SIM Report: Southeast Asia, Issue 10

Indonesia: Ban on hard-line Islamist group, release of alleged terrorist mastermind likely to raise security risks for foreign businesses and personnel

Despite a lack of major terrorist incidents over the COVID-19 pandemic, terrorism cells are continuing to propagate their ideology, finding and training recruits, and plotting their next attacks, according to an 18 January report by news outlet CNA citing National Counter Terrorism Agency’s (BNPT) director for enforcement Eddy Hartono. The police’s counterterrorism unit Densus 88 arrested 232 individuals in total over 2020 due to alleged involvement in terrorism activities. Authorities learned from some of those arrested that terrorists have switched to targeting security and government officials rather than ordinary civilians, according to Hartono. The economic fallout of the pandemic will raise the likelihood of radicalisation, the BNPT director said.

Hartono also said that the Indonesian government’s announced ban on 30 December 2020 of the influential hard-line Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) with immediate effect was part of a strategy of early intervention aimed at curtailing radicalisation and terrorism. The FPI is led by Islamic cleric Rizieq Shihab, who was arrested earlier in December soon after returning from three years of self-exile in Saudi Arabia. Rizieq’s arrest was followed by demonstrations by his supporters, and an incident in which six FPI activists were shot dead in a confrontation with police near the capital Jakarta. The incident was widely viewed as an extrajudicial killing.

The FPI has demonstrated that it has broad support among many conservative and radical Muslims disaffected by the policies of the administration of President Joko Widodo. The government’s ban of FPI is likely to intensify such views. Meanwhile, the government does not have the means, and, most likely, the will, to marginalise the organisation through legal measures. There is a high likelihood that more radical FPI supporters will devise other ways to challenge the state, including illegal rallies and possibly more violent and targeted actions. While the FPI’s political aims target the government, foreign businesses and individuals are assessed to be at higher risk of violence posing incidental risks in at least the 12-month outlook. Radical factions are likely to seek targets designed to discredit the state and its governance.

Of further concern regarding the security threat profile of Indonesia is the Indonesian government’s 8 January release of Abu Bakar Bashir from prison. Bashir is the alleged instigator of several attacks in Indonesia in which about 90 Australians were killed between 2002 and 2005. The move has strained relations between Canberra and Jakarta. Bashir is viewed as the spiritual leader of the al-Qaeda-linked Islamist Jemaah Islamiah (JI) network and was imprisoned in 2011 for his links to militant training camps in Aceh province. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said Bashir’s release will be deeply distressing to the families and friends of the Australians killed in the terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002 and 2005. Bashir denies any link with the attacks. An anticipated surge in criticism of the decision to release Bashir potentially exposes Australian firms operating in Indonesia to local reactions including potential small-scale demonstrations and threats against expatriate personnel.

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