By Derwin Pereira
Fourteen years after al-Qaeda redrew the religious map of the world, it has receded from the global frontlines. However, it has been replaced by a stronger subversive entity, the Islamic State (IS), proving how hard it is to put the genie of terror back into the bottle.
Centered in Iraq and Syria but with ambitions to set up a global caliphate, IS has outlived hopes that it would be a temporary phenomenon. The repercussions of its longevity are being felt as far away as Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia.
Indonesia is the largest Muslim-majority country in the world. While Indonesia’s demography gives it immense potential importance in the concept of a global caliphate, its character as an effectively secular country makes it a prime target for religious extremists who believe in the imposition of sharia religious law by violent means.
Those extremists would include returning fighters from battlefields in the Middle East, where close to 400 Indonesians have joined IS. They have a network of some 3,000 Indonesian sympathizers, many of whom are also eager to travel there to wage war on the West and what they consider the West’s infidel acolytes in nominally Muslim countries – including Indonesia.
With this insurgent catchment firmly in mind, IS is paying special attention to recruits from the Malay-speaking regions of Southeast Asia.
The Katibah Nusantara Lid Daulah Islamiyah, or the Malay Archipelago Battalion, provides an organizational structure for the mobilization of Malay-speaking fighters so that they can contribute heft to the religious and military objectives of IS. Those goals include returning combatants forming the nucleus of a concerted drive to extend the caliphate’s territory to Southeast Asia.
Katibah Nusantara embodies a direct link between the global ideology of IS and its regional aspirations, much as Jemaah Islamiyah, the Southeast Asian offshoot of al-Qaeda, once envisaged returning fighters from Afghanistan providing the battle-hardened backbone of the militant advance into Southeast Asia.
At that time, Southeast Asia was demarcated as the second front in the War on Terror (after the primary battlefield, the Middle East). Today, there is no such concept of a common theater in the struggle against terror.
Instead, the West appears to be coming to terms with the reality of IS. Consequently, Southeast Asians are being left largely to fend off the IS threat by themselves although it emanates in the Middle East.
There are many other terror groups as well in Southeast Asia, as shown by the recent bombing of a shrine in Bangkok.
In the face of this trend, Indonesia needs to adopt a unified counter-terrorism strategy. It should focus on the entire range of tools against terrorists, from prevention, deterrence, rehabilitation, punishment, and re-assimilation into society.
For this to occur, greater coordination in Indonesia is required among key stakeholders such as the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs; the national intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies; special detachments set up to fight terrorism; the religious affairs ministry; and non-governmental groups that enjoy religious credibility among Muslims.
In the long term, the best and most sustained results are likely to be achieved through deradicalization. This requires a total effort which includes the careful use of educational and psychological strategies to show would-be recruits that the twisted religious ideology of terror is both wrong and unachievable.
This battle for hearts and minds cannot be carried out on the battlefield because the die of violence has been cast there already.
It has to begin in mosques and religious schools to deter the impressionable from falling prey to the inflammatory urgings of hate-mongering preachers. It has to continue in prison, to convince radicals of their unsustainable religious positions. It has to reach into their family and social lives after they have been released.
On the external front, closer security cooperation with the United States will be a mainstay of anti-terrorism efforts. But the record of the fight against IS in the Middle East is disheartening.
It is growing ominously clear that air strikes by an international coalition have been insufficient to dislodge IS from its base in the Tigris-Euphrates river basin, although it has lost some territory to the attacks.
Instead, IS has consolidated its hold. The estimated 22,000 foreign fighters from more than 100 countries who have traveled there attest to the hypnotic lure of an opportunity to translate religious ideals into practice.
The fight against IS must, then, be a war of steel and a war of ideas. America must take the lead by deploying troops against them.
The physical infrastructure of IS must be destroyed if the global reach of its ideas is to be contained. Otherwise, the desire to establish a global caliphate will continue to draw sustenance from the continued existence of the Islamic State.
Indonesia would be a primary victim of that situation. The prognosis would be negative.
Mr. Derwin Pereira, a longstanding observer of Indonesia, is a member of Harvard University’s Belfer Center. He also sits on the Southeast Asia Advisory Board of the Center for Strategic and International Studies