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  • Terrorism and Extremism in Indonesia and the Southeast Asian Region
  • Sidney Jones (bio)

COVID-19, combined with intensive security operations and changing international dynamics, kept most local terrorist organizations off balance in 2021. In Indonesia, arrests were high and fatalities low, with terrorists responsible for five deaths, all in Poso, Central Sulawesi. Several attempts at attacks elsewhere, including the March 2021 bombing of Makassar cathedral, resulted in injuries to bystanders, but no deaths, other than the suicide bombers themselves. Almost no one tried to go overseas to join a jihad, and no one came back from Syria or was deported from Turkey.

Malaysia continued to patrol the coast of Sabah, occasionally deporting or killing Abu Sayyaf Group suspects, but no arrests of Malysians on terrorism charges took place during the year, either in Sabah or the rest of the country. In the Philippines, the military continued to try and "neutralize" top leaders, with top pro-ISIS leaders among those killed. Singapore arrested a few citizens with violent extremist sympathies. A Singaporean teenager arrested in December 2020 remains the only Southeast Asian detained for far-right sympathies. He reportedly wanted to attack two mosques in Singapore on the anniversary of the Christchurch, New Zealand shootings.1

The return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan raised concerns of possible renewed activity of al-Qaeda in the region or of a blowback to Southeast Asia of heightened activity from ISIS–Khorasan, the so-called province of Islamic State in Afghanistan. At least in the short term, these were probably overdrawn. While many Muslims celebrated the victory of a Muslim army over the United States, there were no immediate candidates for a partnership with al-Qaeda, even if the Taliban return gave the latter state protection. Its old partner, Jemaah Islamiyah, had no interest in resuming an affiliation and in any case since 2019 had become [End Page 162] the target of a major crackdown by police. Its immediate aim was organizational survival, not global jihad. Pro-ISIS groups in Indonesia, as elsewhere, saw al-Qaeda as the enemy. Indeed, if Indonesian authorities were worried about outside influence serving as inspiration for violence at home, the source was more likely to be ISIS–Khorasan attacks on the Taliban rather than anything al-Qaeda was doing.

Arrests in Indonesia

The big story in Indonesia was the continued use of the 2018 anti-terrorism law for "preventive strikes", meaning that just as COVID-19 surged in June and July 2021, Indonesia's prisons were being overwhelmed by new inmates. The number of new prisoners was not a reflection of an increased threat, but rather of the increased powers of police under the new law and a steady increase in the number of officers assigned to the counterterrorism unit. More crimes punishable under the new law and more officers making arrests combined to increase the number of prisoners.

By November 2021, Indonesia had more terrorism suspects and convicts behind bars than at any time since the most recent phase of global terrorism began with the World Trade Centre attacks on 9/11. As of December 2021, more than 1,000 were behind bars, with some 370 arrested since January 2021. Some 450 men and women were held in prisons under the Corrections Directorate of the Ministry of Law and Human Rights, while almost 600 were in police custody awaiting trial, awaiting transfer to the prison system after conviction, or simply housed in police detention because there was no other place to put them. The majority were pro-ISIS but close to a third were JI members, most of whom had not been involved directly in violence.2 Sentences were generally lenient, with judges handing down sentences of four and a half years on average in 2020 and just under four years in 2021.

The volume of arrests was not due solely to the 2018 law but also to a strengthening of the anti-terrorism bureaucracy. Since 2016, the number of Detachment 88 personnel has risen from 400 to 2,500 with a concomitant growth in the budget. While it has made a concerted effort to recruit more women, recognizing the increased role of women in extremist...


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pp. 162-174
Launched on MUSE
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