By Scott Mastic
As the Islamic State licks its wounds following the disintegration of its Middle Eastern “caliphate,” the terrorist group is increasingly looking to make gains in other vulnerable parts of the world. In response to its waning fortunes in Syria and Iraq, ISIS has steadily increased its investment in Southeast Asia, including a vital economic and security partner for the United States, which is Indonesia.
Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world, with a population of 260 million spread across an archipelago of more than 18,000 islands. The country has dealt with homegrown radical Islamist groups for decades, but the influence of transnational terrorist groups intensified following the 2002 attack in Bali by local Al Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah.More recently, ISIS has recruited hundreds of Indonesians to fight in the Middle East, in addition to providing logistical support and material for attacks at home, and infiltrating schools, prisons, and migrant communities throughout Indonesia. As a result, homegrown plots have steadily increased. In May 2017, five people were killed by a bomb at a Jakarta bus terminal, and the following month, a police officer was stabbed to death by alleged terrorists in Medan.
The rising influence of Islamist terror groups is not just confined to Indonesia. It’s a problem that also afflicts many of its closest neighbors. In May 2017, ISIS-aligned militants occupied the Philippine city of Marawi, located just a few hundred miles from Indonesian territory. The city was recaptured only after a bloody five-month siege by the Philippine army.
Indonesia is also grappling with domestic political challenges that may further fuel extremism. The April 2017 gubernatorial election in Jakarta saw the formation of a troubling alliance between two established political parties and an ultra-conservative Islamist party against incumbent governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, also known as “Ahok,”, a Christian who has since been imprisoned on blasphemy charges. Anti-Ahok street protests organized by hardliner Islamists organizations attracted more than 200,000 participants and inspired a palpable rise in anti-Christian sentiment.
This incident was significant, not only because Jakarta is a bellwether for the national political mood, but because it demonstrated that pandering to intolerant hardliners can pay dividends at the ballot box. If this trend is left unchecked in the run-up to provincial elections later this year and presidential elections in 2019, we may see a precipitous shift away from the religious moderation that formerly prevailed toward a discourse that incubates radical Islamism. Such a development has the potential to knock an important American ally in Asia off its democratic course, and would play right into the hands of transnational terrorist groups like ISIS.
Indonesia and its neighbors have wisely taken steps to increase regional cooperation to confront this problem through efforts such as the Trilateral Maritime Patrol Indomalphi, a joint security initiative between Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines. While this kind of cooperation is extremely valuable, it is not sufficient to counter infiltration by transnational terrorists and the specific domestic vulnerabilities driving Indonesians to join groups like ISIS.
It is crucial that the United States works closely with Indonesia to help them address these challenges, continuing the fruitful partnership that accelerated in the aftermath of 9/11. For more than 15 years, the United States has implemented a range of programs that enhanced Indonesia’s counterterrorism capabilities, including equipping special counterterrorism police units, training military officials on effective counterterrorism strategies, and providing maritime security assistance. These programs have helped to curb the threat of Islamic extremism in Indonesia and are an excellent example of how foreign assistance can directly further America’s national security interests.
Underpinning this kinetic assistance is a related effort to strengthen Indonesia’s democratic governance to better combat these challenges and prevent the rise of extremism. Effective assistance on this front starts from the ground up, by helping local governments to craft policies and deliver services that respond to the needs of citizens. This creates the conditions in which citizens can thrive, and reduces the opportunities for extremists to foment hatred and recruit vulnerable populations to their cause.
Through this relatively minor investment in improved governance, the United States can create more stable conditions and reduce the need for expensive kinetic assistance. Such an approach is consistent with the goals of President Trump’s national security strategy, which recognizes both the necessity of preventing ISIS from finding new sanctuaries, as well as the need to encourage self-sufficiency among our allies.
I’ve seen firsthand the importance of governance in combating extremism. In Tunisia, my organization worked with local governments to understand and address deficiencies that have left segments of the population vulnerable to recruitment by extremists, such as frustration with corruption, poor relations between citizens and police, and a lack of citizen engagement in the decision-making process. While Indonesia of course has its own set of unique challenges, the case of Tunisia demonstrates the importance of robust interventions to enable citizens the opportunity to seek peaceful remedies for their grievances.
Indonesia faces daunting challenges that will only continue to grow. By working collaboratively with national and subnational governments, civil society groups, religious organizations, and others to develop solutions to these challenges, the United States has an opportunity to deliver on the investments made since 9/11 and prevent radical Islamist extremism from infiltrating a crucial ally.
Scott Mastic is vice president for programs at the International Republican Institute, a nonprofit democracy assistance organization.Top