By Randy Fabi and Agustinus Beo Da Costa
Indonesian authorities are working with their counterparts in China to stem a flow of ethnic Uyghur militants seeking to join Islamist jihadists in the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism chief said.
Saud Usman Nasution’s comments come amid mounting concern in Indonesia about possible attacks by sympathizers of the Islamic State group and follows the arrest of 13 men across the island of Java, including a Muslim Uyghur with a suicide-bomb vest.
The appearance among Indonesian militant networks of Uyghurs, who come from the Xinjiang region in far-western China, is likely to add to Beijing’s concerns that exiles will return to their homeland as experienced and trained jihadists.
China says Islamist militants and separatists operate in energy-rich Xinjiang on the borders of central Asia, where violence has killed hundreds in recent years.
Rights groups say much of the unrest can be traced back to frustration at controls over the Uyghurs’ culture and religion, and that most of those who leave are only fleeing repression not seeking to wage jihad. China denies repressing rights.
Nasution, who heads the National Counter-Terrorism Agency, told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday that several Uyghurs had responded to a call last year by Santoso, Indonesia’s most high-profile backer of Islamic State, to join his band of fighters.
Islamic State and human trafficking networks helped them travel via Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia to Santoso’s hideout in an equatorial jungle of eastern Indonesia, he said.
However, the would-be suicide bomber arrested on Dec. 23 was hiding in a house just outside the capital, Jakarta.
“We are cooperating with China and investigating evidence such as ATM cards and cellphones,” Nasution said, adding that an Indonesian team went to China to interview members of the man’s family, who would not confirm that they were related to him.
There was no immediate comment from China’s foreign ministry on whether Beijing is collaborating with Indonesia.
“As far as China is concerned, these people are running off, some of them taking part in jihad and planning to strike back,” said Pan Zhiping, a terrorism expert at the Xinjiang Academy of Social Sciences.
“Of course we must stop them. I believe, in terms of jointly guarding against extremism, it is necessary that we cooperate.”
Bilveer Singh of the Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore said the direct involvement of Chinese Uyghurs in Southeast Asian militancy added “an external dimension to the existing home-grown terrorist threat”.
“It could also complicate ties with a rising China, which may want to play a bigger counter-terrorism role in the region,” Singh said in a Eurasia Review article. Read more