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Indonesia’s Terrorism Challenge

Dr. Sampa Kundu is Research Assistant at IDSA Click here for detailed profile.
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  • February 03, 2016

    Terrorism in Indonesia dominated headlines when pro-Da’es/Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/IS) militants carried out coordinated attacks in central Jakarta on January 14, 2016. The targets included a popular shopping mall, café, and police station. This was, however, not the first terrorist attack in the country in recent years. In fact, Indonesia has suffered several terrorist attacks during the last decade or so, with Islamist terrorists targeting government institutions, churches and mosques. Thus, on October 12, 2002, almost 200 people, including 88 Australian tourists, were killed at Kuta, a famous tourist destination in Bali, by suicide bombers. On August 5, 2003, 12 people died when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside the lobby of JW Marriot Hotel in South Jakarta. Two years later, on September 9, 2004, nine people were killed when a car-borne suicide bomber blew himself up outside the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. Another set of suicide bombings was witnessed at Kuta and Jimbaram Beach on October 1, 2005, leading to the death of 20 people. And on July 17, 2009, the JW Marriot and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta were bombed leading to the death of seven people including six foreigners. In most of these cases, Jemaah Islamiya (JI) affiliates were found involved and the method employed was suicide bombing.

    The January 14 attack in Jakarta was different from these previous terror acts in two respects. One, they were carried out by terrorists associated with the IS. And two, along with suicide bombing, the terrorists also used other weapons (guns and grenade) to target and kill innocent people. The rise of the IS appears to be a result of the Indonesian government’s success in reducing the influence and reach of the JI during the 2000s. Perhaps, this vacuum is being filled by the IS. In fact, there are reports that former JI members have affiliated themselves with the IS.

    Notwithstanding its relatively lower intensity (in terms of the death toll), the January 14 attack has caused alarm in the region given that it came as proof of the claim made by the IS in 2014 about intensifying its activities across Southeast Asia. There have been several warnings in recent months about the activities of the IS, including that of the Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsein Loong who stated at the 2015 edition of the Shangri La Dialogue that there is a possibility of the IS gaining a foothold in Indonesia, Philippines and Singapore.1 This apprehension has been proved to be correct by the January 14 terrorist attack, which is believed to have been planned and coordinated by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian national currently based in Syria. Reports say that he is associated with the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), also called as East Indonesia Mujahidin or Santosa Group – an umbrella group for a number of terrorist organisations in Indonesia.2 Bahrun Naim and Abu Wardah Santosa, the leader of MIT and now the most wanted terrorist in Indonesia, play crucial roles in managing the links between ISIS and its support groups in Indonesia. In fact, the Indonesian Police had arrested dozens on the basis of the suspicion of carrying out explosions and other terrorist activities across the country.3 Naim allegedly funded a foiled attack on police stations and other government institutions on Indonesia’s Independence Day in 2015, an attack that was planned to be carried out through the Jamaah Anshar Daulah Khilafah Nusantara (JAKDN). Formed in March 2015, JAKDN works as an agency for IS and sends youths to serve as soldiers in the IS.4 JAKDN reportedly has members from Hisbah Team/Laskar Hisbah from Solo, JI, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), MIT, and Mujahidin Indonesia Barat (MIB).

    The recent past has already shown that terrorists often target areas that are mostly frequented by foreigners (popular beaches, hotels etc.), and the January 14 attack was not an exception. This time, however, they selected a place – Jalan Thamlin or Thamrin – which is important not only as a tourist spot but is also located very close to government buildings, foreign embassies, an office of the United Nations and media outlets. The attackers, four in number, have been variously termed as “self-radicalised individuals”, “lone wolves” and “sleeper cells”, belonging to a loose network of IS operatives.5 They appear to have emerged from the ranks of the approximately 800 Indonesian nationals who have joined the IS and around 30 local groups that have expressed support for the Caliphate despite a government ban on the IS imposed in August 2014.6

    Indonesians, who have been facing repeated terrorist attacks during the last several years, have demonstrated their resilience following the January 14 incident. Along with President Joko Widodo, the common people took to the streets carrying messages written on placards. The Police had to face an angry mob when it tried to send the body of one of the suicide-bombers, Ahmad Muhazan, to his hometown Indra Maya. Citizens of that city claimed that Indra Maya should not be remembered as the city of a terrorist. In Central Java too, a group of young Indonesians took to the streets and marched with posters like “Lets Reject the Caliphate...”7 #KamiTidakTakut (We Are Not Afraid) trended on Twitter.

    In response to the terror attack, the government has initiated plans to ensure greater coordination among Badan Inteligen Nasional (BIN - the national intelligence), Badan Intelijen Strategis (BAIS - military intelligence) and Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terrorisme (BNPT - counter-terrorism cell of the police). A fourth organisation, named Badan Siber Nasional (National Cyber Agency), may be established to strengthen the government’s counter-terrorism initiatives.8 Existing counterterrorism laws (which came into force after the 2002 Bali bombing) do not allow the authorities to detain suspects for long merely on suspicion, and being a member of the IS is not illegal in the country.9 Following the recent attack, however, the authorities are preparing to ban citizens from becoming members of the IS. The coordination minister for security, legal and political affairs, Luhut Pandjaitan, has emphasised the need to amend counter-terrorism laws in such a way as to empower the police to detain a suspect for up to two weeks in order to ensure adequate investigation.10 He also emphasised upon the necessity of pre-emptive legal action.

    But there are apprehensions that a stronger counter-terrorism law may bring back the authoritarian days of General Suharto who used force to retain power for more than three decades. This apprehension works as a constraint for new counter-terrorism initiatives, as the issue of civil rights and authoritarianism continues to haunt Indonesians. In this regard, it is worth noting that when the armed forces launched a new unit called TNI (Indonesian military) Joint Special Operations Command or Koopsusgab as a new counter terrorism mechanism a few months ago, it led to concerns about the possibility of the army taking over the task of domestic security from the police.11

    Simultaneously, there are other challenges as well. For instance, to implement a full proof and coordinated action plan against IS-inspired terrorism, President Widodo will have to win the support of fellow parliamentarians. This is, however, a little difficult since his government does not enjoy a majority in Parliament. Further, Widodo also faces the challenge of gaining the support of the country’s civilian and military elites.12 However, history shows that Indonesian Muslims have been supportive of secular parties in the recent past and this should help the Widodo government tackle the threat posed by the IS.

    At the regional and global levels too, Indonesia has been trying to engage with other nations to combat the menace of the terrorism. In 2015 alone, Indonesia (along with Australia) co-chaired the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum (GCTF), added value to the Leaders’ Summit on countering ISIS and violent extremism, and conducted interfaith dialogues with Serbia, Netherlands, Germany and Austria.13 Just a day before the Jakarta bombing, Singapore’s foreign affairs minister Vivian Balakrishnan, who was on a visit to Indonesia, called for coordination between Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia in the fight against terrorism in the region.14 At the international level, Indonesia cooperates with the UN Counter Terrorism Implementation Task Force (CTITF), the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Counter Terrorism Executive Directorate (UNCTED). Indonesia is on the advisory board of the UN Counter Terrorism Center as well. So far, Indonesia has ratified eight UN counter terrorism conventions.15

    Finally, one may ask whether Indonesia is at war against IS-led terrorism. The answer is probably yes. However, with Widodo as President, Indonesia is likely to use a combination of military power and soft ideological offensive in fighting extremism. The tradition of moderate Islam has already helped Indonesia in adopting such a combined approach. This tradition is best exemplified by the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which emphasises upon an Islam of Compassion and which enjoys the support of approximately 50 million Indonesians. Jokowi too prefers such a policy that combines the application of hard and soft power. He has placed moderate Islam as the driving force in educational and public-awareness campaigns. Moreover, his efforts to free Solo from radical Islam included consolidating moderate Islam in the province as well as ensuring regular interactions between the local Christian and Muslim communities to strengthen mutual trust. In addition, he also worked to improve the local economy and expand employment opportunities.16 Reprising such an approach should help him tackle IS-led terrorism in the rest of the country as well.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.