When Rahmat and Afrian talk about Islamic State, their eyes widen, their speech slows, and their expressions soften into smiles.
The two friends, both 33, say they plan to join the Islamist militant group in Syria, 4,500 miles away from their middle-class homes in Medan, Indonesia’s fourth-largest city, as soon as they can save enough money to fund the trip.
“The Islamic State is like a dream come true for me and all Muslim people,” said Rahmat, a perfume trader wearing a Quicksilver T-shirt and a G-Shock watch, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name. “Now is the time to return to Islamic glory, like we experienced in the old days.”
Southeast Asia is emerging as a new recruiting frontier for the Sunni Muslim extremist group that seized control of large portions of northern Syria and Iraq last year. Hundreds of Indonesians, at least 150 Malaysians, and even a few young men from Singapore have joined Islamic State, according to the best assessments of analysts in the region.
“I think support for ISIS is increasing,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for the Jakarta-based Policy Analysis of Conflict think-tank, using an acronym for the group. At least 200 Indonesian citizens have traveled to the Middle East to join Islamic State, she said.
Others have pledged devotion to the group, which proclaimed itself a caliphate in June 2014.
“I think there’s some evidence that there’s enough of a support base [in Indonesia] that if they got the green light from ISIS — which they haven’t yet — they could quite quickly set up a structure of ISIS here,” Jones said. “It would be tiny and there would be lots of opposition, but it raises concerns [that they might] follow other kinds of orders from ISIS, which could include violence.”
Rahmat and Afrian have been busy preparing by viewing jihadist videos online, especially the slick, brutal execution videos that have become a cornerstone of Islamic State’s global propaganda push. They have also been doing push-ups, sit-ups and martial arts.
Both say they plan to take their families with them. Afrian, a high school teacher, has a wife and a 2-month-old, and Rahmat has a wife and three children.
“My son will become a fighter too, inshahllah,” God willing, Rahmat said. “Once he asked me, ‘Dad, why don’t we go to Syria?’ I think he understands everything.”
The route from Medan to Raqqah, Islamic State’s de facto capital in northern Syria, is by air through Hong Kong and Turkey, a trip that costs about $4,500 per person, they said. To finance the journey, both plan to sell their homes. “Once we arrive, everything will be taken care of” by Islamic State leaders, Rahmat said.
Authorities worry that recruits eventually will return to the country with a hardened ideology and sophisticated military expertise. Indonesians who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s and ‘90s to fight with Islamist forces were later involved in perpetrating some of the country’s deadliest terrorist attacks, experts say, including 2002 bombings in Bali that killed 202 people.
Although recruits from Western nations and the Middle East have been attracted by Islamic State’s sleek social media campaigns, Jones said, most Indonesian recruits are long-term members of home-grown Islamist radical groups. (Afrian and Rahmat met years ago as members of the Indonesian Muslim League, an organization in Medan with a notorious radical streak.)
Yet Islamic State’s “attraction has spread beyond the core constituency of existing radical organizations,” Jones said. “So we’re seeing people from middle-class groups, people from professional organizations, other kinds of people being attracted to the idea that this is a place where Islamic law is being applied in its purest form.”
Analysts say that the constitution of Muslim-dominated Indonesia guarantees freedom of religion, and that a pledge of devotion to Islamic State — even leaving the country to join it — is not technically illegal. (Police have arrested several Islamic State devotees over the last year on tangential charges, such as traveling with falsified documents.)
“We have a policy of prevention,” said Saud Usman Nasution, director of Indonesia’s national counter-terrorism agency. The agency identifies potential recruits and tries to persuade them not to join. “We cannot change their mind-set quickly,” he said. “So we must go step by step.”
According to an Australian intelligence report obtained by news website The Intercept, two Indonesian commercial pilots have pledged devotion to Islamic State. Ridwan Agustin, a former AirAsia pilot, may have already traveled to Syria. The pilots “pose obvious threats,” the report says. “Their access and knowledge of security and safety regimes provides the ability to attempt attacks as witnessed by past global events.”
Rahmat and Afrian said they decided to join Islamic State in June 2014 after it released a video declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. (Indonesian authorities have blocked the video; Rahmat says he first saw the contents on BBC and Al Jazeera.)
Rahmat said that law enforcement agents had not contacted him since he pledged devotion to the militant group in a small ceremony with fellow members of the Indonesian Muslim League. Afrian said that police had visited his house about 10 times to gather information, but did not threaten him with arrest.
“First they interrogated me about my views on sharia law,” he said. “Then, at the end, they also asked me about ISIS.”
Alchaidar, a doctoral candidate in the anthropology of terrorism at the University of Indonesia in Depok, near Jakarta, said that many Indonesians are drawn to Islamic State for reasons other than ideology, including the promise of good living conditions, the thrill of warfare, the lure of foreign women and the “desire to fight back against authority, against secularism, against the Christian, Western world.”
Both Rahmat and Afrian said that they had kept up to date on the group’s videos of beheadings, defenestrations and mass executions and fully support them.
“One verse in the holy Koran says we have to deter our enemy,” Afrian said. “The Islamic State is a state. It has territory, government, citizens, and laws. If you don’t want to get in trouble with the Islamic State, don’t go there.”
Rahmat said that he began thinking seriously about sharia law in 2000 in a Medan prison, where he was held for two years on drug charges. " I met someone who taught me the Islamic way, knowledge, how to be faithful to the creator,” he said. “It was like being reborn.”
Alchaidar has known Afrian and Rahmat since 1999, and has interviewed them extensively.
“It’s very hard for me to understand why their beliefs changed from secular to very religious,” he said. “For me, it’s incomprehensible.” He said both seemed motivated mainly by ideology.
Rahmat said he hopes to become a martyr in the Middle East. Afrian said he dreams of eventually returning to Indonesia.
“Success, for me, would mean that all of Indonesia adopts sharia law,” Afrian said. “That’s the only way to avoid repressive actions by non-Muslims against Muslims.
“For Muslim people, there’s a quite famous proverb: Live in dignity, or die in jihad. If we die doing this, we will have won.”