How is COVID-19 restructuring Indonesia’s militant landscape?

Islamic state fighters hold up the ISIS flagPhoto: Vimeo

While Indonesia’s government struggles to contain the spread of COVID-19, homegrown militant groups are adapting to the crisis in an effort to gain a foothold and prepare for the post-COVID-19 period. For Indonesia’s militants, the current health care crisis in the country offers an opportunity to regroup and reform in a way that may not have been possible before.

By Umair Jamal

Over the years, Indonesia’s security agencies have done well to contain the rise of militant groups in the country. However, as the COVID-19 situation escalates, the government may struggle to commit the resources and manpower needed to keep tabs on these groups. Reportedly, during the last few months, more than 50 members of various militant groups have been arrested by Indonesia’s security agencies.

A majority of them belonged to the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) group, a militant organization known for having ties with the Islamic State (ISIS). Other extremist groups such as Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, East Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) and Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah have also made headlines.

Presenting COVID-19 as God’s wrath

Like their global competitors and allies, a majority of Indonesia’s extremist groups are presenting the advent of COVID-19 as God’s wrath to encourage new recruits to join their ranks. In this regard, a clear trend has emerged over the last few weeks in which extremist groups have blended their messages of hatred and aversion for several communities to rally support for their extremist ideologies.

Militant groups are actively reaching out to local communities via traditional communal support systems and taking advantage of the digital space to fuel existing anti-China attitudes within Indonesia. So far the sentiment has not resulted in mass protests or violence against the Chinese community in the country but it’s adding to a narrative that may make Chinese Indonesians potential targets for ISIS-inspired groups and other extremist hardliners.

The propaganda against the Chinese has allowed militant groups to potentially take on ISIS’s mission, which also termed the pandemic as God’s punishment against the communist Chinese government for its ill treatment of Uighur Muslims. The profiling of Chinese Indonesians as potential targets under the facade of a divine retribution offers these groups the opportunity to join in the rising anti-China rhetoric among hardliners across the country.

Through sermons at mosques and agitation campaigns, this narrative extends ISIS’s mission without the group holding territory in the country. Such tactics weaken the state’s legitimacy as they allow militant groups to operate and develop mass support.

Exploiting weak governance structures for terror financing

Militant groups in Indonesia have also shown their ability to effectively integrate into local communities during times of crisis. Amid COVID-19, militant groups are offering services to local communities such as health care, financial support and security, exploiting the void created by the COVID-19 crisis. 

It’s important to note that Indonesia doesn’t have any legislation that governs local charities. The country’s current anti-terrorism law also doesn’t prohibit extremist charities that support the families of those imprisoned on terrorism charges.

More than a dozen charities currently operating in Indonesia have links to extremist groups: those affiliated with JAD alone include Baitul Mal Ummah, Anfiqu Center, Gubuk Sedekah Amal Ummah (GSAU) and RIS Al Amin, while JAK activists run the Aseer Cruee Center (ACC) and Baitul Mal Al Muuqin. These charities have been openly collecting funds to provide basic services to people affected by COVID-19 across the country.

Adding to Indonesia’s militant woes is the country’s lack of governance to combat terrorism financing. The issue of terrorism financing has increased given the prevalence of pro-ISIS militant organizations operating in Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, weak legislative structures mean militant groups based in the country can collaborate easily with other groups in the region by raising funds online and making transactions through cryptocurrencies.

In the Philippines, an ISIS-linked militant group recently carried out a cryptocurrency transaction with a group based in Indonesia. This poses a serious threat to Indonesia’s security as groups like JAD and MIT have ties beyond regional alliances, with members of both groups having trained with ISIS and possibly learned about their financing strategies.

Using social media for propaganda and recruitment

Additionally, in Indonesia, propaganda related to COVID-19 has been a significant feature throughout extremist groups’ social media campaigns and platforms. The extensive lockdown means that these groups have been more active on the internet, producing videos and working to recruit new members.

Online recruitment and regional or extra-regional alliances are prominent strategies among transnational militant organizations, including Al-Qaida and ISIS. Indonesian militant groups can now be counted among these internet-savvy organizations, quickly adapting to changing circumstances in order to survive and thrive.

As COVID-19 infections surge in Indonesia, these developments do not bode well for the country’s security. The spread of COVID-19 has offered extremist groups an opportunity to boost recruits, create new avenues of funding and solidify their links to transnational militant groups. Indonesia’s security agencies need to expand their counterterrorism efforts, not only to conduct more raids against militant groups and their sympathizes but also to develop a mechanism to delegitimize these groups and their appeal.

The raging propaganda against Chinese citizens makes them a clear target and must also be addressed, as this will be used by extremist hardliners even when Indonesia has recovered from the COVID-19 threat.

Furthermore, the government needs to plug the existing loopholes in the legislative process to counter the financing of terrorism, online and offline. Charities linked with extremist groups should be closed down and authorities need to become extra vigilant against any such operations. It’s also essential to continue monitoring social media to contain militant groups’ ability to regroup and expand their operations.

The government in Indonesia needs to pay attention to the varied nature of the rising militancy challenge. If left unaddressed, it will pose a serious threat to the country’s security in the coming months.

About the Author

Umair Jamal
Umair Jamal is a freelance journalist and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Otago, New Zealand. He can be reached at and on Twitter @UmairJamal15