Jihadist Syiria and Their Implications in Southeast Asia

London-based International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) estimates that about 11,000 people from 74 countries are joining the Syrian opposition fighters. Among them are Indonesian jihadists, who have been involved in the conflict since it started on Jan. 26, 2011. The Indonesian jihadists consider Syria al-Sham, the holy place for jihad, home to a battle between good and evil. The call for the fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria is stronger than that during the Afghan war, where many Indonesian jihadists fought the Soviet Union in 1980s-1990s. As we know, the Afghan veterans planned and perpetrated the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005.

The call for war in Syria has been openly sounded in Indonesia within certain religious circles as well as at a number of book events recently. The groups have also recruited volunteers from universities, including hardline Muslim students from rich families. Other Indonesian jihadists who fight in Syria are students in Middle Eastern, South Asian and Southeast Asian universities. The National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) has recorded more than 50 Indonesian fighters in Syria are connected with al-Qaeda terrorist groups.

Their agenda in Syria varies. First, they want to help oust the Assad regime, which is associated with Shia. In their eyes, the war is between Sunni and Shia. Second, the war will allow them to meet other jihadists from all over the world and, hence, set up a global jihad network. Third, the war is believed to raise the dignity of Islam in their quest for the creation of an Islamic state in Syria. The involvement of jihadists has complicated the challenge facing the opposition force in Syria, but for the jihadists’ home countries the impact will be more worrying. It is feared that these Syrian war veterans will spread radicalism, religious violence and terrorism in their respective home countries.

Their war experiences, their radical ideology and global jihad connections will transform the face of Islam in their home countries. Although the majority of Indonesian-Muslims are moderate Sunni and associated with the country’s two largest Muslim organizations, Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, the increasing number of radical groups has sparked concern. They have grown very significantly since the collapse of the New Order regime, thanks to the role of Islamic radical schools established in the 1980s and 1990s.

Syrian war veterans will strengthen radicalization in schools. If the veterans are allowed to become teachers in these institutions they will not only sow the seeds of militant ideology but also transfer their war experience. The pattern was adopted by teachers who took part in the Afghan and Southern Philippine wars and the subsequent conflicts in Poso and Maluku. The impact of the Syrian war on the Southeast Asian region will be more serious than that of the Afghan war. Indonesian and Southeast Asian fighters went to Syria after undergoing training provided by al-Qaeda-linked groups. Ambassador Bhaskar Balakrishnan said organizations connected to al-Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nushra, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) in northern and eastern Syria were the groups that Indonesian and Southeast Asian fighters joined.

Furthermore, foreign fighters were trained to assemble improvised explosive devices (IED) and perpetrate car bomb and suicide attacks. Conflict expert Sidney Jones argues that “Syria veterans will return home with new skills, experience, contacts, credibility and deadly intentions.” The aftermath of the Syrian war will challenge governments around the world as to how to deal with the veterans, who have war and direct combat experience and global jihad ideology.

Two Malaysians were arrested trying to enter Syria at the end of October 2012 from Turkey, while in November 2013 an al-Mukmin Ngruki graduate, Riza Fardi alias Abu Muhammad Al-Indunisi, was reported by the Suqour al-Izz Brigade, an armed group in which Fardi joined, to have been killed in a battle in East Ghouta. Fardi studied at a Yemen university before joining the brigade. The challenges facing the government in connection with the jihadists’ return will remind us of the difficulties to solve residual issues left in Maluku and Poso, where sectarian conflict claimed tens of thousands of lives in 1999-2002.

Peace agreements wound up the conflicts in 2002, but the impact remains apparent after more than a decade. Some former fighters, such as Santoso, are launching attacks on the police and figures who challenge their jihad. It is believed that Syrian veterans will strengthen the capacity of the groups. They will not only instill jihad narrative experience in schools and religious circles but also perpetrate violent operations against the government. Effective cooperation among intelligent authorities in Southeast Asia is badly needed to overcome those unwanted impacts of the Syrian war. Engaging with local religious organizations will help the government maintain stability and peace in the region.

Tia Mariatul Kibtia, The writer is Faculty Member of IR Department Binus University and an alumnus of a postgraduate program in politics and international relations focusing on the Middle East at the University of Indonesia (UI), Jakarta