twitter users, with more than 4.8 million users, and a growing number who use other social media platforms. Internet use has been growing rapidly Malaysia as well. Extremist ideas increasingly available online and pose a legitimate concern for the authorities in both countries. Widespread exposure to external currents of contemporary Muslim socio-political thought, ranging from the moderate-liberal through radical and sectarian in both Malaysia and Indonesia is intensified by the growth in the pace and volume of two-way, instantaneous information flows over social media.

The governments of Indonesia and Malaysia need to adapt their counterterrorism responses to include counter-radicalization strategies focusing on soft approaches. Soft approaches should include engagement through media, cultural, educational and religious forums, with the aim of highlighting the realities of life under the IS. This will serve to dissuade individuals from internalizing extremist messages advocated by extremist groups like the IS.

IS has carried out a number of executions, including beheadings. In many cases, it has videotaped the executions and posted them online. Attention given to these videos should be minimized, to deny the group the positive publicity it seeks. Governments should partner with civil society activists to channel key messages of religious moderation and interfaith tolerance through soft media campaigns.

To date, Malaysian and Indonesian IS supporters have not posed any immediate security threats to their countries. However, their governments must improve their intelligence and surveillance activities by monitoring individuals who could potentially go on to commit acts of violence. There is a need for cooperation between civilian and military agencies to closely monitor the development of IS supporters. To date, a number of Indonesian suspects have been found in possession of IS paraphernalia.

While improving the effectiveness of counterterrorism operations, Indonesian authorities have also been working on de-radicalization and counter-radicalization strategies. Authorities have warned that many imprisoned Indonesian terrorists are due for release. Malaysia’s Ministry of Law and Human Rights recognizes the grave danger of terrorist recidivism and as part of its de-radicalization program for terrorist inmates, has sought to reform the correctional system and improve the physical condition of many prisons in Indonesia. Incorporating softer approaches, terrorist de-radicalization programs should focus on creative citizenship engagements and critical thinking training to better integrate these individuals and minimize the likelihood of recidivism.

To effectively counter the threat of the IS, authorities in Indonesia and Malaysia will need to take into full consideration the unique social, cultural, economic and religious dynamics of their countries.

Stefanie Kam Li Yee is an Associate Research Fellow at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. Robi Sugara is a graduate student pursuing an M.Sc in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.