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Indonesian Militants Join Foreigners Fighting in Syria

Indonesians have joined the thousands of foreign fighters who have traveled to Syria to help extremist groups trying to create an Islamic state there, according to a new report, a finding that analysts said Friday could help revive a weakened jihadi movement in Indonesia and set off more attacks on minority Shiites in the Southeast Asian country.

The report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, based in Jakarta, said that the Syrian conflict, approaching its third anniversary in March, had "captured the imagination of Indonesian extremists in a way no foreign war has before."

"The enthusiasm for Syria is directly linked to predictions in Islamic eschatology that the final battle at the end of time will take place in Sham, the region sometimes called Greater Syria or the Levant, encompassing Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel," the report said, adding that atrocities committed by government forces against Sunni Muslims have been given strong play in the Indonesian news media and on radical websites.

Sidney Jones, the institute's director, said the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, based on information from the Syrian government, estimated that at least 50 Indonesians had traveled to Syria via Turkey to take up arms since 2012. While she emphasized that the figure was "a guesstimate," the report warned that the numbers could increase.

As many as 11,000 foreign fighters have poured into Syria by way of the Middle East and North Africa. The fighters include radicalized young Muslims with Western passports from Europe, North America and Australia.

Ms. Jones said Indonesian fighters could easily fly on commercial airlines to Turkey, where Ahrar al-Sham, one of the Islamic groups fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, helped them cross the border into Syria. Some Indonesian extremists have also been linking up with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a hard-line group linked to Al Qaeda, she said.

"There are two main concerns for Indonesia," Ms. Jones said. "One is the return of foreign fighters and what that could mean to providing leadership to the very weak and incompetent jihadi movement here."

"Second, the process of raising funds for Syria could strengthen the resource base of groups in Indonesia, such as Jemaah Islamiyah," she said, referring to the Southeast Asian terrorist network linked to Al Qaeda that carried out the Bali bombings in 2002, and whose members and splinter cells carried out other terrorist attacks in Indonesia from 2000 to 2009. She said Jemaah Islamiyah had used its network to recruit and send Indonesian fighters to Syria.

Indonesian extremists are known to have trained and fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and '90s, in the southern Philippines and possibly in Bosnia. The involvement of Indonesian fighters in Syria became more prominent after an extremist from the Borneo Island of Indonesia named Riza Fardi was killed there last year, according to the report from the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.

His death was announced on Nov. 28 on the Twitter account of Suquor al-Izz Brigade, an armed group with which Mr. Riza was fighting, the report said. It added that Mr. Riza graduated from Al Mukmin Islamic boarding school, in the Central Java Province of Indonesia, an institution that has produced multiple terrorists and whose founder, the radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, is in prison on a terrorism conviction.

The report said that Indonesian Islamic organizations had made multiple humanitarian missions to Syria since the conflict began, "bringing in cash and medical assistance to the Islamist resistance in a way apparently designed to open channels for more direct participation in the fighting."

Noor Huda Ismail, the founder of the Institute for International Peace Building, which helps assimilate former Indonesian terrorists back into society, noted that six people suspected of being terrorists who were killed after an all-night standoff beginning on Dec. 31 in a town outside Jakarta were planning to travel to Turkey and had already bought airline tickets.

"At the microlevel, most of the Indonesians who travel to Syria -- whether they fight or were involved in humanitarian actions -- they will tell their story when they return and inspire others to follow in their footsteps," he said. "Individuals who travel there manage to provide a new narrative about jihad, which will be widely translated. This new narrative is the most important thing -- a narrative about enlarging the conflict."

Mr. Noor said the Syrian civil war was viewed by many Muslims as a conflict between Sunnis and the Shiite-backed government of Mr. Assad. He said the participation of Indonesian fighters would have ramifications back in Indonesia, which is the world's largest Muslim-majority nation and has a small minority of Shiites who in recent years have faced harassment and physical attacks.

"The Indonesian Shiite groups are worried about these movements," Mr. Noor said. "It creates ramifications where you see tensions between the Sunni and Shiite communities in Indonesia."

Ms. Jones, of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, said another major concern was that Jemaah Islamiyah, which had fallen off the radar after ceasing terrorist attacks on Western targets in Indonesia in 2007 because of, among other things, an internal backlash over the fact that the majority of its victims were Indonesian Muslims, was increasing its prestige by helping to send fighters to Syria.

The revival of Jemaah Islamiyah as a jihadi organization could have significant consequences in the long term, she said.

[Source: By Joe Cochrane, The New York Times, 31Jan14]

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