The Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan has been welcomed in Indonesia’s militant Islamist circles and even among some mainstream figures.
The rapid return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the collapsing scenery of the U.S. withdrawal have energised militant Islamists in Indonesia, like a deus ex machina breaking through the pandemic.
On pro-Islamic Defenders Front (FPI) Telegram channels, support for the Taliban was common. One meme being circulated on channels with thousands of subscribers highlighted the Taliban’s mainstream Sunni credentials (Ahlussunnah wal Jama’ah), praising the group for not being Shia, Wahabi, or secular liberal.
The group that stands to gain the most from events in Afghanistan is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Indonesia’s largest underground militant network … For JI, the Taliban’s return to power is a vindication of its more patient strategy.
Other video and poster material cast the return to power of the Taliban as a sign of the prophesised end times, when the Imam Mahdi will descend in Khorasan (Central Asia) and free Muslim lands, including Palestine. Meanwhile, various pro-FPI news sites, such as Portal Islam and Faktakini, offered favourable coverage of the events in Afghanistan.
Former FPI leader Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, mired in his trial over breaching Covid-19 health regulations, did not release a statement on the Taliban. But other figures associated with the “212” movement, of which Rizieq is the de facto leader, did. Asep Syaripudin, head of a Bandung group calling itself the Indonesian Islamic Ummah Consultative Assembly, welcomed the Taliban victory and the “independence of the Afghan people of the shackles of foreign occupation.” Sri Bintang Pamungkas, an anti-government activist, going back to the Suharto days, expressed his support in a statement titled “I am Taliban”, which was circulated on Telegram. Abdul Rochim Ba’asyir, son of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and leader of the Jamaah Ansharu Syariah, described the victory of the Taliban as a “victory for the Muslim community”.
The only militant network not to welcome the Taliban was ISIS and its Indonesian sympathisers affiliated under the banner of Jamaah Anshorut Daulah. Pro-ISIS activists on Telegram were inspired by the ISIS-Khorasan attack outside Kabul airport on 26 August, a suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghan civilians. But they criticised the Taliban as apostates who had compromised with “kafir” states like the U.S. and China. They also cursed the Taliban for executing eight ISIS detainees when the movement took Kabul. Milisi Tauhid Media, a pro-ISIS channel, released a meme highlighting one of the victims of the execution, former ISIS-Khorasan leader, Abu Omar Khorasani.
The group that stands to gain the most from events in Afghanistan is Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), Indonesia’s largest underground militant network. The success of the Taliban in establishing an Islamic Emirate after twenty years of U.S. occupation has given new inspiration to JI in its long game to transform Indonesia into an Islamic state. Unlike ISIS, which prioritises violent attacks, JI prioritises disseminating its radical ideology among the community while keeping its military wing under wraps. For JI, the Taliban’s return to power is a vindication of its more patient strategy. The latest edition of the JI-aligned online magazine, Al Bunyaan, covers the Taliban takeover prominently, as part of an apocalyptic issue titled “Remembering the Justice of the End Times”.
There is some chance that militants will be inspired by the Kabul airport suicide bombing to attempt an attack in Indonesia. Soon after the Taliban victory, Indonesia’s National Intelligence Agency (BIN) issued a warning that it had detected Indonesian terrorists with close ideological and network connections to the Taliban. In recent weeks, Indonesian police arrested more than 50 JI suspects, including former acting amir Abu Rusydan, suggesting that JI has a larger organisational structure in the country than previously thought. The group appears to be dedicating substantial efforts towards raising money for its movement via donation boxes and charitable foundations. Funds are primarily used for business ventures or, prior to the pandemic, for sending military recruits to the conflict in Syria. In the latest edition of the Non-Aligned Podcast, Nasir Abas, a former JI leader who spent a total of six years in Afghanistan, anticipates that just as in the late 1980s, Afghanistan may again emerge as a location for JI members to visit for military training under the cover of humanitarian aid.
Complicating the picture are indications that the Taliban’s return to power has received a positive reception from some mainstream figures. Former vice president Jusuf Kalla, a mediator in the Afghan peace process, argued that the Taliban has changed and become more moderate. The head of international relations for Muhammadiyah, Muhyiddin Junaidi (also a member of the Indonesian Ulama Council), welcomed the Taliban takeover and dismissed concerns that it would inspire radicalism in Indonesia. (Muhammadiyah has otherwise urged a more cautious “wait-and-see” approach.) The Islamist opposition party, PKS, also generally welcomed the Taliban takeover, noting that the movement is anti-ISIS. Such sentiment is expressed against the backdrop of prior dealings between the Taliban and prominent Indonesian leaders. As recent as 2019, a senior Taliban delegation led by Taliban co-founder and now-deputy leader of the Afghan government, Mullah Baradar, visited Jakarta and met with Jusuf Kalla and leaders of the government-aligned Nahdlatul Ulama.
Claims that the Taliban have moderated were undermined by the appointment on 8 September of key figures with close links to al-Qaeda to its caretaker government. Chief among these is acting interior minister Siraj Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani network, an organisation that serves as the key liaison between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But the Taliban leadership is perhaps now geopolitically savvy enough to understand the risks of allowing al-Qaeda to operate as openly as it did in the past. To what extent events in Afghanistan change the game for terrorism in Southeast Asia will have to be watched over the long term.
Quinton Temby was Visiting Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.