With the final Islamic State (IS) stronghold of Raqqa, Syria on the brink of falling, counterterrorism officials are still in the dark over how many, if any, Indonesian fighters have survived the caliphate’s collapse and are headed back to light a fire under a percolating terrorist movement at home.
In the most detailed breakdown yet, the Detachment 88 anti-terrorist unit noted recently that 97 of the 671 Indonesians who are documented to have gone to Syria and Iraq since 2014 have so far died in the conflict.
At least 70% of the total were women and children identified through deportations, including 17 non-combatants who escaped from Raqqa last June and were eventually handed over to Indonesian officials by Kurdish forces on the Syria-Iraq border.
“Our mission it to make sure that no foreign fighters who joined [IS] from a foreign country and came to Syria, they will die in Syria,” America’s top envoy to the anti-IS coalition, Brett McGurk, said recently. “If they are in Raqqa, they’re going to die in Raqqa.”
About 100 IS fighters have surrendered over the past few days, leaving an estimated 300-400 still holding out in the battered town, many of them foreigners who are likely to fight to the death rather than face justice for war crimes.
It is not clear how many Southeast Asians fall into that category, but Indonesian Abu Walid, Malaysian Rafi Udin and Filipino Mohammad Reza Kiram were all in a June 21, 2016 video where they were shown beheading three Syrian prisoners.
An associate of IS leader Bachrumsyah, Walid’s whereabouts are a mystery, but his fluency in Arabic and contacts in Saudi Arabia likely means he would try to head elsewhere in the Middle East or to the Philippines, where he also has had a long association.
Another Indonesian militant was killed not long after he was filmed in a late 2014 video taking part in the beheading of a long line of prisoners; the same video showed the execution of Peter Kassig, an American humanitarian worker.
Kurdish troops claim to have “completely” surrounded Raqqa in June, but in recent weeks hundreds of so-called IS defectors are reported to have slipped away and massed along the heavily-patrolled border with Turkey after paying up to US$2,000 each to escape the crumbling caliphate’s capital.
Some are thought to have evaded capture and entered Turkey. “It only takes five to return, you don’t need 100,” says Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), who admits there is no clear view of how many Indonesian fighters remain in Syria. “It depends on their ability to pay.”
Nothing has been heard of Bahrun Naim, 34, the reputed leader of IS Southeast Asia, since last December. There were rumors several months ago the former computer technician had been confined to an IS prison in Raqqa over an internal conflict, but they were never confirmed.
Jones believes Bachrumsyah, has a higher position in IS Central than Naim. Several statements were issued on his behalf in July and August, months after he was mistakenly reported to have died in a suicide attack in Syria. The car-bomber turned out to be an Uzbek fighter using the same nom de plume.
The main concern of anti-terrorist officials may not be survivors from Iraq and Syria, but the handful of militants who manage to escape from the western Mindanao town of Marawi, where Philippine government forces have finally got the upper hand in the nearly five-month siege.
According to Detachment 88, at least three dozen Indonesians joined the fight in Marawi, of which six are known to have been killed and six returned to Indonesia, along with an unknown number of other deportees who failed to link up with the IS holdouts.
Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have recently initiated sea and air patrols in the Sulu Sea to intercept returning militants and to protect commercial shipping from seaborne Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) gunmen operating out of the southern island of Basilan.
It is part of a 15-point Plan of Action aimed at preventing IS-linked groups from expanding their influence across the often-lawless Sulu Sea, which has been a conduit in the past for Indonesian militants seeking refuge in Mindanao.
Indonesian courts continue to deal harshly with terrorists. The East Jakarta District Court recently sentenced an IS sympathizer to life imprisonment for carrying out an attack on an East Kalimantan church last November, which killed a toddler and wounded three other children.
But the House of Representatives, preoccupied with trying to draw the teeth of the Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK), is dragging its feet over a long-delayed revision to the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law to give enforcement agencies better tools to deal with homegrown militants.
Among other things, the revised law will allow authorities to target anyone who acts as a recruiter or who otherwise cooperates with a militant group, and to use electronic eavesdropping, intelligence reports and financial transactions as evidence in the trial of extremist suspects.
More controversially, the legislation also includes an extended, post-arrest 510-day detention period and a provision under which Indonesians who have joined a militant training camp or participated in terrorist acts in a foreign country will be stripped of their citizenship.
The government initiated the revision after IS-affiliated militants launched a bomb and gun attack in the heart of Jakarta in January 2016 that left eight people dead, including all four assailants, and 23 wounded.
Jakarta-based security firm Concord Consulting has documented 13 incidents of militant violence since then, most of them lone wolf attacks and not on the scale of the bombing campaign during the early 2000s that put Indonesia firmly on the global terrorism map.
“Historically, jihadists in Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia have demonstrated an ability to adapt to changing regional and global circumstances and incorporate new strategies, at the same time remaining firmly rooted to their extremist view of the world,” Concord said in a recent summary.