Indonesians fighting in Syria trigger concerns about when they return home

AFP, JAKARTA

Sun, Feb 02, 2014 - Page 3

Indonesians who have joined fellow extremists fighting in Syria could help reinvigorate a once-powerful militant group responsible for major bombings in the world’s most populous Muslim country, a report said.

“The conflict in Syria has captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before,” said a report by Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict published this week.

It is a change of pattern for Indonesian militants who previously have gone to Afghanistan in the late 1980s and 1990s mainly for training, or to the Palestinian territories to give moral and financial support to fellow Muslims, the report said.

“The enthusiasm for Syria is directly linked to predictions in Islamic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria, or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel,” the report added.

This notion has attracted Indonesians from different radical streams to go or try to go to Syria, including the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a group responsible for the 2002 bombings on Bali that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners.

After the 2002 attack, a government crackdown that either killed or jailed JI’s leaders has crippled the group and attacks carried by it or its splinter groups have been smaller.

Some of the JI leaders have now taken to non-violent activities such as preaching, inviting criticism from other militant groups.

However, the report warned that the Syrian conflict had convinced many extremists that their local jihad should be set aside for now to devote energy to the more important one abroad, like many JI leaders have argued.

Despite JI’s decline, “if the Syrian conflict helps both JI’s fund-raising ability as well as its own recruitment and if domestic political situation should take a turn for the worse, that calculus could change. No one should rule JI out of future actions,” the report said.

The report quoted the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs as estimating there were 50 Indonesians among the 8,000 foreign fighters from 74 countries involved in the Syrian conflict.

JI’s humanitarian wing, Hilal Ahmar Society Indonesia, sent 10 delegations to Syria carrying cash and medical assistance to the Islamist resistance in an effort to open channels for more direct participation in the fighting, the report said.

Five of seven men identified as having gone to fight are graduates of Al-Mukmin Islamic boarding school on Java, a school notorious for spawning Indonesian militants and whose founder, cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is in prison after being convicted of terrorism.

After counter-terrorism police killed six members of Islamic militant group Western Indonesia Mujahideen last month, authorities said that one of those killed had planned to go to Syria.

Testimony from a surviving member of the group said all six had planned to go to Syria and had robbed a bank to finance the trip and that a member of the group was already in Syria to assist upon their arrival, the report said.