Jailed radical Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir gave his blessing for Chep Hermawan to become "president of ISIS in Indonesia" during a March 16 rally that drew 5,000 people at Jakarta's Hotel Indonesia roundabout, he said.
Hermawan later renounced the title, but only because ISIS had changed its name to Daulah Khilafah Islamiyah (The Islamic State), he said during an interview last month at his home in Cianjur, West Java.
Head of a business empire encompassing sand mining, property development and plastics recycling, he remains loyal to the Middle Eastern jihadist group and unapologetic about his support for it.
At the beginning of Ramadan, in fact, he pledged allegiance to Daulah Khilafah Islamiyah.
Asked how he could support a group that carried out crucifixions and beheadings , he replied, "I haven't received accurate information about the beheadings. But if it was true, it should have been done strictly with the right legal procedure in the sharia law."
The beheadings "could have occurred for political reasons to show the infidels not to mess with us and not to take us lightly," he added.
Sharing the stage with Hermawan on March 16th was Bahrumsyah , a man who would surface as the speaker in an ISIS recruitment video directed at Indonesians, and which came out on YouTube in early August.
Indonesian authorities now are pursuing Bahrumsyah, who is at-large but remains in touch with Hermawan. They last spoke on August 29th, Hermawan said.
"I told him to keep fighting. He told me he keeps wondering why he's still not dead, because he wants to die [for] jihad," said Hermawan, who did not reveal Bahrumsyah's current whereabouts.
Hermawan, who leads the Islamic Reform Movement (Garis), for years has had stature among militant Islamists in Indonesia.
In 2008, when three convicted Bali bombers were executed, he offered to bury them in Cianjur. Hermawan said he worried that people in the dead men's home villages would refuse the corpses, in violation of communal obligations to perform burial rites, fardu kifayah .
"I sacrificed a plot of land downtown – not in the woods – which is more than a hectare wide," he said. He had ambulances on standby to transport the bodies, which ultimately were flown to their home villages in government helicopters.
Three years ago, he hosted a "world mujahidin gathering" in West Java's Cipanas district, he said. As many as 562 combatants showed up – Indonesians and nationals from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Libya, Jordan, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Pakistan, who had fought or received military training in those countries.
"The gathering cost Rp. 5 billion ($413,000) for their tickets, accommodations, and other expenses, generated from my own pocket and various contributions and alms," he said.
The gathering went smoothly despite the presence of police intelligence agents, and it ended with an agreement to campaign for a sharia state in Indonesia without the use of force, he recalled.
"Secondly – please take note of this – we stop campaigning by force, using weapons or bombs. We sent the police our statement and we guaranteed that there would be no more bombings in Indonesia, and it remains true so far."
Hermawan founded Garis in 1998.
Apart from advocating sharia law, the organisation campaigns against minority sects it considers heretical, and against churches that build worship facilities without proper permits.
"We voice our concerns on heresy, such as Ahmadiyah . We held rallies in front of the [presidential] palace, urging the president to issue a presidential decree that disbands Ahmadiyah, because it would be impossible to stop its existence in Indonesia without one."
Garis has branches in all 34 Indonesian provinces, with 200,000 members nationwide, including 27,000 in its stronghold, West Java, according to Hermawan.
"We are not into politics or a political party. We don't aim for quantity, but we strive for quality. We set up district-level branches and we ask them to promote the establishment of a sharia NKRI [the Unitary State of the Republic of Indonesia]. Our target is to promote such awareness so that Indonesian people can accept the notion."
However, some Garis members may be involved in terrorism, according to Sri Yunanto, a staff expert at the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).
"It's like a confederation of Islamic militant groups," Sri said. "Their actions are similar to those of FPI 's [Islamic Defenders Front], though there could be some elements in Garis who may be involved in terrorism."
Garis also engages in charity efforts such as donating supplies for victims of violence in the Middle East. Lately, Garis has been sending fighters and humanitarian workers to Iraq and Syria.
Hermawan claims that 98% of Indonesians engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria are Garis members. He said he had a list of 156 people who had gone abroad for humanitarian work or to take up arms.
"There's no need to report to the government that they want to go as fighters. They can go through umroh ( minor pilgrimage), or as Indonesian migrant workers through Malaysia," Hermawan said.
Despite his unabashed support for violent jihad, Hermawan so far has done nothing illegal, law enforcement officials say.
"We can't enforce the law on him if it's just [promoting] ideas and thoughts. It's his freedom of expression. As long as there are no positive, proven ties to terrorist activities, we can't charge him," National Police spokesman Boy Rafli Amar said.
"We need more concrete actions, such as conducting training for terrorists or plotting to launch a terror attack, than just promoting and calling for [jihad], to legally charge him."
Terrorism expert Wawan Purwanto agreed.
"He can't be charged with the law unless there's legally proven evidence that what he does causes harm," Wawan said.
Having a sharia agenda "is not a taboo in Indonesia, and there are a lot of regional administrations that impose sharia law," he said.
"But in a democratic era, people like him better take the appropriate way: form a political party and contest the election to see if they can gain support and voters. If they win, it's a democratic victory in all senses."