The Associated Press
JAKARTA, Indonesia — The young Indonesian was raised in an extremist household and graduated from a boarding school notorious for teaching generations of terrorists. So it was perhaps no surprise that when Muhammad Fakhri Ihsani left to study in Pakistan, the lure of jihad proved inescapable.
But the 21-year-old didn't sneak into nearby Afghanistan or the lawless border areas, as scores of other foreigners have in recent years. Indonesian authorities believe that after flying to Turkey, he and three other Indonesian students traveled overland to Syria to fight there with fellow countrymen and jihadists from all over the world.
Their journey in August shows how determined some Indonesians are to join what has become the new theater of choice for international jihadists. It also points to an emerging threat for Southeast Asian authorities, who have successfully clamped down on militants in recent years, largely preventing them from forging links with their brethren overseas.
While security agencies in Europe and beyond are worried about militants returning from Syria, Indonesia knows only too well how foreign battlefields, training opportunities and contact with al-Qaida can lead to deadly results. Indonesian veterans of the Afghan jihad spearheaded attacks in the 2000s against local and Western targets, including nightclub bombings on the resort island of Bali that killed 202 people.
The Syrian conflict is also helping fuel an increasingly bitter hate campaign against Shias in Sunni-majority Indonesia, where until a few years ago sectarian divisions, let alone conflict, were largely unheard of. Syrian veterans are only likely to exacerbate this.
"We have to learn from our bitter experience in the past," said Ansyaad Mbai, head of the country's anti-terror agency. "Every Indonesian who ends up in Syria needs to be watched. We have to anticipate the fact that when they return they will have new abilities and skills in warfare."
In interviews, Mbai and two other Indonesian anti-terror officials estimated there were around 50 Indonesian militants fighting against the regime of Bashar Assad, out of up to 11,000 foreigners believed to have become opposition fighters. They said that number is expected to grow. Many were already living or studying in the Middle East when they left. The estimate was based on information from Syrian authorities and their own investigations in Indonesia and Turkey.
Indonesian humanitarian groups staffed by hardliners or those with known links to extremists have been raising funds across Indonesia with little transparency. Some are traveling to regions of Syria under the control of militants, treating fighters and handing out cash and relief funds to civilians and local authorities. One organization has traveled at least eight times to the front line in Latakia region, a stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front, according to their literature.
Indonesia has more Muslims than any other nation, but the brand and practice of Islam is markedly different from the austere version common in parts of the Middle East and South Asia. Militant Islam has a long history in Indonesia, dating back to the country's birth in 1945, but it has struggled to gain significant followers even as the torch of jihad has been handed down through the generations.
The Ngruki boarding school, on the main island of Java, and its network of teachers and ex-students have been central to militant activity in the country since the early 1990s. A close look at those taking part — and advocating for — the war in Syria reveals it remains a central node of extremism, apparently intent on making Syria a new venue for those wishing to take part in jihad.
Ihsani and the three other Indonesians who left Pakistan with him attended Ngruki. The first Indonesian known to be killed in the conflict, Riza Fardi, was also a graduate. His death was reported on Arabic jihadi websites in late November, along with a photo of him taken in the region, smiling with other fighters.
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