By Sidney Jones
Jan 18, 2016
The attack that killed four civilians and
four terrorists in central Jakarta last Thursday may be a harbinger of more
violence to come. It certainly suggests that ISIS, which claimed
responsibility, has already transformed the terrorism threat in Indonesia,
after years of mostly foiled plots.
Indonesia, the country with the world’s
largest Muslim population, has a tiny jihadist movement relative to its size.
Many factors have kept radicalism in check: a stable, democratic government,
little internal conflict, peaceful neighbors and tolerance for advocates of
Islamic law. It also has an effective counterterrorism police unit, set up
after the 2002 Bali bombings.
The Bali bombings, which killed more than
200 people, marked the high point of terrorist capacity in Indonesia. The
bombers were from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), trained on the Afghan-Pakistani border
and funded by Al Qaeda. Although those attacks were carried out in the name of
the global jihad, most JI members — like many other local extremist groups —
were focused on avenging the deaths of Muslims in Christian-Muslim fighting in
two areas of eastern Indonesia, Maluku and Poso. The groups involved in that
struggle in the late 1990s and early 2000s laid the basis for the extensive
network of jihadist cells that exists in Indonesia today.
With the arrests that followed the Bali
attacks and the end of local wars, the jihadist movement weakened and
fragmented. But it did not disappear. By the mid-2000s, JI decided violence was
largely counterproductive and redirected its efforts toward rebuilding its
membership through religious outreach and education. Other extremist groups,
some of them splinters from JI, remained committed to jihad, but they lacked
JI’s training regimen, indoctrination process and discipline. From 2010 until
last week, out of dozens of attempted bomb attacks in Indonesia, not one bomb
worked as intended, and three suicide attacks killed only the attackers
But then ISIS emerged, and suddenly there
was the potential for Indonesian extremists to go to Syria and get military
training, combat experience, ideological indoctrination and international
contacts. What had become a low-level threat became more serious again.
Thursday’s attacks were reportedly
organized and funded by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian computer expert said to be
in Syria. Last August, three men were arrested in Solo, in central Java, for
planning to bomb a police post, a church and a Chinese temple on Mr. Naim’s
instructions. (The temple was targeted as retaliation for Buddhist violence
against Muslims in Myanmar.) In December, four more of Mr. Naim’s men were
picked up for plotting attacks against senior police officials and Shiite
Even as terrorist activity has picked up in
the last year, Indonesia has been shielded from its effects by the incompetence
of would-be attackers, as well as police vigilance. In 2015, the total death
toll from terrorism was just eight people; in 2014, it was four. The terrorists
of the Solo plot, for example, apparently couldn’t figure out the right
chemicals to make explosives. Last Thursday’s attacks could have been much
deadlier had the perpetrators been better trained.
This weakness could lead Mr. Naim or other
terrorists in the Middle East to send operatives back to Indonesia to instruct
local extremists. And if the Jakarta attack did not cause the mass casualties
its organizers were hoping for, the saturation news coverage it generated may
turn that near-failure into a success of sorts, and encourage more attacks.
Other ISIS sympathizers in Indonesia may want to strike in the hope of
attracting similar attention. The rivalry between the two men who are said to
be vying for the leadership of Indonesian fighters in Syria, Bahrumsyah and Abu
Jandal, could blow back to Indonesia in the form of lethal competition among
The need for more preventive measures has
therefore become pressing. One necessity is plugging the holes in Indonesia’s
anti-terrorism law, which at present does not ban membership in ISIS or similar
organizations, or participation in terrorist-training camps abroad. Even when
the Indonesian police know that individuals are actively recruiting for ISIS,
they have few legal tools to stop them.
Another necessary step is to improve
supervision and post-release monitoring of convicted terrorists. Pro-ISIS
networks are able to disseminate information and contacts in Indonesian
prisons, in part because almost every inmate has ready access to a smartphone.
At any one time, some 300 individuals are either in prison or police custody
awaiting trial on terrorism charges — many of them still in regular
communication with peers on the outside. Dozens are released every year after
serving their sentences, and the state authorities do not monitor them afterward.
The government must also develop a program
for deportees who have been returned to Indonesia. So far some 200 Indonesians
who tried to join ISIS have been sent back by Turkish authorities, some 60
percent of them women and minors, and if there ever was a target population for
a deradicalisation program, this is it. These people, often especially the
women, have proved their determination to go to Syria or Iraq, and they may try
to do so again. Their whereabouts are known, at least for the moment, and many
need assistance because they sold everything before leaving. The Ministry of
Social Affairs provides them temporary shelter, but no structured program
assists them beyond that. The Indonesian government must work with local civil
society organizations to draw these people into new social networks.
Finally, Indonesia needs to engage young,
computer-savvy Indonesians to develop anti-ISIS messaging on social media and
online, where Mr. Naim and other radical groups are actively spreading ISIS
So far, the combination of Indonesia’s
moderate majority, good police work and the incompetence of Indonesian
extremists has kept the death toll from terrorist attacks low. But with ISIS
now clearly present as a new threat, the government must urgently develop more
programs to prevent its appeal from spreading.
Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict