Despite the geographic distance between Indonesia and Yemen and their disparate languages and cultures, the two countries also share a unique historical bond which extends well into the present day. Many Indonesians, for example, trace their ancestry to Yemen and specifically the Hadramawt region (arabnews.com, June 8, 2020). In 2019, as a result of these ties, Indonesia’s ambassador to Yemen suggested that his country’s business people and the approximately 2,500 Indonesian students studying in Yemen invest there to boost Yemeni economy (arabnews.com, September 20, 2019). However, coinciding with these historical, academic, and business ties is also the involvement of Indonesians in militancy in Yemen, as evidenced by the life of Heru Sisanto.
There were signs of Indonesian foreign fighters even before the Islamic State (IS)’s declaration of a caliphate, as Indonesians began posting requests to join al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on social media (Twitter/@Sulaemanbahri, July 2, 2011). Later, as the Yemeni civil war was underway in 2015, the Houthis arrested 23 Indonesians apparently for supporting the opposing Saudi-backed side. The Houthis then allowed the Indonesian government to repatriate them (antaranews.com, March 30, 2015).
By 2020, evidence of Indonesians fighting with either AQAP or IS’s Yemeni branch emerged incidentally from a Houthi video, which showed a raid on a jihadist hideout (detik.com, August 31, 2020). Among the images shown in the video were Indonesian currency and the identity card of an Indonesian. The name and address on the card, however, turned out to be falsified, which was discovered as Indonesian security forces conducted their own raid at the supposed address (Twitter/@Natsecjeff, August 29, 2020).
Recently, the most prominent case of an Indonesian jihadist in Yemen was AQAP’s Heru Sisanto. He was first featured in an AQAP video, which acknowledged his death not in combat, but from leukemia, and noted his alias was Abu Musa al-Indonesi, which validated that Indonesia was his country of origin (Twitter/@Dr_E_Kendall, May 23). Half a year later, in November, AQAP’s Nafih al-Teeb unit and al-Malahim media agency provided a more detailed martyrdom biography of Sisanto through a roughly five-minute video.
According to the video’s biography, Sisanto’s militant career began in the Raja Ampat archipelago (Twitter/@ibnSiqilli, November 12). Although no year was specified, it appears to have been around 2008; Raja Ampat archipelago is situated off the coast of Papua, which suffered serious sectarian strife that year as tensions between Muslims and Christians boiled over (ICG, June 16, 2008). Like many other Indonesian jihadists, localized religious violence may have catalyzed Sisanto’s career, but it was the war in Syria that turned him into an international jihadist.
Although Sisanto was unable to reach Syria, he learned about Yemen as an alternative location for jihad and that it had fewer restrictions on travel than Syria. Finally, in 2014, he arrived in Yemen and joined AQAP to fight against both the Houthis and IS’s province in Yemen. As Sisanto did not speak Arabic well, the biography indicates his role was primary behind the frontlines, where he prepared food, weapons, and ammunition that the fighters would use when they went out to battle. While Sisanto never died in battle like other “martyrs” that al-Qaeda recognizes, AQAP still recognized Sisanto as one.
Sisanto’s biography is unique for the detail it provides on one of the relatively few Indonesian jihadists with AQAP. Unlike Sisanto, most Indonesians who sought to fight jihad abroad found their way to Syria, which is why as of 2020 Indonesia had been working to locate and repatriate up to 660 Indonesian foreign fighters in Syria, Turkey, and/or Afghanistan (jakartaglobe.com, January 21, 2020). Yet, looking at the profile more deeply, perhaps the most important observation is how Indonesia’s internal Muslim-Christian strife that developed in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the country democratized had an after-effect of creating Muslim militants like Sisanto. He, like other Indonesian jihadists, later found fighting abroad appealing when Indonesia itself became more peaceful, tolerant, and better governed domestically.