Over the past 20 years, Indonesia — the world’s fourth most-populous country and the largest Muslim-majority nation — has evolved into a democracy based on tolerance and a moderate interpretation of Islam, and has emerged as one of Asia's fastest-growing economies. This essay is part of a series on “Indonesia and the Middle East: Exploring Connections,” which examines the nature, scope, and implications of Indonesia's ties with the MENA region. See more ...

Over the last decade, many in the international community have asked how, as a country with the largest population of Muslims — 255 million in 2016[1] — Indonesia has successfully dealt with terrorism relative to other countries in the Muslim world. Although South East Asia, and Indonesia in particular, has suffered from terrorist violence, such violence has not reached the scale or persistence of terrorist violence in the Middle East and North Africa. As the international community struggles to solve the problem of religion-inspired terrorism, experts, academics, and senior government officials alike have identified Indonesia as a country from which the world can learn lessons about how to defeat terrorists and build democracy.[2]

Some commentators have posited that success is due to a mix of deliberate government action, restraint, and existing social, economic, and political factors that have fortuitously coalesced to stem the tide of radicalism that leads to terrorism.[3] Others have highlighted the importance of Islam’s unique evolution in Indonesia, Islam Nusantara (“Islam of the Archipelago”), and secular ideology such as pancasila, which have served as bulwarks against radicalization and terrorism.[4] These factors each play a role in mitigating terrorism.

However, as a nascent democracy with evolving social norms, laws, and economic growth lagging unemployment, the chapter on terrorism in Indonesia is anything but closed. Analysis of counterterrorism in Indonesia since Reformasi[5] in 1998 suggests it may premature to draw conclusions about success and failure. Equally importantly, any successes may not be replicable in the Middle East or North Africa. Where lessons can be learned, many lie in the actions of the Indonesian government, the societal factors that have enabled it, and the precarious state of “success” against terrorism. 

The Role of Influential Stakeholders in Post-Reformasi Indonesian Society  

Despite an increasingly conservative and pious Indonesian society, radical ideology and terrorism, especially of external origin, have been slow to gain traction in Indonesia. Indonesia, like many other countries in the Muslim world since 1990, violently transitioned from authoritarian rule in 1998. Unlike many other countries, however, two crucial stakeholders occupied the power vacuum post-Reformasi: 1) major socioreligious organizations such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, which were already embedded in society; and 2) newly empowered local governments that satisfied the population’s thirst for decentralized, local control.[6] Having recognized their own influence in Indonesian society and the threat radicals posed to it, these stakeholders have crowded radical ideology out for decades.[7]  For these reasons, they are important allies of the Indonesian government in its counterterrorism efforts.

NU, founded in 1926, is the largest independent Islamic organization in the world, with over 50 million members.[8] Muhammadiyah, founded in 1912, has almost 30 million members.[9] Both of these organizations play major roles in Indonesian society. They play a strong religious role by interpreting Islamic scripture and issuing opinions on emerging issues adhered to by their numerous followers. They also play a massive social role by employing numerous Indonesians and operating thousands of schools, universities, religious schools, hospitals, orphanages, retirement homes, schools for the disabled, and training centers.[10] Although much attention has been devoted to their ideological opposition to radicalism,[11] they also compete with both radicals and each other for power and influence in Indonesian society. NU and Muhammadiyah have historically maintained strong ties to the Indonesian government, but their continued quest for relevance has strengthened their alignment with the government against terrorism.

The empowerment of local governments and their accountability to constituents have also increased the stakes of terrorism for power brokers in modern Indonesia. The decentralization of political power and funding — 25 percent of central government revenues are provided to local governments for discretionary spending — from the Indonesian government to local district governments, including the establishment of direct elections for officials, were key decisions that bestowed accountability upon the post-Reformasi local governments.[12] Local politicians facing professional and personal risk at re-election have therefore taken on greater responsibility for safety and security in their communities.

Government Counterterrorism Initiatives, Infrastructure, and Operations

Where lessons can be learned from the Indonesian experience with counterterrorism, many lie in a series of key government decisions backed by resources and support from the United States, Australia, and other countries. Throughout its existence, former President Suharto’s authoritarian regime brutally suppressed would-be terrorists and prevented radical ideology from metastasizing in Indonesia.[13] Post-Reformasi, jihadist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) returned to Indonesia from abroad in order to take advantage of the power vacuum.[14] The resulting freedom of maneuver allowed JI to execute the 2002 Bali bombings. However, the stabilization of the democratic Indonesian government, the timing of the Bali bombings against the backdrop of the U.S. Global War on Terror, and key initiatives by the Indonesian government have made society more difficult for radical and terrorist ideology to proliferate than in other predominantly Muslim states struggling for stability.

Indonesia’s transition and the ensuing threat of extremists came at a fortuitous time in that Indonesia was quickly able to obtain support and resources. After the Bali bombings in 2002, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense and former Ambassador to Indonesia Paul Wolfowitz promptly responded by coordinating a $50 million counterterrorism aid package, with Australian Defence Minister Robert Hill following suit.[15] With these resources, President Megawati Sukarnoputri’s government made three shrewd decisions. First, due to the controversial history of the Indonesian National Armed Forces (the Tentara Nasional Indonesia, or TNI) as brutal enforcers of Suharto’s authoritarian government, it designed a counterterrorism apparatus built as a law enforcement entity rather than the military, with a mandate to respect the rights of Indonesian civilians as much as possible. The new counterterrorism effort included the establishment of Detachment (Densus) 88, a new elite police unit dedicated to hunting down and capturing or killing terrorists. Second, Megawati ushered in a wave of intelligence reform that allowed the Indonesian government and Densus 88 to leverage the aforementioned stakeholders by developing a massive and effective human intelligence network.[16] Third, where Indonesian security forces lacked capability such as targeting and technical expertise, the Indonesian government firmly embraced support from other countries willing to provide it and formed effective intelligence information sharing relationships.[17]

By partnering with stakeholders at the local level across Indonesian society at risk of losing power, influence, and legitimacy to rising radicalism, the Indonesian government built one of the world’s most proactive intelligence networks. This network became key to Densus 88’s success after its formation in 2003.[18] Colloquially dubbed the “early warning system” and managed by the Ministry of Home Affairs, the network consists of local councils comprised of key community leaders, including religious figures, who are hand-selected by the Indonesian government.[19] Community leaders gather information on terrorist, separatist, and criminal activity and report it to local representatives of the Indonesian intelligence service (Badan Intelijen Negara, or BIN, which in turn supports Densus 88), TNI, and local officers of the Indonesian police respectively. Through their networks, members of the councils also vet and confirm leads passed down by the Indonesian government agencies. Unlike typical informants, however, they are not paid; instead, they are primarily motivated by removing terrorist and other threats from their communities. Analysis of data by Reuters indicates Indonesia, through Densus 88 and its counterterrorism apparatus, has prevented at least 54 plots or attacks since 2010.[20]

Finally, the Indonesian government has taken careful steps to minimize the heavy-handed nature of Densus 88, the broader national police force, and the TNI in order to generate and maintain popular respect and support for law enforcement.[21] Despite a series of alleged human rights abuses by Densus 88, the number and scale of such violations are significantly reduced relative to the violence of the late 1990s and prior during the Suharto regime. Together, the effectiveness of Indonesian security forces’ counterterrorism efforts offer evidence that other countries can learn from the deliberate choices of Indonesia in building their own counterterrorism organizations and obtaining support from allies where needed.

Risks and an Uncertain Future

Despite both development of a national counterterrorism capability and the presence of well-developed local government and social institutions aligned with that capability, the Indonesian government faces many problems, risks, and vulnerabilities that make drawing conclusions about Indonesia’s success with counterterrorism premature. First, stakeholders such as local governments and socioreligious organizations like NU and Muhammadiyah can themselves be influenced and coopted by radical ideology. Additionally, local politicians, seeking to avoid conflict and gather votes, have increasingly appeased radicals threatening violence and protest.[22] Despite attempts to develop counternarratives such as Islam Nusantara, radicals continue to have the loudest and most disruptive voices in controversies involving religion and social norms. Their growing — albeit slow — presence and influence on public discourse have forced leaders in many parts of society to adopt more conservative views at risk of losing followers and popular support.[23] Both NU and Muhammadiyah have suffered from declining membership and influence, creating pressure to expand their appeal and relevance.[24] As a result, both have adopted increasingly conservative positions on social and religious issues while promoting their more conservative leaders.[25] Although neither organization has come close to radicalism, their scale, scope, and reach in Indonesian society could one day enable radical ideology if the shift towards conservatism reaches a tipping point. Due to their sheer size, NU and Muhammadiyah are both also challenged to maintain organizational positions on many issues and prevent their legitimacy from being coopted by members sympathetic to radical positions on those issues.[26] Corruption and divergence in opinion on social and religious issues continue to pose risks to effective promulgation of counternarratives and anti-radical rhetoric, especially in Indonesia’s most rural and conservative areas where terrorists have historically sought refuge.

Indonesia’s security forces themselves and the legal infrastructure supporting counterterrorism operations also face a risky and uncertain future. With counterterrorism framed as a law enforcement issue and TNI human rights abuses during the Suharto era fresh in Indonesian minds, the TNI has struggled to redefine its role in Indonesian society post-Suharto.[27] With no preeminent external enemy, it continues to focus internally on separatism, but since the end of the secessionist conflicts in Timor-Leste (1999) and Aceh (2005), it has suffered from a lack of clear mission and jurisdiction.[28] Despite this, the TNI’s size and capabilities have forced the Indonesian government to rely upon it when the police are incapable. [29] These situations include counterterrorism operations in rural jungle areas where the police and Densus 88 have a weaker presence.

Assuming counterterrorism continues to be addressed as a law enforcement problem, the Indonesia government may fail in its efforts if the national police are unable to become an effective force. Some failed or ineffective terrorist attacks have appeared to be the result of poor planning by terrorists rather than effective policing.[30] Furthermore, the national police are rife with corruption,[31] and it remains an open question whether it can gain and maintain the trust required to benefit from any human intelligence network.

Most recently, the Indonesian government proposed a new anti-terrorism law that would broaden its legal power to arrest and eradicate Islamist, radical, and terrorist groups. While wider legal authority would empower law enforcement to pursue radical groups, such authority is ripe for abuse by security forces historically susceptible to committing human rights abuses. Expanded authority would likely lead to pursuit of radical groups that have thus far been nonviolent.  Considering radicalization occurs frequently in Indonesian prisons, an increase in arrests and penalties will expose more Indonesians to radicalization, eventually risking additional terrorist violence.[32]

Against the backdrop of these social and political issues, the Indonesian economy faces challenges that could exacerbate its socially conservative shift, and in turn, radicalization.  Indonesia has a young population in need of employment, and although its GDP is growing at almost five percent annually, its labor force is growing at almost seven percent.[33]  600,000 university graduates are currently unemployed, and 72.5 percent of unemployed working-age Indonesians are young adults.[34] Current President Jokowi has pledged to drive GDP growth to seven percent, but that target is optimistic. If Indonesia fails to deliver jobs to its people, the legitimacy of liberal democracy and its institutions will be questioned and society may take an even more conservative turn.


The Indonesian government has made effective choices in formulating its counterterrorism strategy. Ultimately, however, as with most models governments adopt to address internal problems,[35] Indonesian counterterrorism is difficult to duplicate elsewhere — including in the Middle East and North Africa, where social institutions and transition to democracy have not been similarly robust — and faces significant risk of failure in the long term. Limited and infrequent terrorist attacks and the relatively few Indonesians joining transnational terrorist groups like the Islamic State may sanguinely conceal otherwise exacerbating slow and long-term shifts in Indonesian society. These include the increasing appeasement of radicals that might one day turn those statistics upside down. While some experts, scholars, and commentators are optimistic about Indonesia’s democracy as a force for good against terrorists and radical ideology,[36] it is unclear whether Indonesian democracy will be liberal going forward. As a result, it is important to note that the Indonesian experiment in democracy is less than two decades old.


[1] “Jokowi’s moment,” The Economist, February 27, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21693411-joko-widodo-was-elected-shake-up-indonesias-politics-and-make-his-country-richer-he.

[2] Andreas Harsono, “No Model for Muslim Democracy,” The New York Times, May 21, 2012, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/22/opinion/no-model-for-muslim-democracy.html.

[3] Uri Friedman, “How Indonesia Beat Back Terrorism—for Now,” The Atlantic, September 25, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017,  https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/09/indonesia-isis-islamic-terrorism/500951/.

[4] Margaret Scott and Devin Stewart, “Islam and Pluralism in Indonesia,” Carnegie Council for Ethics in Int’l Affairs, June 21, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017,  https://www.carnegiecouncil.org/studio/multimedia/20160621-islam-and-pluralism-in-indonesia.

[5] Reformasi was the reform movement that led to the end of the Suharto regime and resulted in the formation of the modern Indonesian democracy.

[6] See Geoffrey Macdonald, “How to ISIS-Proof a Muslim-Majority State,” The National Interest, March 14, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, http://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-isis-proof-muslim-state-15476.

[7] Robin Bush, Nahdlatul Ulama and the Struggle for Power Within Islam and Politics in Indonesia (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2009) 41.

[8] Andreas Harsono, “From Indonesia, a Muslim Challenge to the Ideology of the Islamic State,” The New York Times, November 26, 2015, accessed November 26, 2017,  https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/27/world/asia/indonesia-islam-nahdlatul-ulama.html.

[9] Felix Utama Kosasih, “Impact of Muhammadiyah and Nahdlatul Ulama on Indonesia,” Global Indonesian Voices, August 7, 2015, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.globalindonesianvoices.com/21914/impact-of-muhammadiyah-and-nahdlatul-ulama-on-indonesia/.

[10] Ibid.

[11] See supra note 8.

[12] Jay Rosengard, Faculty Chair of the Indonesia Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Cambridge, MA, interview October 12, 2017.

[13] Barbara Crossette, “Suharto and Islam Clash on Principle,” The New York Times, February 3, 1985, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/1985/02/03/weekinreview/suharto-and-islam-clash-on-principle.html.

[14] Jemaah Islamiyah, Mapping Militants Project, Stanford University, accessed November 26, 2017, http://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/251; and Tara John, “Indonesia’s Long Battle With Islamic Extremism Could Be About to Get Tougher,” Time, January 15, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017,  http://time.com/4181557/jakarta-terrorist-attacks-indonesia-isis/.

[15] Richard Robison and Vedi R. Hadiz, Reorganising Power in Indonesia: The Politics of Oligarchy in an Age of Markets (London and New York: Routledge, 2004) 263.

[16] Leonard C. Sebastien, Realpolitik Ideology: Indonesia’s Use of Military Force (Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2005) 101.

[17] Ed Davies and Olivia Rondonuwu, “U.S.-funded Detachment 88, elite of Indonesia Security,” Reuters, March 18, 2010, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-usa-security/u-s-funded-detachment-88-elite-of-indonesia-security-idUSTRE62H13F20100318.

[18] Tom Allard and Kanupriya Kapoor, “Fighting back: How Indonesia’s elite police turned the tide on militants, Reuters, December 23, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-security/fighting-back-how-indonesias-elite-police-turned-the-tide-on-militants-idUSKBN14C0X3.

[19] Source concealed to protect his identity.

[20] See supra note 18. 

[21] See supra note 3.

[22] Joe Cochrane, “Raid on Indonesian Food Stall Prompts Fears of Fundamentalism,” The New York Times, July 9, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/07/10/world/asia/indonesia-ramadan-raid-islam-fundamentalism.html; and “Indonesia’s social and political fabric stretched as bombs his Jakarta,” World Watch Monitor, May 25, 2017, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.worldwatchmonitor.org/2017/05/indonesias-social-and-political-fabric-stretched-as-bombs-hit-jakarta/.

[23] Bambang Muryanto, “NU, Muhammadiyah seen as losing their influence,” The Jakarta Post, January 20, 2017, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2017/01/20/nu-muhammadiyah-seen-losing-their-influence.html.

[24] See generally Gregory Fealy and Robin Bush, “The political decline of traditional Ulama in Indonesia: The state, Umma and Nahdlatul Ulama,” Australian National University, 2014, accessed November 26, 2017,  https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/handle/1885/75999?mode=full.

[25] Greg Fealy, “A conservative turn,” Inside Indonesia, July 15, 2007, accessed November 26, 2017,  http://www.insideindonesia.org/a-conservative-turn.

[26] See supra note 4.

[27] Fadli, “Fear grips Batan as soldiers attack Brimob HQ,” The Jakarta Post, November 20, 2014, available at http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2014/11/20/fear-grips-batam-soldiers-attack-brimob-hq.html.

[28] Evan A. Laksmana, “Indonesia’s Modernizing Military: Suharto’s New Order is Old News,” Foreign Affairs, September 3, 2015, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/indonesia/2015-09-03/indonesias-modernizing-military.

[29] Kanupriya Kapoor and Randy Fabi, “Indonesia’s military creeps back into civilian affairs,” Reuters, May 24, 2015, accessed November 26, 2017,  https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-military/indonesias-military-creeps-back-into-civilian-affairs-idUSKBN0O90ZQ20150524.

[30] Richard C. Paddock and Shashank Bengali, “2 held in Islamic State-linked attack in Jakarta; 2 civilians, 5 assailants killed,” Los Angeles Times, January 14, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-explosions-rock-jakarta-20160113-story.html; William Mackey, “Indonesia: Staying Calm and Carrying On,” The Diplomat, January 27, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://thediplomat.com/2016/01/indonesia-staying-calm-and-carrying-on/; and Joseph Chinyong Liow, “ISIS Reaches Indonesia: The Terrorist Group’s Prospects in Southeast Asia,” Foreign Affairs, February 8, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/indonesia/2016-02-08/isis-reaches-indonesia.

[31] See “Corruption Continues to Plague Indonesia,” Gallup, undated, accessed November 26, 2017, http://news.gallup.com/poll/157073/corruption-continues-plague-indonesia.aspx.

[32] Julie Chernov Hwang, “The Unintended Consequences of Amending Indonesia’s Anti-Terrorism Law,” Lawfare, October 1, 2017, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.lawfareblog.com/unintended-consequences-amending-indonesias-anti-terrorism-law.

[33] “Tiger, tiger, almost bright,” The Economist, March 4, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.economist.com/blogs/graphicdetail/2016/03/indonesia-graphics; and supra note 1.

[34] Noorhaidi Hassan, Director of Graduate School, UIN SUKA. “Islamic Radicalism.” Graduate School of UIN SUKA, Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Presentation October 17, 2017.

[35] Shadi Hamid, “What’s different about Islam in Malaysia and Indonesia,” The Aspen Institute, July 1, 2016, accessed November 26, 2017, https://www.aspeninstitute.org/aspen-journal-of-ideas/whats-different-islam-malaysia-indonesia/.

[36] See supra note 3.


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