How ISIS Charmed the New Generation of Indonesian Militants

By Navhat Nuraniyah | Associate Research Fellow - Centre of Excellence for National Security (CENS) - S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) - Singapore | Jan 09, 2015
How ISIS Charmed the New Generation of Indonesian Militants
Indonesian militants in Central Java, 2013.

This series explores the threat posed by the rise of ISIS to Asia, particularly Southeast Asia, and efforts that the governments of the region have taken and could/should take to respond to it. Read More ...


The Islamic State’s (ISIS) media wing, Al-Hayat Media Center, recently released a video entitled “Join the Ranks” that features a group of Indonesian foreign fighters in Syria. In the video, the charismatic Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah calls on his fellow Indonesian Muslims to migrate to the land of the “caliphate.”[1] It is estimated that 100 to 300 Indonesian militants have gone to fight in Syria.[2] While some are spread across al-Qa‘ida (AQ)-affiliated groups such as Ahrar Sham, this essay focuses specifically on links between Indonesian militants and ISIS. Indonesians and Malaysians fighting for ISIS appear to have formed their own military unit, the Katibah Nusantara.[3] Meanwhile, 2,000 people across the Indonesian archipelago pledged allegiance to ISIS earlier this year.[4]

Why does ISIS appeal to some Indonesian militants—particularly those in the younger generation—and not others? How do new recruits make their way to Syria? To answer these questions, this essay proceeds in three parts. Part one contextualizes the friction between pro- and anti-ISIS militants as one aspect of a generational gap dividing Indonesian jihadis. The second part highlights three particular reasons that ISIS appeals to the new generation of Indonesian militants: the caliphate narrative, ISIS’s battleground achievements, and perceived ideological affinities. The last part examines the channels that have facilitated the journeys of Indonesian militants to Syria.  

Jihadi Generational Gap

Indonesian jihadis are now divided into AQ loyalists and ISIS supporters, a division that mirrors preexisting friction between “traditionalists” (the “violence-later” camp) and “new militants” (the “violence-now” camp). Since 2007, the leadership of Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)―the forefront of the traditionalist camp―has temporarily refrained from using violence for political purposes following the massive arrest of its military operatives in Poso, Central Sulawesi. However, a JI splinter group led by Noordin Top continued to attack Western targets until Top was killed in late 2009. After Top’s demise, a series of minor terror attacks targeted mainly at the police were perpetrated by amateurish do-it-yourself-jihad militants.[5]

Unlike their predecessors, younger militants do not primarily come from JI-affiliated schools or religious study groups (pengajian);[6] instead, they have a more diverse background. Most have neither the strong comradeship bonds with one another as JI members dida result of a long training and indoctrination processnor the technical skills possessed by former JI members.[7] Some of the new terrorist cells were even formed over social media.[8] However, each cell has at least one member who can be linked back to established groups such as JI, Darul Islam (DI), and Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), which is led by former JI leader Abu Bakar Ba‘asyir.[9]

To be sure, neither of the two camps is monolithic. Nor is the generational categorization rigid; some senior jihadis might agree with new militants on a particular issue and vice versa.[10] Both share Salafi jihadi ideology and the common goal of creating an Islamic state. They disagree, however, on the ideal timing for violence. At a 2010 jihadi training camp in Aceh, the “violence-now” militants uploaded a YouTube video criticizing JI leadership and their fellow traditionalists for abandoning armed struggle.[11] On the other hand, traditionalists argue that JI’s previous terror attacks were counterproductive because they lacked the support of the Muslim community. They believe that violent methods, whether in the form of terrorism or insurgency, should be waged only in the distant future, with the backing of the majority of Muslims.[12] They insist that soft approaches such as charitable works and raising Muslims’ awareness of the importance of jihad through education should be prioritized in order to prepare for the long-term insurgency.[13]

When the Syrian conflict became the new battleground for global jihadis, Indonesian militants eagerly welcomed the development. They tried to legitimize jihad in Syria by constructing narratives that frame the conflict as a sectarian war between Sunni and Shi‘a―a prelude to the last war between good and evil that signifies the end of time.[14] These narratives are propagated through book publications and Syria-related charity events and seminars across the country, as well as myriad extremist websites and social media. Despite their shared interest in promoting Syrian jihad, Indonesian jihadis immediately took sides as the rift emerged between AQ and ISIS. In general, “violence-now” militants side with ISIS while the “violence-later” camp sides with AQ. That said, ISIS has also attracted some of the senior jihadis who were previously considered traditionalists, notably Ba‘asyir and Abu Husna of JI.[15]  Their sympathies may have been influenced by their fellow prison inmates, in particular Aman Abdurrahman, one of Indonesia’s most influential jihadi ideologues and a vocal promoter of ISIS.[16]

The Charm of ISIS

In the Indonesian context, much of the debate between AQ and ISIS supporters has taken place online. Owned by a former member of JI’s al-Ghuraba cell, jihadi news site runs stories that discredit ISIS.[17] On the other hand, websites such as and that are manned by individuals close to Aman Abdurrahman relentlessly counter Arrahmah and the mainstream media’s portrayal of ISIS. Pro-ISIS extremists also dedicate their websites, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds to vocalizing support for the group. This pro-ISIS media campaign tends to highlight three key themes: the caliphate narrative, ISIS battleground achievements, and ideological affinities.

ISIS supporters have spread the narrative that their new “caliphate”—the Islamic State—matches the Prophet Muhammad’s prophecy. The often-cited evidence is a hadith explaining that Islam unfolds in five stages: the Prophet Muhammad’s era; “a caliphate that applies the prophetic way” (interpreted as the first four caliphs, known as the rightly-guided caliphs); “the kings that bite” (from the Umayyad dynasty to the Ottoman empire); “the dictators” (rulers of the postcolonial Muslim states); and, lastly, the restoration of the caliphate.[18] According to this narrative, the ISIS caliphate marks the beginning of the fifth stage of Islam.[19] It is argued that while the ISIS caliphate might not be the prophesied last caliphate of the Mahdi, another hadith suggested that an Islamic caliphate with a black banner army would emerge long before the Mahdi himself emerges, paving the way for his victory.[20] ISIS is thus believed to be the embryonic black banner army that will help the Mahdi defeat Dajjal the Anti-Christ. The testimony of some Indonesians aligning themselves with ISIS seems to suggest a genuine belief that they “are not joining a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda but…a caliphate as part of Prophet Muhammad’s prophecy.”[21]

Further, some militants see ISIS as better than AQ because it is closer to victory than any other jihadi group. Such a viewpoint might seem purely pragmatic, but it is also inspired by the jihadi concept of qital tamkin (armed struggle aimed at seizing territories wherein Islamic law is applied; it emphasizes establishing governing institutions and economic capabilities in the conquered territories as opposed to merely destroying enemy objects). This idea was introduced in Indonesia through the translated works of Jordanian ideologue Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi and grew in popularity as it became apparent that the Bin Laden-styled qital nikaya method (that stresses repetitive attacks to weaken the enemy without immediately trying to replace it with an Islamic government), which was copied by the Bali bombers and Noordin Top, had only caused massive losses to JI. Among local jihadis who idealize tamkin, ISIS, with its rapid advances in parts of Syria and Iraq, has been widely viewed as a heroic movement.

Of course, the traditionalists also value tamkin, and JI seeks to achieve the same goal, but incrementally over a longer term. There is also a political reason for the traditionalists’ hesitancy to back ISIS, namely that ISIS’s self-declared caliphate is not blessed by AQ senior leadership. JI was once linked to AQ, and many within JI retain a high degree of respect for—and spiritual attachment to—AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahri. Ideological factors also matter, as traditionalists disagree with ISIS’s hard-core excommunication doctrine, which the group has used to justify its killing of non-ISIS Sunni militants.[22]

The current debate echoes Indonesian jihadis’ earlier debate over the proper scope of takfir (the act of labeling other Muslims as infidels). It started out as a debate among detained jihadis over whether or not they could cooperatively engage with the police in order to obtain a reduction of their prison sentences, but it later developed into a larger discussion about whether Muslims who work for the enemy—i.e., secular governments—can be labeled infidels.[23] The traditionalists are in favor of apostate labeling of the state security apparatus only at the institutional level (takfir ‘aam), not individually, on the grounds that individuals can still be swayed to the jihadi side as long as they remain Muslims.[24] Aman countered this argument and raised the case for individual excommunication (takfir ta‘yin) to be applied indiscriminately to Muslims who do not overtly support the implementation of Islamic law.[25] Hence while AQ loyalists cursed ISIS as “extreme khawarij[26] for killing Nusra Front fighters, Aman and his pro-ISIS followers saw the killings as no less than the principled application of takfir ta‘yin.[27] In other words, ISIS has behaved according to principles that Aman and like-minded leaders support but have thus far been incapable of enacting locally. As such, their support for ISIS seems to be driven by a deep sense of ideological affinity that goes beyond mere pragmatism or shared overarching religious narratives.

The Journey to ISIS: Group-Linked and Freelance Fighters

The call to join ISIS has elicited an enthusiastic response. Most of the fighters who come from Indonesia are linked to existing groups, such as the Mujahidin of East Indonesia (MIT), the Forum for Sharia Action in Indonesia (FAKSI), Tawhid wal Jihad, and Darul Islam’s (DI) Ring Banten. The militants often have to cover their travel expenses, but the groups help individuals to organize their journeys to Syria through Turkey and also to obtain a recommendation from an existing ISIS member, which is apparently a prerequisite for enlisting in ISIS.[28]

MIT, Indonesia’s most active terrorist group, has reportedly sent a few of its members and alumni of its militant camps to Syria. The Poso-based group leader, Santoso, swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014. The travel of MIT-affiliated militants to Syria has been facilitated by Siswanto, a former fighter during Poso sectarian conflict and active promoter of Aman Abdurrahman’s teachings in his hometown of Lamongan, East Java.[29]

FAKSI and Tawhid wal Jihad are closely related, as both follow Aman’s teachings. FAKSI is the group behind ISIS allegiance-pledging events across Java. FAKSI founder M. Fachry is not a military leader but rather an experienced jihadi media activist and chief editor of FAKSI has multiple channels for assisting sympathizers who wish to join ISIS. One of them is Salim Mubarok, a religious teacher of Yemeni origin working in Malang, East Java. Salim has recruited five of his students and facilitated their entry into Syria. Bahrumsyah, who led a pro-ISIS rally in Jakarta earlier this year, left for Syria in May and was joined by a few other FAKSI members from Jakarta and West Java.[30] Like Fachry and Aman, Bahrumsyah did not have prior military training; he was merely involved in pengajian and with a jihadi publishing company.

Indonesian militants have long awaited the emergence of an overseas jihad battlefront like Afghanistan that would allow them to obtain operational experience and international networks. Syria has been the answer. Abdul Rauf, a member of DI Ring Banten, was one of those jihadis longing for a global jihad to defend fellow Muslims. Abdul was imprisoned for his indirect involvement in the first Bali bombing but was released in 2011. He went to Syria in late 2013 with the assistance of Rois, an incarcerated Ring Banten leader who had contacts in Syria. Abdul subsequently became the contact person for Indonesian jihadis interested in enlisting with ISIS, until he was killed in Iraq just a few months after arriving in the region.[31]

ISIS has also attracted non-group or freelance fighters, mostly Indonesian students who were already in the Middle East and began entering Syria as early as 2012. Many had no prior exposure to extremist groups but decided to follow the wave of Arab youth who joined the war in Syria. Wildan Mukhollad, 19, from East Java, was a student at Al-Azhar University in Cairo when he secretly left for Syria in late 2012 and subsequently became a martyr for the pro-ISIS wing of Katibah al-Muhajirin.[32] Some of the independent fighters contacted ISIS’s foreign fighters through social media. For example, Yazid Ulwan Falahuddin and Wijangga Bagus Panulat, Indonesian students in Turkey, joined ISIS in early 2014. Prior to studying at an imam hatip school in Kayseri, Turkey, both attended an Indonesian-Turkish boarding school in Central Java, and they were not known to have any prior experience with radical groups.[33] Wildan was also new to these groups, though he attended a boarding school that is run by the relatives of Bali bomber Mukhlas. In the absence of ideological indoctrination, this category of fighter might have been driven more by direct exposure to the political turmoil and humanitarian tragedy that accompanied the Arab Spring, which led them to share the deep frustration of Arab foreign fighters.

In sum, ISIS appeals more to new militants, who also tend to support the use of violence inside Indonesia. Meanwhile, traditionalists—who prefer postponing domestic armed struggle and have long been ideologically attached to AQ—are predominantly anti-ISIS. Traditionalists further disagree with ISIS’s excommunication doctrine, particularly the use of this doctrine to rationalize the killing of anti-ISIS militants. In contrast, new militants see ISIS as the true bearer of jihadi principles that they have long upheld, and ISIS’s advances on the battlefield have merely confirmed their conviction that ISIS is indeed the prophesized caliphate. Religious narratives, ideological conviction, and the desire to improve political and humanitarian conditions are among the factors that motivate Indonesian militants to fight in Syria and increasingly Iraq, either individually or facilitated by groups. Those who left for Syria early helped their friends follow in their paths while encouraging those who stayed behind to raise local Muslims’ support for ISIS. All of this could trigger the revival of a jihadi threat not only in Indonesia but also in the surrounding region, especially as Southeast Asian fighters in Syria become increasingly organized and forge closer links.  

[1] “Join The Ranks,” accessed November 26, 2014,

[2] Peter Alford, “Jemaah Islamiah Offshoot Sending Arms, Fighters to Syria Jihadists,” The Australian, October 1, 2014,; Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” IPAC Report 6, January 2014,

[3] IPAC, “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict.”

[4] Solahudin U. Hartman, “The Rise of ISIS in Indonesia:  A Source for Serious Concern?,” presentation at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS), Singapore, September 15, 2014. For more details on pledging events in Indonesia, see Navhat Nuraniyah, “Jihadists in Syria: Indonesian Extremists Giving Support?,” RSIS Commentary 68, April 10, 2014,

[5] International Crisis Group (ICG), Indonesian Jihadism: Small Groups, Big Plans, Asia Report N°204, 19 April 2011, accessed 15 July 2014 from

[6] International Crisis Group (ICG), “Al-Qaeda in Southeast Asia: The Case of the ‘Ngruki Network’ in Indonesia,” ICG Indonesia Briefing, August 8, 2002,

[7] Navhat Nuraniyah and Sulastri Osman, “Be ‘Hackers, Bombers and Fighters’: Evolving Terrorist Use of the Internet in Indonesia,” RSIS Working Paper (forthcoming).

[8] Sulastri Osman and Navhat Nuraniyah, “Indonesia’s Cyber Counterterrorism: Innovation Opportunities for CT Policing,” RSIS Commentary 3, January 3, 2014,

[9] For example, the two-man cell that bombed the Cirebon police mosque and a church in Solo, Central Java in 2011 were first introduced to extremist ideology from attending JAT religious study groups (pengajian) but decided to create their own cell since they were impatient with JAT’s lack of action. Firman, the police shooter in Solo, was also a student of JI-affiliated Pesantren Al-Islam, Ngruki. See Osman and Nuraniyah, “Be ‘Hackers, Bombers and Fighters.’”

[10] Navhat Nuraniyah, “Syria Conflict and Islamist Extremism in Indonesia: The Global-Local Dynamics,” in Religious Extremism in Insurgency & Counterinsurgency in Syria: A New Launching Pad for Global Terrorism?(forthcoming).

[11] “Seruan Jihad Dari Serambi Mekkah” (Jihadi Call from the Veranda of Mecca), accessed November 26, 2014,

[12] “Adu Pendapat Soal Terorisme Antara Abu Rusydan dan Nasir Abas” (The Debate between Abu Rusydan and Nasir Abas on Terrorism Issue),, December 9, 2012,

[14] Solahudin U. Hartman, “Syria as Armageddon,” Inside Indonesia, August 2014,

[15] Several of Nusa Kambangan prison’s terrorist inmates, including Ba‘asyir, have pledged allegiance to ISIS. See “Dukungan Terhadap ISIS di Nusa Kambangan Terbelah” (Support for ISIS at Nusa Kambangan Divided),, August 6, 2014,

[16] Aman Abdurrahman is an influential Salafi-turned-Salafi-jihadi scholar and Arabic linguist who was the prolific translator of the writings of Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi. However, he has dissociated himself from al-Maqdisi since the Jordanian cleric disapproved of ISIS. Most of Aman’s writings are available on his website, He was arrested twice, first for facilitating a bomb-making class in 2004 and secondly for his involvement in the 2010 jihadi training camp in Aceh.

[17] was founded by Muhammad Jibril, a former member of JI’s al-Ghuraba cell in 2006. His father was an Afghan alumni but now leads the above-ground pro-sharia, non-violent organization the Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI).. According to web traffic analytics Alexa, is ranked 581st nationally, which makes it the most visited Indonesian extremist website. See  

[18] Abu Fatiah Al-Adnani, Nubuwat Perang Akhir Zaman (The Armageddon Prophecy) (Solo: Granada, 2014), 17-18.

[19] M. Fachry, “90 Tahun Tanpa Khilafah: ISIS Cikal Bakal Khilafah Ala Minhajin Nubuwwah” (90 Years without Caliphate: ISIS the Embryotic Caliphate in the Prophetic Way),, March 4, 2014,

[21] Noor Huda Ismail, “To Stop Islamic State Spreading to Indonesia, Target the Young and Reform Prisons,” The Conversation, August 2014,

[22] A.Z. Muttaqin, “Majelis Mujahidin tegaskan Daulah Khilafah Al Baghdadi sesat dan menyesatkan” (Mujahidin Council Declared al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate State Deviant and Misleading),, August 9, 2014,

[23] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” IPAC Report 13 (September 24, 2014): 6,

[24] Muhib al-Majdi, “Fenomena perdebatan seputar takfir ta‘yin terhadap anshar thaghut, quo vadis?” (The Phenomenon of Debate on Takfir Ta‘yin towards the Assistants of Idolatrous State, Quo Vadis?),, May 10, 2012,

[25] Aman Abdurrahman, “Tanggapan ustadz Aman Abdurrahman hafizhahullah atas artikel ‘Fenomena perdebatan seputar takfir ta‘yin terhadap anshar thaghut, quo vadis?’” (The Response of Ustadz Aman Abdurrahman on the Article “The Phenomenon of Debate on Takfir Ta‘yin towards the Assistants of Idolatrous State, Quo Vadis?”),, May 14, 2012,

[26] A derogatory term referring to the earliest hard-line Islamic sect that was responsible for assassinating the fourth caliph, Ali ibn Abi Talib.

[27] Muttaqin, “Mujahidin Council Declared al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate State Deviant and Misleading.”

[28] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” 13.

[29] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” 13.

[30] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” 12-14.

[31] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” 12.

[32] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” 13.   

[33] Data obtained from various open sources: Interpol; “The List of Overseas Voters,” released by the Indonesian Embassy in Turkey; and publicly available information on Yazid’s Facebook account, including a screenshot of his Facebook chat with Wijangga. See also Zacky Khairul Umam, “Unfinished Jihad in Indonesia,” Jakarta Post, July 18, 2014,