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Indonesian Authorities Worried About Return Of Islamic Radicals


The self-declared Islamic State has been very successful at attracting recruits from many corners of the globe. As we're about to hear, that includes Southeast Asia. Muslim radicals in Indonesia have been traveling in growing numbers to join ISIS in Syria. And as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta, there is concern about what could happen if and when these fighters return home.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Last year, a Muslim militant from East Java traveled to Syria. Indonesian media identified him as Salim Mubarok at-Tamimi. From Syria, he posted a video in which he threatens Indonesia's military and police.


SALIM MUBAROK AT-TAMIMI: (Through interpreter) If you don't come to us, we will come to you. We will come back to Indonesia to enforce God's law. This must begin with fighting against you and by slaughtering each one of you, one by one.

KUHN: Some militants loyal to ISIS are already operating in Indonesia. In the jungles of Central Sulawesi province, hundreds of police special forces are hunting a man called Abu Wardah Santoso. He commands a group called the Mujahideen of East Indonesia, which reportedly has several dozen men and is suspected of recent attacks on civilians and police in Central Sulawesi.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KUHN: Santoso's videos include battle hymns. Last year, he recorded a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.


ABU WARDAH SANTOSO: (Through interpreter) We have been like long-suffering debtors until today, when a law allows us to declare allegiance to you. Accordingly, we say we are your soldiers in East Indonesia.

KUHN: Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta. She estimates that between a hundred and 200 Indonesians have joined ISIS in Syria. How many will come home is hard to say. She says some of them want to create Islamic States in Muslim-majority parts of Southeast Asia, including Southern Thailand, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. These would then join the worldwide caliphate led by ISIS. Jones says that scenario is attractive to militants, but it's not realistic.

SIDNEY JONES: It's never worked and it will never work because what you need to do is to be able to control territory. That's what makes the Islamic State so attractive to the radical fringe now in a way that al-Qaida was not able to do. They actually have territory they control and are setting up a real government.

KUHN: Jones adds that the war in Syria has split Indonesia's Islamic radical community. She says that those who want to come home and wage jihad in Indonesia tend to join ISIS, while those who don't tend to join ISIS's rivals, the al-Qaida affiliated al-Nusra Front. She says it all boils down to an ideological debate.

JONES: The people who support the al-Nusra Front basically say that you can't just declare any Muslim as a kafir, or a nonbeliever, if you don't agree with them, which is effectively what ISIS is saying.

KUHN: The situation in Syria now echoes the 1990s, when Indonesian militants journeyed to Afghanistan. They came home with military training, money and ties to al-Qaida. This helped them pull off the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200 people. Irfan Idris, a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Agency, says the Indonesian government can and should revoke the passports of militants to prevent them from going to Syria.

IRFAN IDRIS: (Through interpreter) Indonesia still needs to enforce the law more firmly, so that zealous but ill-informed citizens don't go to Syria, think they're heroes, then return home, run amok and destroy anybody who is different from them.

KUHN: Irfan says that so far, though, the government hasn't revoked any militant's passports. Indonesia's new president, Joko Widodo, meanwhile, insists that Indonesia will defeat the terrorists by relying more on education and less on security measures. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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