ISIS is starting to expand its presence in southeast Asia

Opinion Journal: ISIS's Global Reach
Opinion Journal: ISIS's Global Reach

Late last week, ISIS claimed its first attack in Indonesia, which might be a signal that the group is seeking to expand its reach in southeast Asia, according to The New York Times and other news outlets.

Though the attack on a shopping center in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, is the first for which the terrorist group ISIS (also known as the Islamic State, ISIL, and Daesh) has claimed responsibility in the country, smaller-scale attacks have been carried out by self-identified ISIS sympathizers in the region over the past year.

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And it appears that ISIS didn't just take credit for the Jakarta attack after the fact. There's evidence that the group actually funded it, as The Associated Press reported last Friday.

Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian man who spent a year in jail in 2011 for weapons possession and is now allegedly fighting for ISIS in Syria, was reportedly the point of contact.

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Only a very small percentage of the population in Indonesia is thought to be radicalized, but even a tiny percentage could lead to significant ramifications.

"In the last six months, we've seen a spike of planning for violence in Indonesia," Sidney Jones, a terrorism expert and the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, told The Times. "It's a desire to prove that jihadi groups are still alive and well in Indonesia and are committed to carrying out the ISIS agenda."

Though ISIS' influence spread quickly in Iraq and Syria, where sectarian tensions run high and government structures are shaky at best, Indonesia has so far been largely insulated from jihadist ideology. But tensions between moderate Muslims and hardline extremists has been growing in Indonesia, and ISIS seems to have aspirations for the most populous Muslim country in the world.

Indonesia "is an obvious target for the Islamic State, even if it is relatively resistant to the group's violent extremism," strategic security firm The Soufan Group wrote in a recent note. "Numerous regional groups, such as Katibah Nusantara and East Indonesian Mujahideen, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. All are jockeying for recognition as Indonesia's official Islamic State affiliate, with the corresponding increase in notoriety, funding, and recruitment."

In a column for The Times, Jones predicted that there is "more violence to come" in Indonesia.

When ISIS established a presence in Indonesia, Jones wrote, "suddenly there was the potential for Indonesian extremists to go to Syria and get military training, combat experience, ideological indoctrination and international contacts."

And because the death toll from the Jakarta attack was relatively low compared to other recent ISIS attacks, the group could decide to ship trained jihadis from the Middle East into Indonesia to carry out deadlier, more sophisticated operations.

"The need for more preventive measures has therefore become pressing," Jones wrote.

"One necessity is plugging the holes in Indonesia's anti-terrorism law, which at present does not ban membership in ISIS or similar organizations, or participation in terrorist-training camps abroad. Even when the Indonesian police know that individuals are actively recruiting for ISIS, they have few legal tools to stop them."

ISIS is also seeking to carry out attacks in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand, according to The Times.

But the outlook for Indonesia isn't quite as bleak as it is for countries in the Middle East. The Soufan Group pointed out that the country has robust counterterrorism forces to face the threat of terrorism and that the low number of casualties in the Jakarta attack (two civilians and five attackers died) suggest that the attackers didn't have the same capabilities of the terrorists who carried out the Paris attacks in November that killed 130 people.

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