THE recent suicide bomb attack in Syria by a Malaysian militant has highlighted the presence of South-east Asian fighters in Syria's civil war. Another 15 Malaysians have also been reportedly killed in clashes, while Indonesian militants have also featured among the dead in Syria and Iraq. Many of them were said to have fought for the extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared to be a transnational "caliphate".
Among the Indonesians killed were alumni of different Jemaah Islamiah-linked schools in Indonesia. Security analysts believe the number of Indonesian fighters in Syria is greater than the government estimate of 56.
Many Indonesian militants believe Syria to be the epicentre of the Last Caliphate and where the Final Battle, or Armageddon, against Dajjal, or the false messiah, will ensue. Based on jihadist interpretations of selected hadith - sayings of Prophet Muhammad - it is argued that the current conflict against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may not be the Final Battle, but it certainly is a divinely sanctioned mechanism to get rid of infidels from the holy land.
Subscribing to the narrative, Indonesian jihadists who have travelled, or have intentions to travel, to Syria to fight could well regard their trip as a one- way ticket, either staying or dying there to be a part of the Final Victory. The government anticipates that if some do return, they will do so with new skills and a renewed ideological commitment to conduct armed jihad.
Indonesia is legitimately concerned about Syria veterans, noting that some of the country's most egregious terrorist attacks in the past decade had been masterminded by Islamist militants who had once fought in Afghanistan or Mindanao. However, a more immediate concern is arguably the swelling numbers of local supporters of Syrian jihadist groups, especially ISIS.
Locally, ISIS' self-proclaimed "caliphate" has had two results. First, it has injected new impetus into the notion of qital tamkin, armed warfare that is aimed at gaining territorial control rather than merely attacking the enemy (qital nikayah). Second, it has contributed to the growth of Indonesian ISIS supporters beyond those who populate the militant Islamist circles.
On the first point, the ISIS takeover of parts of Syria and Iraq could further reinforce the viability of ISIS-styled qital tamkin in Indonesia. The small-scale qital nikayah has been the favoured tactic hitherto largely because it is easier to conduct. But the approach - whose proponents included the Bali bombers and Noordin Top - has been greatly criticised as being too destructive and not yielding much political or territorial gain. Consequently, those championing qital tamkin, including influential jihadi ideologue Aman Abdurrahman, have been using ISIS' victory to demonstrate how Indonesian jihadists need to focus on establishing a secure base wheresyariah laws could be implemented.
The leader of Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), Abu Bakar Bashir, has also recently endorsed ISIS precisely because it has established territorial control and a semblance of a governing authority. This serves to re-energise attempts to create jihadi safe havens - a strategy that has underpinned various violent campaigns over the years, including the bid to set up a militant base in Aceh in late 2009. Another, led by Santoso's Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), is still being actively pursued in Poso today.
With regard to the second point, the number of ISIS supporters in Indonesia has increased noticeably. They include existing jihadist groups and their supporters as well as non-violent radicals. MIT and JAT are among those that have sworn allegiance with or endorsed ISIS. New groups, too, have been formed in direct support of ISIS. They include Anshorullah, whose members have publicly declared their intention to fight in Syria, and Anshar Al-Daulah, whose members are more inclined to promote ISIS through community- based events like charity work. ISIS sympathisers also come from pro-syariah advocacy groups and religious vigilantes known for their anti-vice activism.
New pro-ISIS websites, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts also continue to emerge with thousands of followers. Although many share the romanticism of an Islamic caliphate, not all necessarily support the group's violent methods. However, given that terrorists like Abu Roban had reportedly recruited new operatives by identifying cheerleaders of armed jihad supporters on Facebook, ISIS online cheerleaders could become targets for recruitment too.
In sum, developments in Syria and Iraq could determine new directions for the militant Islamist movement in Indonesia. The newly declared "caliphate" has attracted local supporters and revived the idea of qital tamkin. These developments can have implications for the rest of the region whether in terms of spillover effects of domestic politics or the clandestine movements of violent elements across porous South-east Asian borders.
There is need to closely monitor the development of ISIS supporters to discern credible security threats from the brash cheerleaders. Without necessarily being alarmist, particularly considering how the majority of the global Muslim community consider ISIS neither relevant nor legitimate, countering the legitimacy of the new "caliphate" as well as any attempt to emulate it in the Indonesian context remains important.
Navhat Nuraniyah is an Associate Research Fellow and Sulastri Osman is a Research Fellow with the Centre of Excellence for National Security, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.