JAKARTA, Indonesia — Fears about the threat posed by the Islamic State are mounting not only in the West but also in the capital of the world’s most populous Muslim nation.
With reports of dozens of Indonesians and Malaysians having traveled to the Middle East to join the Islamic State, authorities are clamping down on those suspected of involvement in the al Qaeda-inspired group.
In recent days, Indonesia’s elite Detachment 88 counterterrorism police arrested seven people, including four believed to be from China’s ethnic Uighur Muslim minority. They were under investigation for suspected links to the Islamic State after being captured with fake Turkish passports, authorities said.
The arrests were made on the island of Sulawesi, whose remote mountain ranges have long been viewed as a hideout for extremists plotting against the moderate Muslim institutions that have come to define Indonesia’s rise as a secular democracy.
While the extremists have been largely marginalized by Jakarta’s bare-knuckle counterterrorism efforts over the past decade, they have posed a nagging threat since being bolstered by foreign fighters returning from jihad missions in Afghanistan in the late 1990s.
Sulawesi housed training camps linked to Osama bin Laden’s original Pakistan- and Afghanistan-based al Qaeda in the early 2000s — the threat of which seemed to peak in 2002 with the horrific bombing of a nightclub frequented by Westerners on the Indonesian island of Bali.
The suspected mastermind of that attack — Riduan Isamuddin, better known as “Hambali” — was arrested in 2003 and placed at the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but Indonesians fear that fighters returning from the Middle East once again will energize the nation’s extremists.
U.S. intelligence sources and private analysts say concerns are high that Sulawesi may be viewed as fertile ground for Asian recruiting by the Islamic State, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL.
The terrorist group split from al Qaeda last year and has gone by the name Islamic State since July, when its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the creation of a Sunni Muslim caliphate in the area it controls in Iraq and Syria.
Analysts describe the extremists in Indonesia as low-level operatives who lack the logistical capability or discipline to carry out the type of terrorism that brought notoriety to Hambali during the early 2000s.
The catch is that “there never seems to be any shortage of recruits,” said Sidney Jones, who heads the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict and has spent decades studying security issues in the region.
While Sulawesi may be home to young men who aspire to be terrorists, Ms. Jones said, the “concern is that it actually wouldn’t take too many people coming back from Syria with new skills and experience, and a better strategic sense, to take all these kinds of amateurish recruits and turn them into a more competent terrorist unit.”
The National Agency for Combating Terrorism in Jakarta says it has the names of 34 Indonesians who have traveled to the Middle East to fight for the Islamic State.
Yet Ms. Jones, who spoke during a recent roundtable discussion with international reporters in Jakarta on a trip sponsored by the U.S.-based East-West Center, says the number “is probably somewhat higher than that — maybe as high as 100.”
“Even if a handful of those people did come back with the intention of strengthening the capacity of groups here, this could be a problem,” she said.
Such concerns loom large behind the actions of the Indonesian government.
The nation’s counterterrorism authorities were thrown into a kind of panic in late July, she said, when a video produced in Indonesia’s Bahasa language began circulating on YouTube. The video featured a black-clad militant who called on Indonesian Muslims to join forces with the Islamic State.
By early August, the Indonesian government had banned the group and vowed to arrest any Indonesians involved with it. The government also announced a crackdown on any Internet material deemed supportive of the Islamic State.
The YouTube recruiting video, along with the recent arrests by counterterrorism police, have drawn increasing attention to the activities of Abu Wardah Santoso, the nation’s most notorious extremist who has long been believed to be operating from a jungle hideout on Sulawesi.
Indonesian officials have said the man who appeared in the July recruitment video on YouTube was a cohort of Santoso’s and that the four men arrested with fake Turkish passports in recent days had intentions of meeting with Santoso on the island.
U.S. counterterrorism documents for years have cited Santoso as the head of a “local terrorist network” in Indonesia. He and his followers, believed to number in the dozens, are said to have taken a role in anti-Christian violence on Sulawesi, as well as various attempted bombings targeting police.
But with Hambali and other 9/11-era terrorists imprisoned or killed, there is speculation that Santoso may have ambitions to grow his group’s capabilities and stature among global terrorists.
In the same vein that al-Baghdadi may be seen to represent a kind of new bin Laden on the world stage, some wonder whether Santoso may see himself as a kind of new generation Hambali figure in Indonesia.
“Santoso has become the symbolic heart of ISIS in Indonesia,” said Ms. Jones.
Although he currently poses no serious threat to the Indonesian government, she said, Santoso was the first among the nation’s varied extremists to “swear allegiance to al-Baghdadi in a video” that circulated in early July.
U.S. intelligence officials, meanwhile, caution against linking Santoso directly to al-Baghdadi but note that the Indonesian has been on the U.S. counterterrorism community’s radar since the mid-2000s, when he emerged as a known sympathizer of Abu Musab Zarqawi.
Zarqawi was the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, the group from which the Islamic State was born.
One U.S. intelligence official told The Washington Times on Tuesday that Santoso has “gold-star militant pedigree” with serious field experience among the nation’s most notorious extremist outfits.
“As commander of the self-styled Mujahedeen Indonesia Timur, Santoso continues to train up violent Jihadis in terrorist tactics,” said the official, adding that the Indonesian could be “siding with ISIL.”
However, the official added, any pledge of allegiance by Santoso to the Islamic State could “just as easily be an opportunistic ploy” by the Indonesian to “win more followers” within his own territory.