Indonesian terrorist organisations have weakened significantly in the past five years. Due to the mass arrest of terrorist suspects since 2018, major terrorist organisations like Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) are respectively too decentralised and too focused on internal rebuilding to carry out major terrorist attacks effectively. Evidently, despite the number of terrorist plots increasing between 2022 and 2023 from five to seven, the number of successful attacks has decreased from one to zero. When attacks were successfully orchestrated, their lethality was significantly decreased. For example, while JAD’s 2018 Surabaya Bombing resulted in 57 casualties, their most recent 2022 Astana Anyar Bombing resulted in only 10.
That said, elections have always been important events for these organisations. Over the past decade, groups have attempted to interfere with the election process regardless of their operational status. In 2013, a terrorist suspect who would later join JAD conducted a bombing during the re-election campaign of South Sulawesi’s then-governor Syahrul Yasin Limpo. In 2016, JI members participated in large Islamic rallies to help foster divisive sentiments which discredited Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s Chinese Christian governor who ran for re-election in the 2017 Jakarta Gubernatorial Elections. Most recently, in 2019, 11 JAD members were arrested for planning to detonate bombs amidst mass gatherings during the announcement of the 2019 Presidential Election.
Similarly, the online landscape has proven to be fertile ground for the production and circulation of jihadist narratives targeting democratic elections, fueled by activity from both terrorist organisations and their supporters. With the reduction in digital engagement with Southeast Asia by organisations such as IS following the 2017 Marawi Siege, Indonesian online propaganda networks such as ShareNewsOk, Tamkin Indonesia, and Poster Dakwah have taken up the mantle of translating propaganda from organisations such as the Islamic State (IS). These local networks have not only proven themselves to be dedicated and resilient but also capable of reframing global jihadist propaganda into an Indonesian context, targeting issues including the 2019 and upcoming 2024 elections.
This piece will examine Indonesian terrorists’ attempts to interfere in Indonesia’s upcoming 2024 elections and analyse how they compare with similar activity by organisations in the ‘centre’ of the global jihadist movement, such as AQ and IS. It finds that election interference by Indonesian terrorists largely comes in three forms: activities aimed at undermining the elections, disrupting the elections, and exploiting the elections. Importantly, while some of these attempts mirror those by AQ and IS, there are also efforts unique to Indonesia –– highlighting the importance of observing ‘periphery’ groups not merely as mirrors and extensions of those in the ‘centre’.
Forms of Interference
The forms of election interference by Indonesian terrorist organisations can be grouped into three categories: ‘undermining elections’ can be defined as actions that encourage the voting population to deny the validity of the elections themselves; ‘disrupting elections’ are kinetic operations which aim to physically prevent elections from taking place peacefully; and ‘exploiting elections’ are actions by organisations that leverage election processes to propagate their political and ideological agenda. Contrary to the other categories, operations aiming to ‘exploit’ elections depend on elections actually proceeding and being perceived as valid.
The primary vehicle through which Islamist terrorist organisations with established propaganda arms, such as IS and AQ, undermine elections is via theological argumentation. Such argumentation relies on narratives framing democracy as polytheism (shirk), where man-made laws are empowered above Sharia law. Elections are thus cast as a symbol of this anti-Islamist political system. While this focus on elections was popularised by individuals outside of IS and AQ, such as Omar Bakri Muhammad (founder of al-Mujahiroun and a major influence in anti-voting propaganda operations such as ‘Operation Disrespect’ in the 2005 British general elections), it has since become an integral part of general IS and AQ narratives deployed against democracies worldwide. Such narratives are distributed as editorials, posters, and audio materials, via digital platforms ranging from mainstream social media to encrypted messaging channels.
For example, in the 130th edition of IS Central’s Ministry of Media Bureau’s weekly newsletter Al-Naba, published online in November 2017, an editorial provided a lengthy essay explaining IS’ opposition to democratic elections. Here, it specifically highlights the IS position deeming democracy as kufr (unbelievers), and that elections under such a system were “electing with what Allah did not permit”. Similarly, AQ leadership – particularly Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Abu Musab al Zarqawi – released multiple statements framing democracies as theologically unacceptable and condemning various Islamic groups that took part in democratic elections. In recent years, such narratives have continued to be deployed in various countries not only by the online propaganda arms of both organisations but also by their unofficial supporting media groups.
Within the Indonesian context, local Islamist extremist actors have also deployed theological argumentation to undermine elections. This occurred as early as 2009, in which Muhammad Fachry, a key pro-IS figure, published an editorial in the Al Mujahirun magazine titled ‘Don’t Vote, Stay Muslim’ (a throwback to a slogan adopted by Omar Bakri in his anti-election propaganda). Similarly, Fachry’s opposition to democratic elections was also underpinned by claims that they symbolised systems which placed man-made law above Sharia law. This narrative has been consistently echoed by other Indonesian pro-IS supporters who, unsurprisingly, have turned to Facebook as the focal platform of their activity, given its massive Indonesian user audience.
For example, in March 2023, a short video featuring a Turkish boy named Ali Borat was widely circulated amongst Indonesian Facebook users known for expressing pro-IS views. In the video, the boy made similar theological claims that democracies placed man-made laws above Sharia law and that the act of voting was shirk. Comments made on the recirculated Facebook posts largely supported the narrative, with many framing the claims in the context of the 2024 Indonesian elections. Interestingly, while some of the users behind these comments were found to have circulated translated IS central propaganda, the discussions around the Ali Borat video were devoid of any such proscribed content – instead, they paraphrased narratives pushed by IS central. While this highlights the effectiveness of Facebook’s online moderation, it also highlights the impact of such moderation, in which local Islamist extremists no longer feel the need to draw on global jihadist propaganda to propagate its narratives.
Apart from deploying theological argumentation, Indonesian Islamist extremists have also engaged in disinformation campaigns designed to undermine local elections. In 2019, JI allegedly conducted “an information war” via multiple disinformation websites, which were stated to be a “crucial stage in the strategy to achieve political victory.” Similarly, in April 2023, Indonesian pro-IS supporters on Facebook were noted to have spread disinformation regarding the presidential candidates for the 2024 elections. These included claims that Ganjar Pranowo was associated with the Indonesian Communist Party, as well as claims that Joko Widodo was planning to run for a third term but was unable to do so because his university certificate was faked. These claims against the presidential candidates in turn supported underlying arguments that democratic elections should not be condoned under Islam.
Interestingly, this local modus operandi of disinformation campaigns targeting elections does not have a strong parallel with the activity of either IS or AQ. While both regularly engage in disinformation campaigns, most of these campaigns remain focused on matters such as combat operations and geopolitics.
The most common method terrorist organisations like IS and AQ have used to disrupt elections is by way of orchestrating attacks targeting election proceedings and related officials. Examples of such attacks are numerous and spread across a wide range of countries, with examples in recent years including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, Pakistan, and Iraq. The spread of attacks suggests that deploying this strategy depends on the operational capabilities of the targeted terror organisations in the country.
These attacks are justified by IS and AQ as part of their agenda against democratic elections. For example, in the 402nd edition of Al-Naba published in August 2023, IS framed an attack in Khyber Pakhtunkhw which targeted the Pakistani Jamiat-Ulema al-Islam party as having been motivated by “the sincerity of the IS in fighting democracy in word and deed”, highlighting that the alleged 270 killed or injured party members were targeted for participating in elections deemed ‘shirki’ (deviating from God). It is important to note that these attacks feature heavily in online propaganda produced by both IS and AQ when they occur, with rhetoric highlighting their goals of intimidating election participants. The spread of such propaganda via global online propaganda networks serves as both inspiration and guidance to local terror actors, who pay close attention to the narratives of such messaging when planning their own attacks.
Like IS and AQ, Indonesian terrorist organisations also primarily disrupt elections by attacking election proceedings. Domestically, groups target three stages of the Indonesian elections. The first stage is the campaign process. A key example of this occurred in the 2019 Presidential Election when members of Firqoh Abu Hamzah (FAH) were found plotting to detonate bombs in three separate locations during the Presidential Debates. The second stage is the voting process on election day. In 2018, for instance, JAD West Java planned to attack polling booths in Bogor and Sukabumi during the voting day of the province’s Regional Election. The third stage is the announcement of election results, illustrated by the abovementioned 2019 Presidential Election Announcement Plot.
As with past elections, various Indonesian terrorist organisations have been found attempting to disrupt the upcoming 2024 elections. For example, a JAD faction in Riau province was found spreading propaganda on social media, urging others to “make chaos during the 2024 elections.” The most notable attempt, however, was done by a JAD faction led by Abu Oemar, which planned to attack multiple targets ranging from voting booths and police officers to the General Elections Commission’s office. Throughout 2023, police arrested over 42 members of Oemar’s faction across 16 cities/districts. Police investigations found that the faction’s preparations have been extensive as Oemar had recruited experienced recidivists, such as the perpetrator of the aforementioned 2013 Yasin Limpo Bombing, and divided members into multiple small cells with differentiated functions. Additionally, Abu Oemar maintained limited contact with the cells until a few days before an operation to avoid police monitoring and arrest.
Both IS and AQ have not been known to explicitly exploit elections to advance their political and ideological agenda. Notably, IS remains steadfastly against the exploitation of elections due to their ideological stance. This is demonstrated in the IS response to the 2023 escalation of the Israel-Hamas conflict, where, in contrast to the majority of the Muslim world, IS refused to issue support for Hamas, likely due to Hamas’ participation in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. This refusal was highlighted in the 412th and 413th issues of Al-Naba, in which editorials indirectly condemned Hamas’ efforts due to their alleged failure to adopt a comprehensive Sharia law framework, as well as their primary objective of self-determination rather than the establishment of a Caliphate.
AQ, on the other hand, issued support for Hamas as early as 9 October in a statement by Al-Malaheim media. However, it is worth noting that in 2006 and 2007, Al Zawahiri had specifically criticised Hamas for failing to demand “that Palestine have an Islamic constitution before entering any elections” and that it had “sold out referring to Sharia as the source of jurisdiction”. As with IS, there has been no evidence that AQ or its affiliates have exploited elections.
Contrary to AQ and IS, groups in Indonesia, specifically JI, have attempted to participate in elections to spread propaganda and infiltrate political institutions. JI first sanctioned such attempts in 2018 when a faction led by Farid Okbah, a senior JI member, convinced leaders that joining electoral competition was an effective way to “prevent non-Muslims and alleged communist candidates from being elected,” especially before a Caliphate was established. Following the arrest of JI leader Para Wijayanto in 2019, participation in electoral politics became more widely accepted among seniors as it was seen as a better avenue to conduct dakwah (religious outreach) while avoiding arrest. Consequently, JI began shifting its strategy from “bullets to ballots” and started infiltrating Islamic organisations and political parties.
Leading up to the 2024 election, JI has made several attempts to participate in electoral politics. The first attempt began in late 2020 when Farid Okbah helped establish and tried to gain a leadership position in a new Islamist political party, the Masyumi Party. While Okbah did manage to serve as a member of the party’s Consultative Council by November 2020, by February 2021, Okbah’s role was no longer acknowledged in the party’s official structure. JI’s second attempt followed soon after, with Okbah’s establishment of the Indonesia Dakwah Party (PDRI), where he became its Chairman. While the party does not overtly echo JI’s principles of wanting to establish a caliphate, it does paint a divisive, Islamist view of politics: dividing groups into Hizbullah (the Party of Allah) and Hizbussyaithan (the Party of the Devil) and calling for the implementation of Sharia for Muslims. However, due to Okbah’s arrest in February 2022 and PDRI’s lack of branches outside of Banten and East Java, the political party never managed to participate in the elections.
Much of Indonesian Islamist extremists’ approach to democratic elections largely aligns with the IS/AQ ideology and modus operandi as centrally directed. However, JI’s willingness to exploit the upcoming 2024 elections reveals a divergence between the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’ of Islamist extremism. As IS and AQ wane in activity and prominence, actions taken within the periphery might no longer simply be a mirror or extension of the centre’s will. It should be emphasised that JI’s evolution in strategy remains a minor threat in the short term due to its limited influence within Indonesian politics. Nevertheless, this evolution – and the divergence from IS/AQ strategies that it implies – is worth keeping in mind. The counter-terrorism community would do well to consider the agency of such local actors, especially if they continue going against established norms that we have come to expect.
The findings in this Insight also highlight a few specific actionables for the tech industry in their moderation efforts, extending beyond moderation basics. The increased agency and effectiveness of Indonesian online propaganda producers – whether established networks or decentralised individuals – point to a need to shift focus away from solely prioritising content takedowns of central global jihadist propaganda producers such as IS and AQ. Not only are these local online jihadist propagandists actively pushing their agendas on mainstream platforms, but they have also proven adept at cloaking these agendas with ‘grey-area content’ that remains within the moderation thresholds of these platforms. More work needs to be done in terms of vetting the users themselves, rather than only vetting their content output, so as to build holistic profile understandings and assessments of their impact on the wider audience.
At the same time, it is important for the tech industry to investigate what might seem to be official political organisations, given the capacity and intent of terror organisations to infiltrate these groups, as seen with the Masyumi party and PDRI. With rising questions about how platforms should moderate content stemming from extremist establishments, it becomes crucial that they also develop the capabilities – whether by relying on the counter-terrorism community or in-house – to identify and assess these establishments.