JAKARTA: A power struggle among three Indonesian-born Islamic State militants in Syria could have a violent ripple effect in Southeast Asia, senior police warn, as a deadly game of one-upmanship threatens to cause more Jakarta-style attacks.
A crackdown in the wake of January’s gun and suicide assault on the Indonesian capital has uncovered a complex web of small militant cells working at the behest of competing ringleaders in Syria, shedding light on the nature of IS infiltration far from its Middle East heartland.
The trio in Syria — Bahrumsyah, Abu Jandal and Bahrun Naim — were all suspected of plotting attacks throughout 2015.
Police initially fingered Naim — a high-profile extremist from Central Java known for his online radicalism — as the mastermind of last month’s outrage.
Each of these influential figureheads has been encouraging their Indonesian cells to independently wage jihad back home, providing cash and guidance in the hope of impressing IS with a spectacular operation.
“These three are competing to win praise from IS central command by undertaking attacks,” Jakarta police chief Tito Karnavian, a seasoned frontline officer who helped dismantle Indonesian militant networks during the 2000s, told AFP.
“Once they get it, they will be endorsed for the IS leadership for Indonesia, and with that comes money and power.”
Competition among the Syria-based trio has kept police very busy in Indonesia, with militant activity spiking dramatically in recent months.
Police attention has shifted away from Naim to Aman Abdurrahman, a jailed ideologue linked to one of Naim’s competitors in Syria, and one of the first Indonesians to pledge allegiance to IS.
Abdurrahman’s success at home has increased pressure on his rivals to carry out attacks “as soon as possible,” the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) said in a February report.
One of the trio even rang an associate in Indonesia shortly after the Jakarta assault demanding a similar attack be carried out immediately, according to the report.
“More terrorist attacks in Indonesia are likely as local ISIS leaders compete at home and abroad to establish their supremacy,” the report concluded.
IS eyes Southeast Asia
Top policeman Karnavian said IS would “turn to Indonesia” as it sought to establish a Southeast Asia branch — the Jakarta attack was the first in the region claimed by the brutal militant group and proved there were fighters willing to unleash violent jihad in the world’s fourth-most populous country.
The ensuing police sweep has seen about 20 suspected militants arrested, and exposed a tangled web of splinter cells, some operating alone but many with complex and at times competing allegiances to armed insurgent groups, jailed radicals and influential leaders in Syria.
Many of these groups had been actively plotting attacks for years, police said, with some committing robberies to bankroll operations and others identifying police targets as far back as 2010.
Others had deep links inside prisons, fertile ground for indoctrinating and recruiting new foot soldiers.
Prisons pose a unique challenge as jailed extremists are using their time inside to recruit hardened criminals and hatch new plans, Karnavian said.
Afif, one of the Jakarta attackers who, like many Indonesians goes by one name, had pledged allegiance to IS while behind bars, before launching the deadly assault that left him, three other militants and four civilians dead.
Law too weak
One cell busted south of Jakarta had recruited an inmate trusted by jail wardens to steal guns and ammunition from the police armory behind bars. A police source said his girlfriend hid the weapons in an insulated lunchbox and smuggled them to militants on the outside.
This group, a counter-terror police source told AFP, was on the brink of launching an attack, with targets identified in Jakarta and Bali, a popular resort island frequented by foreigners. Strikes against embassies of nations fighting against IS in Syria and Iraq were also being assessed.
Monitoring outside prison is tricky too. In 2014, before Bahrumsyah — one of the Indonesian ringleaders in Syria — left for the Middle East, he led 1,000 followers in a mass pledge of allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi.
Counter-terror officials complain the law is too weak and allows radicals returning home to slip through the cracks, something the government is seeking to amend with new legislation.
“History will be repeated when those militants return from Syria,” Ansyaad Mbai, the former head of the National Terrorism Mitigation Agency, told AFP.