Address extremism to halt IS spread

Indonesia is in the cross-hairs of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Serial bomb blasts and gunfire that extended over several hours in the capital, Jakarta, have ended the six-year-long lull in major terrorist attacks in the country. This is the IS’ first attack in Indonesia and Southeast Asia. Indonesia is no stranger to Islamic extremism and terrorism. Hundreds of Indonesian radicals participated in the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in the 1980s and came back home to set up dozens of armed outfits. The origins of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a powerful al-Qaeda-affiliated extremist organisation which carried out a string of deadly attacks in Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia in the 2000-09 period, can be traced back to Indonesia’s anti-colonial struggle of the 1940s. It was responsible for the 2002 bombings in nightclubs in Bali, the 2004 suicide bombing of the Australian Embassy and the 2009 blasts in luxury hotels in Jakarta. Compared to the JI’s attacks in the past decade, last week’s assault on Jakarta had a relatively low death toll; eight people including five attackers were killed. However, the attack must not be taken lightly; the ISIS has announced its violent entry into Southeast Asia.

IS’ influence and ideology have been visible in Indonesia for some time now. At least 500 Indonesian Islamists are believed to be fighting in Iraq and Syria. Support for IS has been growing rapidly in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim county. Indonesian officials were reportedly expecting an IS strike. That they were unable to prevent it is worrying as Indonesian counter-terrorism officials have done a commendable job in preventing terrorist attacks by the JI over the past six years.

Indonesia’s Muslim population is largely moderate in its outlook. However, a small section of the population believes in a puritanical version of Islam. It this section that provides supporters, sympathisers and fighters for groups like al-Qaeda, JI and now IS. While the government has been effective in its surveillance of extremists, jailing of militants and weakening of the jihadist network – this robust action helped it prevent attacks for six years – it has tended to ignore religious extremism and rising intolerance in the country. Extremist ideologies taught in madrassas are facilitating recruitment by IS. The government needs to act immediately to deny IS and others with a breeding ground. IS is said to be looking for a “province” for its “Islamic State” in Southeast Asia. Indo-nesia must act to prevent that from becoming a reality.

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