November 8, 2023
JAKARTA – Heightened tensions from the Israel-Hamas conflict and the upcoming contentious presidential election in Indonesia have created a volatile environment that could inflame emotions, thus increasing the risk of terrorist attacks.
Security experts warned that the recent arrests of 59 people suspected of plotting attacks to disrupt the polls in 2024 will unlikely be the last batch of radicals to be picked up.
Indonesia’s anti-terror police said the suspects had allegedly planned to target police facilities to disrupt the presidential and legislative elections on Feb 14.
During the nearly month-long arrests in October, the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism task force (Densus 88) also seized firearms, bomb-making chemicals and propaganda materials.
While the militant threat in Indonesia has diminished significantly due to successful security force operations, the recent arrests show that the terrorism threat very much remains in the country, which has seen deadly large-scale terror attacks like the Bali bombings of 2002 that killed more than 200 people.
Dr Noor Huda Ismail, a visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said the intricate nature of terrorist networks and the persistent influence of radical ideologies mean that individuals or groups with similar extremist views and violent intentions may still be out there.
The upcoming elections – including the three-way fight among presidential candidates with massive followings – and the ongoing war between Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas have the potential to create narratives that extremist groups will exploit to rile up people.
“Radical groups often exploit ongoing conflicts and political instability to promote their ideologies and recruit new members,” said Dr Noor Huda, whose work focuses on terrorism in the region.
“In the context of the conflict in Gaza and the upcoming election, radical groups might use these events to fuel anti-establishment sentiments, exploit grievances, and foster a sense of victimhood among vulnerable populations.”
Countries around the world including the United Kingdom, Germany and Brussels have arrested suspects in terror plots linked to the Israel-Hamas war.
On Monday, Singapore’s Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said in Parliament that violent threats against the Republic by regional extremist groups online have gone up since the outbreak of hostilities.
He revealed that since the conflict in the Middle East started on Oct 7, regional Internet traffic on extremist sites has gone up threefold and that the Government has seen more anti-Singapore rhetoric, including violent threats from regional extremist elements.
Eight police reports of offensive remarks or actions targeted at Jewish and Muslim communities were lodged in Singapore in October, which is about the same number of reports lodged between January and September. This is a very sharp spike, said DPM Wong.
Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation with more than 270 million people, has so far not reported any significant threat tied to the conflict in the Middle East.
At a rally on Sunday, tens of thousands of people gathered at the National Monument in Jakarta to express solidarity with the Palestinians. The event went by peacefully, with attendees chanting prayers and listening to speeches that called for an immediate cessation of violence in the Gaza Strip.
Dr Noor Huda and other experts noted that the convergence of the conflict in the Middle East and the elections in Indonesia exemplifies the concept of “glocalisation”, which he said refers to the interconnectedness of global events and their localised impacts.
Three major elections in Indonesia – the 2017 Jakarta election, and both the 2014 and 2019 presidential elections – were highly divisive and drew a political cleavage between Islamists and pluralists, with some causing riots to erupt.
“In this context, the intertwining of global conflicts and local political dynamics in Indonesia highlights the interconnected nature of socio-political issues, underscoring how events in one part of the world can resonate with and influence local sentiments and actions,” said Dr Noor Huda.
The current situation is a “political tinderbox”, given the heightened tensions from the Middle East conflict and the polarisation of domestic nationalist feelings due to the elections, said Dr Mustafa Izzuddin, a senior international affairs analyst at policy and business consultancy Solaris Strategies Singapore.
“The intermix of an external conflict stirring up domestic emotions in the spirit of Muslim brotherliness and a presidential election that is expected to intensify and capitalise on the fault lines and undercurrents in Indonesian society makes the domestic situation extremely volatile and a discernible threat to national security,” said Dr Mustafa who is also a visiting professor in international relations at the Islamic University of Indonesia.
Among the suspects recently arrested, 40 of them were from Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, Indonesia’s largest terror group, which has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Were it not for the recent arrests by Densus 88, dozens of people might be killed during the presidential election and potentially other events, too, said Mr Muh Taufiqurrohman, a senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies think-tank.
“Pro-ISIS extremists’ ability to acquire firearms and make explosives, as shown by Abu Umar’s group, make the situation more dangerous,” he said, referring to the terrorist who in 2011 plotted to attack the police and Singapore embassy in Jakarta, among other places.
A potential flashpoint to watch out for is the 2023 Fifa U-17 World Cup in Indonesia from Nov 10 to Dec 2. He noted that among the 24 participating countries are nations seen to be pro-Israeli like the United States and some European nations like Germany.
All the experts whom The Straits Times spoke to warned of an uptick in terrorist recruitment, which Mr Muh said was an ongoing trend on social media and gaming forums like Discord.
Besides online recruitment, Dr Noor Huda highlighted that terrorist groups could exploit the uncertainty and social unrest generated by the current situation to target individuals who feel marginalised or disenfranchised.
“By capitalising on people’s grievances and disillusionment, they can attempt to recruit new members who are susceptible to their ideologies,” he said.
He suggested that beyond calling for people to be vigilant, the authorities in Indonesia should also develop a cohesive and integrated framework that promotes information sharing, joint training programmes, and unified strategies to effectively combat the threat of terrorism.
In the archipelago, multiple agencies like Densus 88 as well as the National Counter-Terrorism Agency deal with terrorism, but critics have pointed out that the lack of effective collaboration poses significant obstacles to implementing counter-terrorism measures.
“By fostering a culture of collaboration and coordination, Indonesian authorities can strengthen their collective capacity to address the complex and evolving nature of terrorist threats and enhance the overall security landscape in the country,” he said.