Amy Chew (South Morning China Post, June 4, 2020)
- Reformed al-Qaeda terrorist warns jihadist groups are hoping to capitalise on growing resentment of foreigners amid job losses due to Covid-19
- Militants are also seeking revenge for Beijing’s treatment of Uygur Muslims
The return of Chinese workers to Indonesia could trigger terror attacks due to growing resentment of foreigners amid the coronavirus outbreak and Beijing’s treatment of Uygur Muslims, security analysts have warned.
Jihadist groups had issued “massive” calls for attacks in recent weeks, said a former senior figure in al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian network, who warned that both migrant Chinese workers and ethnic Chinese Indonesians could be targeted.
“Some jihadis have called for the burning and robbing of Chinese shops,” said Sofyan Tsauri, who spent five years in jail for helping to arm terror groups. He was released in 2015 and now helps Indonesia’s counterterrorism effort by sharing his knowledge at seminars.
Sofyan said the calls for attacks had been made on Facebook and other social media sites by members of al-Qaeda, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) – the Indonesian affiliate of Islamic State (IS) – and other jihadist groups over the past six months.
He made the comments after taking part in a webinar on Monday by the Indonesian think tank Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies titled “Threat of terrorism, government, Chinese and ethnic Indonesian Chinese”.
As of May this year, there were 98,900 foreigners working in Indonesia, representing less than 0.1 per cent of the total workforce of 124 million. Chinese were the largest group, accounting for 35,781 workers. The next largest group was Japanese at 12,823, then South Koreans at 9,097.
China is the second-largest foreign direct investor in Indonesia, with Chinese companies investing US$4.7 billion in the country last year.
But long-standing anti-Chinese sentiments in the Muslim-majority country have flared in recent months, partly because local job losses in the wake of the coronavirus have fuelled resentment of foreign workers.
Weeks ago, legislators in Southwest Sulawesi province rejected the planned arrival of 500 workers hired by two Chinese-backed companies, PT Virtue Dragon Nickel Industry and PT Obsidian Stainless Steel, despite their permits having already been issued by the central government in Jakarta.
The Indonesian Ministry of Manpower later postponed the arrival of the workers.
Mohd Adhe Bhakti, the executive director of the Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies, who also spoke at the seminar, said he “worried” every time he heard news of Chinese workers returning because militants would “exploit the issue” as a “justification” for attacks.
The issue of Chinese workers was sensitive with the Indonesian public because some people perceived the government as favouring Chinese workers over locals, said Adhe.
“There is a need for the government to be open about the issue of foreign Chinese workers, when they will arrive here, what protocol will be implemented to ease tensions,” said Adhe.
Adhe warned that if Chinese workers returned, attacks were “highly possible”.
Asked when attacks were most likely, he said militants tended to choose dates with symbolic significance.
He cited an attack on Monday by a small group of suspected pro-Islamic State militants on a police station in South Kalimantan, in which a police officer was killed with a sword.
The attack occurred on Pancasila Day which celebrates the birth of Indonesia’s secular, national ideology.
Major terror attacks have also taken place during Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
“When we talk about terror attacks, there may be a pattern to it but we can never know exactly when it will occur, its location. Such factors make terrorism an extraordinary crime,” said Adhe.
The Manpower and Transmigration Ministry said in April that 2.8 million people had lost their jobs because of Covid-19, while another 70 million informal workers were at risk.
While officials maintain the economy could still grow up to 2.3 per cent this year, Bank Danamon warned it could contract by 0.6 per cent. First-quarter GDP growth was this year at its weakest since 2001, rising 2.97 per cent year on year as household spending and investment growth slowed.
With militants hoping to capitalise on resentment of foreigners caused by growing poverty, one JAD member had discussed plans to intercept and rob foreigners in East and Central Java, Sofyan said.
He said Beijing’s treatment of Uygurs in Xinjiang province had also angered the militants. “China is considered a tyrant against Muslims in Xinjiang and that makes China anti-Muslim,” he said.
In 1998, when the Asian financial crisis triggered riots in Jakarta, businesses owned by ethnic Chinese were looted and burnt. Some 1,200 people died in the violence.
Anti-Chinese sentiment has also been fuelled by the suspicion that the Chinese support the defunct Indonesian Communist Party, which attempted a coup in 1965 and killed six high-ranking generals.
The militants believe the Chinese will be destroyed by Imam Mahdi, the redeemer who will rid the world of evil, according to Sofyan.
He said militants were already preparing for an attack.
“Whether or not an attack takes place, it depends on a situation that could trigger it. This has to be anticipated and not be dismissed. There needs to be caution,” said Sofyan.
Sofyan urged people to avoid places where terrorists were known to operate.
“The areas vulnerable to attacks are the islands of Sulawesi, Sumatra and West Java,” said Sofyan, adding that the jihadis were taking advantage of the government being tied up in dealing with the coronavirus. As of Wednesday, Indonesia had more than 28,000 infections and 1,698 deaths, with more than 8,000 recoveries.
Amy Chew is a journalist currently based in Kuala Lumpur. She covers politics, terrorism, economics, climate change in Southeast Asia. She was previously based in Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore. She has also dabbled in investment banking, working as an analyst for Daiwa Capital Markets Singapore.