Between late May and early June 2021, more than a dozen suspected ISIS supporters were arrested in Merauke. They were suspected of planning a bombing in this easternmost city of Indonesia, on the southern coast of Papua.
The May-June arrests were not the first evidence of pro-ISIS cells in Papua but they were a more serious extension of ISIS influence in Papua than anything that had taken place earlier. In May 2018, two men were arrested in Timika, accused of planning an attack on police, but they never succeeded in recruiting anyone else. In 2019, fugitives from Lampung were arrested in North Sulawesi and Papua, but they had fled there to avoid capture, not to develop a new cell.
Those arrested in Merauke in 2021 were different because they sought to build a community. The number of pro-ISIS suspects was the largest to date for a Papua cluster. A few were disseminators of ISIS propaganda, with one man in direct communication with ISIS in Syria. They were tasked with translating ISIS releases into Indonesian and editing ISIS videos for distribution on social media. The Merauke cell also focused on fund-raising to collect contributions for families of detained terrorists as well as for Indonesian fighters in Syria.
One of the most striking aspects of the group is that several were former Salafi scholars. As a group, “pure” Salafis, many of them trained in Saudi-influenced schools, have been considered relatively immune to violent extremism. Most Salafis see the extremists’ elevation of jihad to a pillar of Islam, equivalent to prayer or fasting, as a deviation from the duty to deepen one’s individual faith. There have been a few notable crossovers, the most famous being radical cleric Aman Abdurrahman who began his teaching career as a Salafi scholar. It is still a relatively rare phenomenon, however, so the career path of the Merauke leaders is particularly interesting to trace.
The discovery of this cell that provided refuge to some extremists linked to the 28 March 2021 Makassar bombing, underscores how important it is, legally and conceptually, to keep pro-ISIS and pro-independence groups separate. In April 2021, following the assassination of the provincial intelligence head for Papua by pro-independence guerrillas, the government of President Jokowi decided to brand all independence fighters and activists as “terrorists.” But violent Islamist ideology linked to ISIS and ethnonationalism linked to an independence movement are very different organisations. Responding to them also requires distinct counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency strategies.
This report examines how the Merauke cell developed and what measures might help local communities strengthen defences against such groups.