With more than 200 million Muslim inhabitants, Indonesia contains the largest Muslim population in the world. This number is roughly equal to 13 percent of the total number of Muslims in the world. However, this group of 200 million people does not represent a homogeneous group. Much variety can be found in Indonesian Islam as well as in their perceptions regarding the role that Islam should play within Indonesian politics and society.

Although around 88 percent of the Indonesian population is Muslim, Indonesia is not an Islamic state ruled by Islamic law. As most Indonesians can be labelled moderate Muslims, the majority thus approves of a secular democracy and a pluralist society. This attitude is visible in the results of recent legislative elections as Islamic political parties that stress the importance of a dominating, stricter Islamic stream in the government received few votes. The secular political parties that support a moderate and tolerant Islamic democracy and society, on the other hand, proved to be very popular. But this does not withstand the fact that Indonesia has been experiencing a continuing process of Islamization since this religion first arrived in the archipelago many centuries ago. However, this process should not be confused with Islamism or radicalism. Radical Muslims in Indonesia only constitute a small minority.

Indonesia's Radical Link to the Middle East

Radical Islamic movements in Indonesia are not a new phenomenon but have been present since the colonial era. The underlying reasons for a Muslim to radicalize can be (a mixture of) political exclusion, feelings that great injustice has been done towards the Muslim community or feelings of western domination (which results in resentment of the West). It is also important to note that Indonesian radical movements have their origin in reform movements in the Middle East.

Wahhabism, a very strict interpretation that aims for a return to the true nature of the Islam as it was practiced during the days of prophet Muhammad, was founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia in the mid-18th century. The purification of Islam would strengthen the position of Islam vis-a-vis the growing western powers. Around 1800, Indonesian hajji's arriving back in the archipelago after the pilgrimage to Mecca, brought with them this Wahhabi ideology and aimed for reviving Indonesian Islam. Not coincidentally Wahhabism was spread through the archipelago when the Dutch began to expand their political role. Another radical movement that would gain much influence in Indonesia was the Salafi-movement that stems from Egypt at the end of the 19th century. Its ideology is essentially very similar to Wahhabism.

Contact with the Middle East was key in spreading stricter forms of Islam to Indonesia. When the Suez Canal opened in 1869, which significantly quickened journeys to the Middle East, contacts with religious centers in the Middle East were intensified. Not only an increase in numbers of Indonesian hajji's emerged, but also more Indonesians went to study in Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Vice versa migrants from Arabia founded Salafi-influenced organizations in the archipelago, for example Al-Irsyad (Union for Reformation and Guidance) and Persatuan Islam (Islamic Union) in West Java, both promoting the purification of Islam.

Today, these links to the Middle East are still very important for present radical Indonesian movements (see below), both for ideological support and for financial funding. 

Continued Suppression in Independent Indonesia

When Indonesia became an independent country, the stricter Muslim groups were to become disappointed. In Soekarno's secular government there was no room for an Islamic state. Part of the radical Indonesian Muslim community joined the Darul Islam rebellion which aimed for the establishment of an Islamic state in Indonesia. This movement started in the 1940s but was eventually crushed by the Indonesian military in 1962. However, segments of the Darul Islam went underground and would produce and inspire other radical movements.

During Suharto's New Order government radical Muslim voices and organizations were pushed underground even more severely as Muslim activists were imprisoned, often without trial. They were considered a threat to Suharto's political power. Some, such as Abdullah Sungkar and Abu Bakar Ba'asyir (leaders of the Jema'ah Islamiyah), fled the country to seek a living in Malaysia. The radical religious groups that stayed in Indonesia kept underground and were mostly concentrated around the university campuses in the bigger cities.

Indonesian Radicalism Comes to the Surface

When Suharto was forced to leave office in 1998 and the Reformation period commenced, it implied no more political restrictions to the establishment of (radical-inspired) Muslim organizations. Many Muslim activists were released from prison and radicals that had fled the country returned. Another reason that explains the rise of terror acts since Suharto's fall is that the Islamic political parties that wanted to turn Indonesia into an Islamic nation suffered a big defeat during the 1999 elections, only receiving a relative small amount of the votes. Similar to the New Order, the Reformation period does not seem to be fertile soil for political Islam, thus forcing radicals to use extreme tactics to try to make a difference.

Some contemporary radical organizations that have been in the spotlight since the Reformation period are the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (Council of Indonesian Jihad Fighters), the Front Pembela Islam (Front of Islam Defenders), the Jema'ah Islamiyah (Islamic Congregation) and the (already disbanded) Laskar Jihad (Warriors of Jihad). Each of these organizations share the aim for the implementation of shariah law, are anti-western and its members do not refrain from using violence. Another feature these radical organizations share is the Arab background of its founders.

The Jema'ah Islamiyah is behind some of the most vicious attacks in the last 15 years and is regarded as being responsible for introducing a new phenomenon to Indonesia: the bomb attack. On 25 December 2000 bombs exploded at 11 churches across Indonesia, killing 19 people. Most notorious is probably the 2002 Bali bombings when two bombs exploded almost simultaneously in a night club, killing 202 people, most of whom were foreign tourists. In 2005 another bombing occurred in Bali, killing twenty people. In 2003 the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta was bombed killing 12 people and in 2009 another bombing in the JW Marriott Hotel together with a bomb in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Jakarta killed nine people in total. This list makes Jema'ah Islamiyah one of the most violent terrorist groups in the world.

Recent Developments in Indonesia's Radical Islam

According to the Indonesian police, 55 terror suspects have been killed and 583 have been arrested during the period 2000-2010. The Indonesian government stresses the importance of combating terrorist cells within the country and finds itself in close cooperation with the United States and the Australian Federal Police to topple terrorists. In 2003 a special counter-terrorism squad, called Densus 88, was established (and is part of the Indonesian National Police). Densus 88 is funded by the American government and is trained by the CIA, FBI and US Secret Service. This unit has had considerable success in weakening the Jema'ah Islamiyah network.

The current various terrorist cells in Indonesia seem to operate independently from each other forming splinter groups. This is a change from the past; radical Muslims now prefer to operate in smaller networks instead of bigger ones (on a national scale) as it is much more difficult for the authorities to trace such smaller networks. Another difference with the past is that all these terrorist cells seem to have changed tactics regarding the target of their attacks. Previously, targets consisted mainly of western or foreign people and symbols of the western world, such as embassies and certain nightclubs or hotels that are frequently visited or owned by westerners. Since 2010, however, more and more attacks are directed towards symbols of the Indonesian state, particularly Indonesian police officers (probably in reaction to the many arrests made by Densus 88).

Another new extremist organization in Indonesia is the Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT). It was founded by Abu Bakar Ba’asyir (co-founder of Jemaah Islamiyah) in 2008 and has been added to the US terror list in 2012 for multiple coordinated attacks against Indonesian civilians, police and military personnel. In September 2011 a suicide bomber of the JAT detonated explosives in a church in Central Java, wounding several people. The Indonesian police have also uncovered additional suicide plots (across Indonesia) by this group.

Aceh Training Camp

In 2010, the Indonesian government had reasonable success in combating terrorist networks. Densus 88 killed the country's most wanted terrorist, Dulmatin, in March 2010. This Dulmatin is suspected to be the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings. Barely one month earlier, Densus 88 discovered a paramilitary training camp in the jungle of Aceh where - allegedly - attacks were prepared against the Indonesian president and against foreigners and other 'infidels'. Dulmatin had been one of the leaders of this Aceh training camp. In June 2010, another mastermind of the Aceh training camp was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison in 2011. During the course of 2010, 51 members of this Aceh training camp were arrested and charged. In August 2010, Densus 88 arrested Abu Bakar Ba'asyir who allegedly helped funding the Aceh training camp. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Lastly, in December 2010, Abu Tholut was arrested by Densus 88 due to his involvement in organizing this training camp.

Islamic State (IS) & Indonesia

Indonesia is one of the world's largest suppliers of Islamic State (IS) fighters, with more than 700 Indonesians believed to have joined the war in Syria and Iraq, while more than 200 are believed to have traveled back to Indonesia after having fought alongside the militant organization. These "returnees" form a risk as they may try to recruit new members for IS by offering attractive income. As an example, in Indonesian media it was reported that a motorcycle taxi driver was offered a monthly wage of IDR 52 million (approx. USD $3,800) if he would join the militant organization. For Indonesian standards this is a very high wage and would make it attractive for the tens of millions of Indonesians who live below or just above the poverty line to join the fight, not for ideological reasons but for the lucrative payment. However, there have also been reports in media about Indonesian fighters coming back to Indonesia because they did not receive the lucrative wage as had been promised before traveling to Syria.

The viciously militant IS, known for its brutal mass killings, abductions, beheadings, and crucifixions, has been in the news headlines since 2014 when it gained control over large pieces of territory in Syria and Iraq, declaring the establishment of a caliphate ruled under Islamic Law (sharia). The organization has attracted support from radical Muslims across the globe, including Indonesia.

Based on a Pew Research study, four percent of Indonesians have a favorable opinion of the militant group. This may seems small. However, in numerical terms it constitutes more than nine million people. And with Indonesian society having become more conservative in recent years, this support is bound to rise.

Below is a list of recent violent incidents involving radical Muslim groups:

Date Description
April 2011 A suicide bomber wounded 30 people (mostly policemen) in a mosque on a police compound in Cirebon (West Java)
September 2011 A suicide bomber wounded 22 Indonesian churchgoers in Solo (Central Java)
March 2012 Densus 88 killed five Muslim radicals (in Bali) who were planning robberies to finance future terror attacks
September 2012 Densus 88 arrested a group of 11 Muslim radicals in Solo and confiscated homemade bombs that were assumed to be used for attacks against the Indonesian police and the parliament building
January 2013 Densus 88 killed five suspected Muslim terrorists in Bima and Dompu on the island of Sumbawa (West Nusa Tenggara). Allegedly, these killed suspects were preparing terrorist attacks on targets on Sumbawa
May 2013 Densus 88 killed seven and arrested 20 suspected terrorists in raids throughout Java. One week earlier a plot to bomb the embassy of Myanmar was uncovered
January 2016 Eight people (four attackers and four civilians) were killed by explosions and gunfire around a Starbucks and police post in front of the Sarina shopping mall in Central Jakarta. Islamic State claimed responsibility for this terror attack
July 2016 Indonesian Police killed two Islamic militants during a shootout in the jungle on Sulawesi. One of these militants was Indonesia's most wanted Islamic militant Abu "Santoso" Wardah, an IS supporter and leader of the East Indonesia Mujahidin (in Indonesian: Mujahidin Indonesia Timur, or MIT) terrorist cell. He managed to escape after the break-up of the Aceh training camp in 2010 and fled to Sulawesi (in the region near Poso) from where he led MIT. This militant group carried out numerous kidnappings and killings over the past couple of years, specifically directed at Indonesian security forces
August 2016 A 17-year-old Islamic State sympathizer tried to kill a Catholic priest and tried to detonate a self-made bomb during the Sunday service in a church in Medan (North Sumatra). Fortunately, he failed
August 2016 A group of six terrorists were arrested in Batam. They were planning a rocket attack at Marina Bay in Singapore (from Batam). This group is expected to have close ties to Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant who is believed to be in Syria fighting for IS
December 2016 Densus 88 killed three alleged terrorists and found various self-made bombs in Tangerang (West Java) that were presumably intended to be used for (suicide) attacks during Christmas and New Year celebrations. One woman was arrested. The four are presumably members of Bahrun Naim's terrorist cell in Solo and Klaten (Central Java). Several days later Densus 88 arrested several alleged terrorists in West and North Sumatra
February 2017 A terrorist was shot dead in Bandung (West Java) by Indonesian police after detonating a bomb near a local government office. There were no casualties. The terrorist, who had previously been in jail for his involvement in the Aceh militant training camp, was reportedly linked to the terrorist group Jamaah Anshar Daulah (JAD), known as IS sympathizers. The bomb was aimed at Densus 88
March 2017 Densus 88 arrested eight terror suspects in a series of raids around Jakarta. One was shot dead as he resisted arrest. These people are alleged Islamic State supporters who were involved in attacks and the smuggling of firearms
April 2017 Six alleged members of an Islamic militant group were killed in Tuban (East Java) after they attacked police officers
May 2017 Two suicide bombers killed three police officers and injured ten other people near a bus station (Kampung Melayu) in East Jakarta
23 June 2017 An Islamic assailant attacked two police officers at a local mosque near the National Police headquarters in South Jakarta
25 June 2017 Two terrorists killed a police officer at his post in Medan (North Sumatra). Other police officers managed to kill the assailant, while arresting another person in relation to this case
August 2017 Five suspected Islamic militants were arrested in Bandung (while bomb making materials were confiscated at their houses). They were believed to be preparing attacks on the Presidential Palace in Jakarta and local Police headquarters
8-10 May 2018 Convicted terrorists rebelled in a high security prison in Depok (near Jakarta). Inmates managed to kill and kidnap guards as well as to break down an internal gate to reach a weapon room. After almost two days Indonesian security officers manages to end the riot as all 155 inmates surrendered. It led to the deaths of five police officers and one inmate
13 May 2018 Three churches - Innocent Saint Mary Catholic Church (Ngagel), Indonesia Christian Church (Diponegoro), and Surabaya Central Pentecost Church Church (Arjuno) - all located in Surabaya (East Java) were target of suicide bombers (members of one local family) when the Sunday morning services were about to start. It led to a total of 15 deaths
13 May 2018 A bomb exploded in a low-cost apartment complex nearby Sidoarjo. It is assumed that this bomb, which went off prematurely, was made to be used in a terrorist attack. Local police assume a link with the church bombings earlier on the day
14 May 2018 The entrance of Surabaya's police headquarters was target of a suicide bomb. A local family (driving on two motorcycles) blew themselves up, causing ten deaths

Although there are positive developments in the battle against Islamic radicalism in Indonesia, it should be noted that radical ideology remains rooted in the minds of a small part of Indonesia's Muslim community (as long as there is a secular Indonesian government). And part of that small radical community is willing to use extreme violence to realize their ideals. Although over the past decade targets have shifted from western people or places symbolic of the western world (such as luxury western hotel chains or disco clubs) to local targets (particularly Indonesian police officers, police stations, and local churches), we would still advise people to be careful when visiting places that can be considered symbolic of the western world (such as disco clubs).

Last update: 16 May 2018