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Indonesia’s Neverending Battle With Islamic Extremism

ISIS claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack that killed two people in the center of Jakarta on Thursday. If the extremist group was behind the attack, it would be the first time it has struck Indonesia.

But the Indonesian archipelago, home to the world’s largest population of Muslims, is no stranger to Islamist extremism. The al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) staged brutal large-scale attacks, such as the Christmas Eve bombings in 2000, where 11 churches were attacked across the country, and the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people.

Now, Indonesia finds itself facing a new threat. There are 22 local groups who have pledged allegiance to ISIS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Even though the state officially banned ISIS in 2014, the groups have yet to face any legal challenge to their dissemination of propaganda.

Extremist groups have existed in the country since its independence from the Netherlands in 1949.

After the 2002 attacks in Bali, Indonesia’s government formed Detachment 88, a U.S.-trained counter-terrorism unit, which became the country’s greatest asset in dismantling and deradicalizing the JI and al-Qaeda affiliated networks between 2002 till now.

Today, ISIS has taken over the space in Indonesia once dominated by JI and al-Qaeda affiliates. Many of their followers have defected to ISIS — the suspected organizer of Thursday’s attack, who allegedly heads ISIS’s external operations wing in Southeast Asia from Syria. There is also evidence of growing conservatism in the country, where strict Islamic laws have been enforced in the northwest province of Aceh.


“Indonesians are not good at preventing an attack, but they are very successful in post-investigation and hunting perpetrators,” says Gunaratna. To fight the rapidly growing threat of ISIS, he says Indonesia will have to double the numbers of Detachment 88, criminalize ISIS affiliated groups and counter the propaganda on the web. Both it, and the world, are facing a truly global threat.

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