An Indonesian tycoon who is a prominent backer of the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group is behind bars – but not on charges of supporting jihadists or financing their travel to the Middle East.
Businessman Chep Hernawan, who has been called the “President of IS in Indonesia,” was convicted on fraud and embezzlement charges earlier this month.
But Chep’s March 21arrest and subsequent trial had nothing to do with his pro-IS activities, Sri Yunanto, an expert on the staff at the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), told BenarNews.
"Chep's statement [showing support to IS] cannot be used in our court of law. That's our legal dilemma," Sri said.
The problem, as he described it, is that Indonesia’s anti-terrorism law doesn’t authorize law enforcement agencies to crack down on and arrest people who openly express pro-radical views.
"The law needs to be amended …,” Sri said. “There is no article in the law that could be used to charge [people] or prevent provocations.”
Based on existing laws, authorities can’t charge someone for openly supporting IS or declaring that he or she has helped jihadists embark for Iraq or Syria, said Sri, who also lectures on terrorism and Islamic politics at the University of Indonesia.
‘Yes, that was me’
Chep, whose business empire encompasses plastics recycling, sand mining and property development, is now serving his six-month sentence in Cianjur prison in West Java province, following his conviction on June 4.
A panel of judges at the Cianjur district court found him guilty of fraud and embezzling 150 million rupiah (U.S. $ 11,267) from a businessman in Lampung, Sumatra earlier this year.
The court found Chep guilty of violating Article 378 (on fraud) and Article 372 (on embezzlement) of the Indonesian criminal code, charges that each carry a maximum sentence of four years.
Chep’s lawyer believes his client’s arrest was politically motivated and connected to his support for IS.
"That's the way I see it. He should have been acquitted if we consider the legal facts presented in court," Achmad told BenarNews.
"Clearly, we don't agree," Chep's oldest son, Lucky Permana, said of the verdict.
“God willing, my father’s good name will be restored and, with time, people will know he is innocent.”
Chep was arrested on March 21 following provocative statements he made to the press.
Just two days earlier, he boasted to CNN Indonesia that he had paid 1 billion rupiah (U.S. $75,114) for 156 people to travel to Syria and Iraq. Government officials estimate that between 500 and 700 Indonesians are now in those two countries.
In the interview with CNN, Chep said he was the one who sent Abu Muhammad al-Indonesi (also known as Bahrumsyah) to the Middle East.
Bahrumsyah, Indonesia’s government alleges, was the black-turbaned man who appeared in an IS online promotional video last August that was geared toward recruiting Indonesian fighters for its jihadist cause. The government banned IS almost immediately after the video appeared on YouTube.
"Yes, that was me. The man who made the video in Syria, I sent him with 12 people as the first cohort. Couldn't do many, worried they'd be caught," Chep told CNN Indonesia.
Chep’s roots in Islamic fundamentalism run deep.
In 1998, he founded the Islamic Reformist Movement (GARIS), an organization whose goal is to turn the archipelagic nation of Indonesia into an Islamic State.
“The Islamic Reformist Movement is an activity that consists of people who have a passion to restore deviations from the system Allah sent down to the Prophet Muhammad,” according to a description of the group online.
It is also dedicatedto “eradicating … deviance and misguided offshoots” of Islam, a reference to minority groups such as Shia or Ahmadiyya Muslims.
Chep is also reportedly close to Abu Bakar Bashir, the jailed Muslim cleric and leader of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist group that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings.
When three of the Bali bombers were executed in 2008, Chep offered a piece of his land for their burial, although their bodies ended up not being buried there.
Three years later, he hosted and underwrote a “world mujahideen gathering” in West Java. The event drew some 562 trained or combat-hardened jihadists from the Middle East as well as Malaysia, the Philippines, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
From his prison cell, Bashir last year anointed Chep the “president” of IS in Indonesia, a title that the businessman has since eschewed although he has declared his allegiance to IS.
Who’s a radical?
As’ad Said Ali, former head of the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) who is now deputy chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama, one of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organizations, agrees that its anti-terrorism law needs to be amended in order to go after radicals like Chep.
But, As’ad cautioned, there should be careful consideration of what constitutes radicalism, since not everyone understand its meaning.
"It's going to be difficult if everyone who supports sharia law is considered radical. I consider Indonesia an Islamic country but its ideology is Pancasila," he told BenarNews, referring to the state ideology, which embraces pluralism.
As'ad added that the law should be amended in order to prosecute people who are planning terrorist attacks.
"We just need to work out the details. If it is detailed, it won't be able to be used against political activities outside of terrorism, because there are fears [such a law] could be used in the political arena," As'ad said.