The Islamic State’s terrorist army is broadening its global reach to find recruits willing to come to its Syria-Iraq “caliphate” and wreak havoc.
An Army think tank report states that Southeast Asia, and especially Indonesia, is a routine stop for hundreds of smuggled terrorists. They travel a prescribed route to improve the chances of making it to the Syrian city of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s proclaimed capital.
Much is written on the terrorist group’s attractiveness to Muslims living in Europe, especially France, which suffered its second massacre this year at the hands of the Islamic State, also known as ISIL and ISIS.
Indonesia, with the world’s largest Muslim population at more than 205 million, is less noticed but fertile territory. One team of researchers in London has called Southeast Asia a “blind spot” for counting Islamic State recruits.
The Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, reported this month that Indonesia is both a source of domestic recruits and foreign fighters who arrive on their way to Syria.
Press reports last year put the number of Indonesians going to fight in Syria at 50, with most presumed to be on the side of Islamic extremists such as the Islamic State.
The Foreign Military Studies Office puts the number now at about 500. Jakarta faces the same problem as Europe and possibly the U.S.: Fighters honed by the Islamic State in Syria will return to their home country to commit terrorism.
“At least 300-500 Indonesians have been in Syria training for battle, and there has been at least one case of a mall bombing in Jakarta that has ISIS trademarks associated with it,” said the military studies report. “Thus, the direct link is very clear that Islamic State’s presence in Indonesia is growing.”
“Indonesians arriving from fighting for ISIS abroad present a significant problem for domestic terrorism. Similar to foreigners fighting in Afghanistan, they have received requisite training to conduct domestic terrorist activities when they return home,” the report added.
The 500 is a small percentage of the Islamic State’s estimated strength of 30,000. But the terrorist group’s relentless social media broadcasts, as well as instant messaging on encrypted apps, have proved successful in increasing its stream of inductees.
The Foreign Military Studies Office report quotes Saud Usman Nasution, who heads Indonesia’s counterterrorism agency, as saying that nearby Malaysia is a collection point for terrorism recruits and may now be home to “thousands.”
Mr. Nasution told Malaysia’s English-language The Star Online that the Islamic State is working with smuggling networks to bring foreign fighters to Indonesia.
“So we need to stay vigilant, more so because there is information that in Malaysia, there are thousands, a lot of foreign terrorist fighters there who are about to be deployed — we don’t know where to — under the network,” he said.
Mr. Nasution said 76 Indonesians have returned from Syria and 52 died there, four of whom acted as suicide bombers.
The House Homeland Security Committee estimates that the Islamic State commands up to 30,000 fighters. About 250 Americans have left the U.S. to join the terrorist group.
There does not appear to be firm numbers on the Salafist Sunni militant group’s ethnic makeup.
But the Department of War Studies at King’s College in London studied the flow of terrorists, and puts the number of foreign fighters coming to Syria-Iraq at more than 20,000.
The department’s International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence says the recruits come from 50 countries. Southeast Asia, which includes Indonesia and Malaysia, is a “blind spot” — meaning the flow is difficult to calibrate, the center said in its most recent report written by director Peter R. Neumann.
Outside the Middle East, the largest influx of 4,000 recruits comes from Western Europe, a count double the center’s 2013 estimate. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni Muslim state, has up to 2,500 citizens fighting for the Islamic State.
France, which saw 130 innocents killed by Islamic State attackers Nov. 13, has provided the most, at 1,200. Britain and Germany — about 600 each.
“As with previous estimates, it should be stressed that counting foreign fighters is no exact science,” Mr. Neumann said.