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Jakarta bombings: here's what we know about ISIS in Indonesia

  1. A series of bombings hit a shopping area in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, late on Wednesday night. At least two civilians and five of the attackers were killed, according to the BBC.
  2. An ISIS-affiliated news outlet claims the group was responsible for the attacks; Indonesian police haven't fully confirmed it but suspect it to be true. Jakarta Police Chief Tito Karnavian told the BBC that Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant who is believed to be in Syria, had been "planning this for a while."
  3. The attack raises a very serious question: How much of a presence does ISIS have in the world's largest Muslim-majority country? What follows is brief guide to what we know about ISIS radicalism in Indonesia — and what's concerning about it.

ISIS's role in Indonesia

An Indonesian man accused of links to ISIS stands trial.
(Adek Berry/AFP/Getty Images)

Indonesia is the world's most populous Muslim-majority country — about 210 million of its 250 million people are Muslim. Estimates say that perhaps a few hundred Indonesians — a tiny proportion, but a concerning number on its own — have left Indonesia to go fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq.

"There are at least 600 Southeast Asians fighting in Syria," the Soufan Group, a private firm focusing on terrorism analysis, wrote in a December 2015 report. "The vast majority are from Indonesia."

This isn't for lack of trying on ISIS's part: According to the Soufan Group, ISIS has been posting propaganda videos aimed at recruiting Indonesians since July 2014. Yet, perhaps owing to Indonesia's historically moderate brand of Islam, they haven't succeeded. Sidney Jones, the director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told the Nikkei Asian Review that as a percentage of total population, Belgians have been 20 times as likely as Indonesians to join ISIS.

Still, even the small number of Indonesian recruits pose a threat if some of them were to come home from Syria or Iraq to plan attacks. It's possible that's what happened yesterday in Jakarta, though it remains to be seen.

Another possibility, perhaps more concerning, is that ISIS has linked up with a homegrown Indonesian militant group. Indonesia is home to a number of Islamist extremist groups, most notably Jemaah Islamiyah, which has links to al-Qaeda. JI has pulled off far more devastating attacks than Wednesday's: A 2002 JI attack in Bali killed 202 people, and a 2009 attack in Jakarta killed nine.

JI has condemned ISIS as apostates, but it's not obvious that all Indonesian militant groups feel the same way. Luke Hunt lists off a few that are thought to be friendly to ISIS in the Diplomat:

There are also fears that the Abu Sayyaf — whose specialty remains kidnapping and ransom — in the Southern Philippines is also tying-up with the Daesh, resurrecting JI demands for an Islamic caliphate across Southeast Asia.

A separate report quoted national police spokesman Anton Charliyan as saying the East Indonesian Mujahidin terrorist group, known by its Indonesian acronym MIT and led by Santoso, one of the most wanted terrorists in Indonesia, had been receiving cash and assistance from ISIS, which is also calling for attacks on Western targets.

He said ISIS was spreading its propaganda across five Indonesian provinces – East Java, Lampung, Central Sulawesi, South Sulawesi, and West Sulawesi.

"The Santoso group is part of the ISIS network. You can see that the Poso terror group even has anti-tank weapons," he said. "It’s not easy to break into the terrorist lair, but we keep on trying."

It's worth being cautious about linking any one of these groups to Wednesday's Jakarta attacks. Take MIT, for example: An IHS Jane's 360 assessment from November cautioned that "there is no indication that Santoso's group has the capacity to carry out attacks in the capital, especially against well-protected state targets." Just because terrorist groups exist domestically in Indonesia doesn't mean they were responsible for particular attacks.

But if any of these groups were to begin functioning as an ISIS affiliate in Indonesia, and launch a more concerted terrorist campaign against the government, it could be a serious concern — especially if they linked up with Indonesians who got training from ISIS headquarters in Syria. The ISIS threat to Indonesia may not be huge, but it is real.

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