V. Arianti and Unaesah Rahmah, Associate Research Fellow and Research Analyst respectively at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.
As of October 2021, Indonesia has administered 150 million COVID-19 vaccine shots as the country attains the fifth highest number of jabs in a global ranking, after China, India, the U.S., and Brazil. As the government aims to inoculate its 208.3 million population—individuals aged above twelve-years-of-age with no underlying medical conditions—what are the responses of the Islamic State (IS) supporters in Indonesia and how will they affect Indonesia’s security landscape? In short, there are conflicting opinions, and this may affect the militants’ consolidation efforts and choice of an attack target.
Divided Indonesian Pro-IS Community
Based on the authors’ research, the online Indonesian pro IS community, which perceives the Indonesian government as murtad (apostate) and taghut (tyrant), has been recently divided into two camps, the so-called ghulat and rinciyun camps. Ghulat, which comes from an Arabic word ghuluw (to exceed reasonable bounds or to exaggerate), represents those who interpret IS’ stance strictly. Rinciyun, also known as perinci, is derived from an Indonesian word rinci (detailed), and comprises those who are quite “lax” in interpreting IS’ stance and who justify their acts by providing detailed (rinci) excuses. As a consequence of labelling the government as murtad, contention has arisen between the two camps over whether IS followers should support or participate in the government’s anti-pandemic programmes. On the vaccination issue, the ghulat camp strongly opposes the government’s COVID-19 vaccination drive while the rinciyun camp has positively considered taking the vaccines.
The ghulat camp’s arguments are centred on the sustained portrayal of President Jokowi’s government as taghut and anti-Islam. The arguments can be divided into two categories. First, the health argument. The camp believes that COVID-19 vaccines will cause chronic diseases and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). It also asserts that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines may cause irreversible DNA damage. Whilst such arguments have also circulated in non-extremist online communities, the ghulat camp specifically believes that the vaccine is produced to harm or kill Muslims. Second, the apocalyptic argument. It believes that the COVID-19 is “a global satanic ritual to turn humans into slaves of the Dajjal (an anti-Christ figure who will appear before the end of time). The vaccination programme is thus seen as a long-term project of Ya’juj and Ma’juj (two hostile and corrupt forces that will ravage the earth near the end of the world), that is, referring to the Jokowi administration.
On the other hand, the rinciyun camp’s argument emphasises that the COVID-19 pandemic is real and sent by God as a test for Muslims, referring to an IS official statement released in February 2020. The camp also cited the IS official newsletter Al-Naba’ in March 2020 which reported that COVID-19 has harmed and frightened the non-believers. Acknowledging the severity of the pandemic, the rinciyun believes that administering vaccines—scientifically proven for its health benefit—is in line with IS policy. In 2015, IS allowed an NGO team to provide polio vaccines to children in its controlled territories in Syria and Iraq. The rinciyun camp also asserted that the COVID-19 vaccine jabs in IS-controlled areas are guaranteed to be based on halal ingredients. Whilst the extent of the IS-controlled areas that received the vaccine is not fully clear, it is known that more than 200 residents of Al-Hawl refugee camp in Syria, which houses the wives and children of IS fighters, have received the COVID-19 jabs as of August 2021.
The internal debate on the vaccination issue could be partly attributed to the fact that, as of now, IS has not specifically urged their followers to reject or receive their COVID-19 vaccination. IS’ “health protocols” issued in March 2020 as a precaution against catching or transmitting the COVID-19 virus, for instance, did not mandate inoculation for its followers.
These developments may result in at least two security implications.
First, the ghulat camp has called on followers to “fight with all your might”—indirectly hinting at using knives, if necessary—if the government were to enforce vaccination. This was in the context of the government deploying police and military—entities which Indonesian IS supporters deem as their main enemies—in its vaccination drive. Individuals in the ghulat camp claim that they are willing to bear the consequences of not being vaccinated, including paying fines or imprisonment. This challenge posed by the ghulat camp should be kept in perspective, however. The Indonesian pro-IS groups’ actual capabilities remain a far cry from that of the IS Khurasan (IS-K), an IS affiliate which in 2015 prevented the Afghan government from administering polio vaccines to about 46,000 children.
In addition, the unvaccinated ghulat camp adherents will face obstacles if they intend to travel overseas to join the IS-K in Afghanistan or another conflict zone. This is because being vaccinated is now a requirement when applying for a passport. That said, members of the ghulat camp could resort to fake vaccination certificates that can be integrated into the government’s PeduliLindungi app which records the vaccination status of every citizen.
The second implication is that, ironically, it is possible that members of the rinciyun camp could pose a more significant challenge. They are likely getting vaccinated and hence can travel. By law, only vaccinated individuals are now allowed to travel across Indonesian cities and at a cheaper cost. Fully vaccinated individuals are required to just take an Antigen Rapid Test (ART) instead of more expensive Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) tests for domestic travel by land, sea, or air. They will also have more access to public facilities. This means that the militants from the rinciyun camp could resume their consolidation efforts by meeting with various pro-IS individuals across the country, including meeting the pro-IS inmates in prison. As prison visits have been largely suspended due to the pandemic, vaccinated individuals, starting with the inmates’ families, will be allowed to visit the prisons. Resuming prison visits, even by the families’ inmates, is critical to cement the extremist ideology of some terrorist inmates whose families have received financial assistance from pro-IS charities.
In conclusion, despite the ghulat camp being arguably more ideologically extreme compared to the rinciyun, adherence to the government’s vaccination drive would likely give the latter camp a greater tactical advantage. Being vaccinated means militants can roam around freely, including when it comes to planning possible attacks downstream. After all, it may be more challenging for a militant to penetrate police headquarters as witnessed in this year’s April attack, as only vaccinated individuals would be allowed to enter such premises. The group to monitor more closely may thus turn out to be the rinciyun.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.