Indonesia's Spy Agency Warns of Radicalism Spreading In Mosques Popular With Government Workers

We spoke with a man accused of radicalism more than once to see if it's true.

by Adi Renaldi
06 December 2018, 1:00pm

Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters

Syamsudin Uba was trying to argue semantics with me. This Islamist preacher, a man who made international headlines when a reporter from Australia's ABC News recorded him using a Central Jakarta mosque to try to convince those in attendance to move to Syria and join the Islamic State, is telling me that he never tried to spread ISIS ideology in Indonesia—because there is no such thing as ISIS in Indonesia.

"We never called for anyone to change the Indonesian system," he said. "We just said they should go back to the Quran. I never spread ISIS teachings in Indonesia."

I called up Syamsudin because the Indonesian intelligence agency, after conducting a survey of more than 1,000 mosques nationwide, found instances of radicalism in the sermons of preachers at 41 mosques in a single neighborhood. They also found 17 preachers who were pretty explicit in their support of both ISIS and the battle in the Philippines city of Marawi—which was once seized by local ISIS-linked militants and is still the site of the closest jihadi battleground to Indonesia.

And there's a reason why that one neighborhood was so important to the spy agency—it's where a lot of government employees and civil servants go to pray.

"The majority of people who go to these mosques are government workers so that's why this is alarming," Wawan Purwanto, a spokesman for the intelligence agency, told AFP. "These are people who are running the country."

Watch VICE founder Suroosh Alvi interview Syamsudin Uba for this VICE News report.

The report was alarming to all the right people. Vice Presidential candidate and conservative Muslim scholar Ma'ruf Amin said he would make "cleansing" Indonesia's mosques of radicalism a priority if he wins the election.

But it made me wonder who, exactly, gets to determine the definition of radicalism in Indonesia. In the past, someone had to actually be involved in the planning or execution of an act of terrorism to be called a radical. Today, under the new anti-terrorism law, that definition is far looser.

So, I figured I would go right to the source and speak with a man who has, on more than one occasion, been called a radical. But Syamsudin claims he's innocent—the victim of a smear campaign that twisted his words.

"I didn’t spread the teachings of ISIS," he said. "Structurally ISIS is non-existent in Indonesia. It's a lie if people say I spread ISIS ideology. I spread the teachings of the caliphate. What I told people is the concept of a caliphate, not of ISIS."

But what about all that discussion about how great it was living in the Islamic State's caliphate, not just a caliphate, on the ABC News recording?

"It was spontaneous, euphoric," he said of the sermon. "It was like supporting the liberation of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Taliban regime. We know that the Islamic law implemented in Syria and Iraq could never be implemented here.

"I know we follow man-made laws here. If we're against that, then we will end up in jail. But Indonesia is supposed to guarantee the freedom of speech and assembly right? When we had a discussion, we didn't urge them to join ISIS. I preached about the caliphate through tawheed and other Islamic teachings. If I am wrong about the caliphate, then we need to ask the ulema to enlighten us."

Watch: This Indonesian School Is Deradicalizing The Children Of Convicted Terrorists (HBO)

I don't really believe him, but it's an argument that's not going to go anywhere. Syamsudin believes he is innocent just because ISIS doesn't have a formal structure inside Indonesia. So then, he argued, how can he spread the ideology of an organization that doesn't have a presence here?

Formal structure or not, there's already been a lot of blood spilled in the name of ISIS in Indonesia. The 2016 attack in Central Jakarta was just the beginning. Since then, ISIS affiliates have racked up a death toll in excess of 20 victims between the bombings in Surabaya and a prison riot staged by jailed terrorists in the suburbs of Jakarta alone.

And in the recording that made him famous, Syamsudin can clearly be heard saying some pretty positive stuff about an international terrorist organization responsible for countless acts of barbarism.

"Even though the infidels wouldn't acknowledge it, even though the United Nations wouldn't acknowledge it," he said in the recording by ABC News. "Muslims don't need that, Muslims only want the blessing from God, in a state where the laws of God are implemented fully. Even when the infidels don't like it."

Another preacher jumped in, adding, "When you get there soon, God willing, you won't have to pay rent, you don't have electricity and water bills. You will get monthly food expenses, a monthly allowance, free health care and medicines."

According to Indonesian authorities, speech like this isn't just radical—it's a form of terrorism. The country's recently passed anti-terrorism law included an article that allows authorities to arrest, question, and eventually jail for up to five years, anyone caught supporting, sympathizing with, or trying to join a terrorist organization, regardless of whether or not they were planning an attack at the time.

The central government passed this new anti-terrorism law in the wake of the Surabaya bombings, the worst attack in recent memory. And in these 41 mosques, Wawan said that intelligence agents found plenty of evidence of radicalism.

"There are calls to go to Syria, encouragement to join the fight in Marawi,” Wawan said. “And then they twist lines from the Quran without any knowledge of the lines’ true intention. So they twist lines about war and agitate the masses.”

Other terrorism experts agree. Adhe Bhakti, the director of the Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies Center (PAKAR), told me that radicalism occurs in not just mosques, but also Islamic boarding schools, Quran recitation groups, and small, invite-only lectures.

"Some mosques are used exclusively to spread ideology,” Adhe told me. “And some are for consolidation; there are some mosque administrators that act as travel agents for people to get to Syria."

But some Islamic leaders called this list, and the government's new push to root-out radicalism, an effort to stigmatize more conservative and fundamentalist strains of the religion. Islam, especially recently, has taken on a more political tone in its approach and criticism of the central government. Could the authorities be using the spectre of radicalism to silence criticism by the Islamist right, Abdul Halim, of the Indonesian Board of Muslim Preachers (DDII), told me

"We shouldn't let the stigma of radicalism justify government’s attempts to wield their power and restrict people’s movement,” Halim said. “That’s the opposite of progress.”