A schism emerged among Syrian jihadist groups after al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri announced on February 3 that al-Qaeda has “no connection” to the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) (Daily Times [Lahore], February 13). The message, which was circulated on jihadi websites, has forced Syrian jihadist groups to side with ISIS or al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (Fisyria.com, January 13). The announcement is also affecting jihadist groups outside of Syria such as those in Indonesia.
Jihadists from Indonesia have used the Syrian Civil War as an opportunity to rebuild their international jihadist connections, with Indonesians joining al-Nusra, ISIS and humanitarian organizations in Syria that are connected to terrorist groups. The announced split has faced Indonesian jihadists with the decision to support al-Zawahiri or ISIS. On the battlefields in Syria, most Indonesian aid workers and fighters supported al-Nusra at the start of the Syrian Civil War, but the main domestic Indonesian jihadist group on the island of Sulawesi as well as most Indonesian-language jihadist websites now appear to be more aligned with ISIS. If Indonesian jihadists align with ISIS over al-Qaeda, this could accelerate the globalization of the split in the al-Qaeda movement, with more international affiliates siding with ISIS and therefore weakening al-Zawahiri.
In 2011, the Syrian rebel group Ahrar al-Sham posted the first online “martyrdom” notice of an Indonesian militant, Reza Fardi (a.k.a. Abu Muhammad), who died fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces near Aleppo. Since then, Indonesian intelligence officials estimate that 50 Indonesians have joined the rebels in Syria (Jakarta Post, January 8). Dozens of Indonesians in the Hilal al-Ahmar Society in Indonesia (HASI), considered the humanitarian wing of Indonesian terrorst group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), are also providing aid to the rebels, with some of them likely switching uniforms from relief worker to rebel (Jakarta Globe, January 30).
Jakarta is concerned that Indonesians in Syria may acquire the bomb-making skills and experience needed to replicate the wave of attacks that JI carried out in Indonesia between 1999-2002. During those three years, JI bombed Istiqlal Mosque in Jakarta, attempted to assassinate the Philippine ambassador in Jakarta and carried out church bombings in Jakarta, Sumatra (Indonesia’s largest island), Java (the most populated island), the island of Lombok (east of Bali) and the island of Batam (a shipping hub on the Singapore Strait). The year 2002 concluded with JI’s bombing attack at Kuta Beach in Bali, which killed nearly 200 people.
When Indonesia’s elite counter-terrorism unit, Densus 88, began capturing key JI militants in 2005, starting with Bali bomb-maker Dr. Azahari Husin, Indonesia observed that most JI fighters were Indonesians or Malaysians who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s. Densus 88 and other countries’ intelligence forces captured or killed almost all of the militants involved in the JI bombings, which neutralized the JI threat in Indonesia by the time of JI co-founder Abu Bakar Bashir’s arrest in 2011 (Dawn [Bangkok], August 17, 2003; The Star [Petaling Jaya], December 17, 2012).
The Indonesians in Syria, however, are now establishing networks with al-Nusra, ISIS and Caucasian and Central Asian jihadist groups that may enable them to bring their Syrian experience back to Indonesia and revive JI under the umbrella of Mujahideen Indonesia Timor (MIT), Indonesia’s most active terrorist group. This could resemble the way Indonesians who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s contributed to JI in the 2000s.
One commonality between Indonesian militants in Syria like Reza Fardi and groups like HASI and MIT is that they all received ideological inspiration and operational support from Abu Bakar Bashir. Even though the 76-year-old Bashir is serving a 15-year prison sentence in Indonesia for funding an al-Qaeda in the Veranda of Mecca training camp in Aceh (Aceh’s nickname, “Veranda of Mecca,” refers to its history as a center of Islamic learning), he is allowed to release statements and publish books. The second version of the book Tadzkiroh (Warning and Advice), which Bashir published from prison in 2013 calls the Indonesian government “apostate” for cooperating with the “infidel” United States.  After the start of the Syrian Civil War, Bashir wrote that Syria is analogous to Afghanistan two decades ago, saying that the experience fighting in Syria could provide Indonesians with a “university for jihad education” (The Diplomat [Tokyo], February 1).
Bashir may have influenced six militants who were killed in a January shootout in Jakarta while plotting to blow up Buddhist temples and the Burmese Embassy after Bashir called for Indonesians to fight Burma because of its treatment of the Muslim Rohingyas (Jakarta Globe, January 14). One arrested militant told security forces that the cell planned to meet fellow militants in Syria after carrying out their attack on the embassy. He also said the cell robbed a bank near Jakarta in December 2013 to finance their travel to Syria, including the purchase of fake passports for nearly $1,000 each. He also confessed that the cell bombed one Buddhist temple in Jakarta in August 2013.  Evidence from the shootout suggested that one of the militants in the cell trained in bomb-making with MIT in Poso, Sulawesi. The MIT leader, Santoso, is the former leader of the Poso wing of Jamaat Ansarul Tawhid (JAT), an offshoot of JI founded by Bashir in the late 2000s (Tempo.com [Jakarta], January 1).
HASI, which like al-Mukmin was co-founded by Bashir and Abdullah Sungkar, has organized more than 50 public fundraising campaigns in 20 Indonesian provinces to support the rebels in Syria. It also runs various websites to receive online donations. HASI’s lack of transparency about where funds go after they are collected and the use of JI members who were released from prison as preachers at fundraisers raises concerns about whether these funds are actually being used to revive JI (Jihadsyam.blogspot.com, August 26, 2013). Fundraising events also promote JI’s intolerance of the Shi’a (al-Assad is an Alawite, which some regard as a branch of the Shi’a). A July 2013 fundraiser in Central Java used the slogan “The Shi’a Betrayal” to attract participants, while another in Sukoharjo in May 2013 attended by more than 1,500 people warned of the emerging “Shi’a grip” over Indonesia (VOA-Islam.com, September 2, 2013; Arrahmah.com, May 23, 2013).
It appears that the first group of Indonesian fighters in Syria fought together with Jabhat al-Nusra. Indonesia’s first “martyr” in Syria, Reza Fardi, reportedly died in Latakia (northwestern Syria) fighting as part of the Suquor al-Izz Brigade, an ideological ally of al-Nusra (Sydney Morning Herald, January 4). HASI and other Malaysian aid providers in Syria have also seen their shipments intercepted, plundered and even shot at by ISIS after aid workers refused to give bayat (a pledge of allegiance) to ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  This has likely influenced these Indonesians to work with al-Nusra and explains why HASI shipments are more frequent in al-Nusra strongholds in northwestern Syria than in ISIS strongholds near the Syria-Iraq border.
However, most Indonesian-language jihadist websites, such as Almustaqbal.net, announced their “support and solidarity” with ISIS.  In addition, the popular Albusyro.com blocked the membership of anyone who posted messages against ISIS. A former JI member, Ustadz Rois, now in prison for his role in bombing the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in 2004, criticized the influential website Arrahmah.com for only posting al-Nusra statements. 
Santoso and his sub-commanders in MIT who trained in the Bashir-sponsored camp in Aceh may also be more inclined to ISIS. Santoso, for example, honored al-Qaeda in Iraq’s former leader, Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, by choosing the alias of “Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi al-Indonesi” (Arrahmah.com, October 15, 2012). Santoso’s most recent video, which praised a suicide bombing at a Poso police headquarters in Sulawesi, was hosted by a pro-ISIS website (Al-mustabal.net, October 31, 2013). Moreover, ISIS’s goal to spread Shari’a across all Islamic lands may be more likely to appeal to Santoso and MIT than al-Nusra’s objective, which is to overthrow al-Assad and focus on the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria before exporting jihad.
Indonesian jihadists in Syria, relief organizations like HASI and jihadist groups like MIT are all part of networks that are undergoing a revival because of the Syrian Civil War. The key foundations of this revival are Abu Bakar Bashir’s continued ideological leadership, Santoso’s growing jihadist movement in Sulawesi (with links to cells in Jakarta) and the opportunity Syria is providing Indonesian militants and aid workers to reconnect with the international jihadist community.
As the civil war within a civil war escalates in Syria between ISIS and al-Zawahiri’s recognized affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, Indonesian jihadists may be forced to take sides in the dispute like other militants within and outside Syria. It appears that MIT and Indonesian jihadists who are active online are more closely aligned with ISIS’s ideology and leadership than al-Zawahiri’s. However, purportedly nonviolent actors, such as Indonesian humanitarian groups, may prefer al-Nusra over ISIS.
An MIT expression of support for or affiliation with ISIS would suggest that MIT might begin carrying out attacks targeting foreigners, Christians and Shi’a in Indonesia. Thus far, MIT has mostly attacked Indonesian security forces. Similarly, Abu Bakar Bashir might issue a statement from his prison cell calling for Indonesians jihadists to support one of the two sides in the Syrian conflict. In his most recent statement on April 1, Bashir said he “received news from the Internet” about “obstacles” that the “tyrants” placed between the “Mujahideen brothers in Sham” and that al-Zawahiri would not “forget” them (Shamikh1.info, February 2014). This suggests that Bashir may remain loyal to al-Qaeda just as he was when he co-founded JI in the 1990s and oversaw the al-Qaeda in the Veranda of Mecca training camp in Aceh in the 2000s.
A more decisive statement of support for Jabhat al-Nusra from Bashir could have a significant influence on the Indonesian foreign fighters in Syria as well as MIT in Sulawesi. However, it could also lead to a split between Bashir’s loyalists and Santoso’s loyalists if Santoso rejects Bashir’s advice, continues to issue pro-ISIS statements and revives the vision for a pan-regional Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia like the caliphate ISIS is fighting for in Iraq and Syria.
Jacob Zenn is an analyst of The Jamestown Foundation, who carried out field research in Sulawesi, Indonesia in February 2014.
1. See: https://www.scribd.com/doc/207883069/Kata-Pengantar-Buku-Tadzkiroh-II-B5-1.
2. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gB3ruWU2E24.
3. “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict Report no. 6, January 30, 2014, https://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2014/01/IPAC_Indonesians_the_Syrian_Conflict.pdf.
4. See the banner at: https://al-mustaqbal.net/multaqod-dawiy-ke-6-faksi-support-solidarity-for-isis-allahu-akbar/.
5. See: https://al-mustaqbal.net/nasehat-ustadz-rois-kepada-arrahmah-com-terkait-isis/.