Four foreign nationals believed to be linked to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have been arrested by counter-terrorism police in central Sulawesi, in the first known instance of foreign radicals travelling to the archipelago to establish links with local groups in recent months.
Police had initially said they were Turkish nationals based on their forged passports, but later clarified they were Uighurs from China's restive Xinjiang region who had travelled through Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia.
At a hastily convened meeting of his security Cabinet yesterday, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono told officials to keep a closer watch on foreign elements in Indonesia and to stop Indonesians from leaving to join the ISIS.
He also instructed them to monitor radicals fighting abroad or who are in prison, as well as known hot spots.
"We shouldn't be lulled (into thinking) that the danger is only in the Middle East. If we are not vigilant… similar acts of violence could also happen here," he said.
The Indonesian authorities said the suspected terrorists were trying to meet wanted militant leader Santoso, who leads the Eastern Indonesian Mujahidin and swore allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July in videos widely circulated on YouTube.
The arrests came amid an ongoing global crackdown on ISIS and growing concern that the militant group is sending men to the region to widen its reach, just as Al-Qaeda operatives were sent here to reach out to the Jemaah Islamiah over a decade ago.
Terrorism analyst Robi Sugara told The Straits Times that ISIS was no longer just encouraging Asians to travel to Iraq and Syria, but could also be encouraging them to help in its goal of creating a global caliphate stretching across Muslim lands. "It also shows that terrorist groups are increasingly connected through social media… and they communicate easily through this means."
Police said the four men were arrested on Saturday after fleeing a police check in Parigi Moutong, close to Poso, a militant hotbed, and flown to Jakarta for questioning yesterday. Police have not officially released their names. Three Indonesians with them in Sulawesi were also detained.
National Intelligence Agency chief Marciano Norman said that if the foreigners were seeking to join ranks with Santoso's group, the assumption must be that they are also hardline, although investigations are ongoing.
Mr Marciano told reporters he was thankful for the wider community's role in the fight against ISIS. He said: "Indon- esians' rejection of ISIS across the country has limited their room for movement."
Officials estimate that over 60 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside ISIS while China estimates about 100 of its nationals are with ISIS. At least 50 Malaysians and 100 Philippine nationals are also believed to have gone to the Middle East.
Last Saturday, Manila deported Canadian preacher Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, who had been considered dangerous in security advisories by several countries for his ties with extremist groups. He was detained in Davao City last weekend. "He was charged for being an undesirable foreign national and for being inadmissible at the time of entry," Bureau of Immigration spokesman Elaine Tan told The Straits Times.
Separately, former Kedah Parti Islam SeMalaysia Youth information chief Lotfi Ariffin has reportedly died in Syria after an ambush, according to a Malaysian fighting there. This makes him the fourth Malaysian militant known to have died in Syria and Iraq in recent months.
Four Indonesians are also known to have died there.
Additional reporting by Raul Dancel in Manila