By Sidney Jones
May 22, 2018
A sudden spate of terrorist attacks in Indonesia during the past few weeks offers insights into how supporters of the Islamic State around the world are reacting to the group’s defeats in the Middle East.
The damage caused by ISIS was expected to last longer than its caliphate proper, and in Indonesia the group’s impact already seems to have been to expand and transform local extremist movements. Local Islamist extremists still go after the same targets: religious minorities and law enforcement. But their tactics have shifted: Now women and children are participating in suicide attacks.
Since the beginning of May, at least 49 Indonesians — 12 civilians, seven police officers and 30 terrorists — have died in back-to-back attacks by ISIS supporters or government antiterrorism operations.
The series began on May 8 when pro-ISIS inmates staged a riot at a detention facility at the paramilitary police’s headquarters south of Jakarta. By the time the uprising ended, five police officers (and one detainee) had been killed.
More shocking still are three instances last week of suicide bombings carried out by families, including children.
On May 13, six members of the same family attacked three churches in Surabaya, East Java. The father went after one; his teenage sons went after another; and his wife and two daughters, age 12 and 9, blew themselves up at the third. Twelve congregants died.
That evening, a mother and her 17-year-old son were killed in Sidoarjo, East Java, apparently when a bomb the father was making prematurely exploded. (The father was injured in the blast and killed by police officers when they arrived at the scene.)
On May 14, a couple, two teenage sons and a daughter tried to bomb police headquarters in Surabaya. Only the daughter, 8, survived.
These three families knew one another and regularly attended lectures given by an Indonesian Muslim preacher who was arrested in Turkey in 2017 and deported back home after trying, along with more than a dozen relatives and friends, to join ISIS in Syria for almost a year.
Nearly every day this month there has been a new attack, an attempted attack or an operation to prevent an attack. On May 15, a counterterrorism squad in Medan, in the northern part of Sumatra, shot two suspected terrorists, killing one. The next day, four men rammed a car into the gate of the police’s headquarters in Pekanbaru, also on Sumatra, and then assaulted officers with long swords. One officer died, and the four attackers were shot and killed.
Why this surge of activity now? It’s Ramadan, typically a time of renewed militancy among extremists. (Local pro-ISIS groups took over the city of Marawi in the Philippines last year two days before the month of fasting began.) Other attacks may have been responses to exhortations sent via the app Telegram after the prison attack. One message in an aggressively pro-ISIS chat group read: “Support in your own cities the mujahedeen who caused the riot! Burn the assets of nonbelievers, idolaters, apostates and hypocrites! Burn their malls! Destroy the economy of the nonbelievers by withdrawing your money from their banks! The momentum only comes once; don’t fail to use it.” Rivalry between different groups and one-upmanship may also have encouraged the violence; they have in the past.
The recent attacks confirm the fact, already well established, that ISIS followers in Indonesia are hardly united. Many different local groups swore allegiance to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after June 2014, when he declared the caliphate in Mosul, Iraq. And although the largest of these groups is a loose network known as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, not all of the violence this month was committed by J.A.D. members and not all the J.A.D. action was coordinated. This lack of an overarching organizational structure makes ISIS ideology harder to eradicate, because some groups may cling to it even after others move on.
One precedent is Jamaah Islamiyah, the regional terrorist organization responsible for the 2002 bombings in a tourist district of Bali. It was once partly funded by Al Qaeda, but after the Bali bombings some of its leaders decided that Qaeda-style attacks against Western tourists or iconic Western landmarks were counterproductive, because they had little public support and led to mass arrests. Still, a splinter group led by Noordin Mohammad Top continued to plan and carry out major bombings until he was killed in 2009.
Even more important about the recent eruption of violence, however, is the fact that it confounds many assumptions experts held about what would happen to Islamist terrorism in Indonesia after the Islamic State was routed in the Middle East.
One major concern had been over what ISIS fighters would do when they came home. Yet none of the terrorists involved in the past weeks’ attacks appears to have ever set foot in Syria or Iraq. The greater danger may come instead from the ISIS faithful whose illusions about the promise of the caliphate haven’t been dashed by the direct experience of hardship, discrimination, hypocrisy and corruption that fighters who went to the Middle East described when they returned. That includes deportees like the Surabaya preacher and the families who followed his teachings.
A second assumption was that as the caliphate lost territory in the Middle East, the ISIS brand would gradually lose credibility. But the recent violence in Indonesia suggests that what happened there may be largely irrelevant here.
This month’s attacks have not been directed at foreigners representing the countries that fought ISIS in the Middle East; Indonesian extremists are targeting the same local enemies — Christians and the police — they were targeting before ISIS even existed. In 2000, for example, two years before it bombed Bali, Jemaah Islamiyah mounted coordinated attacks on churches in 11 cities in retaliation for Christian attacks on Muslims in local communal conflicts. The police have been a target of Islamist extremists since they broke up a terrorist training camp in Aceh Province in 2010.
Between 2013 and 2016, when the Islamic State was at its strongest, the appeal of the caliphate dramatically increased the recruitment of extremists throughout the world. But after its global aspirations were translated back into local contexts, what happened in Mosul or Raqqa no longer much mattered to supporters back home.
Finally, this month’s attacks in Indonesia underscore the fact that Islamist terrorism is not just about men. Women were among the bombers in Surabaya. And two women were arrested on May 12 as they were setting out to (belatedly) answer a call for reinforcement from the rioters at the detention centre outside Jakarta.
ISIS encouraged women to join the caliphate with their families, as mothers, teachers and propagandists, rather than as combatants. It forbade them to fight except in self-defense. But in reaching out to the “lionesses of Allah” and their “cubs” — in a way that Al Qaeda never did — the Islamic State opened the door for women to go beyond what it approved.
Indonesian law enforcement officials are only just beginning to recognize the importance of understanding women’s networks in extremist movements — and the ideological fervour women pass on to their extended families, in the businesses they run or via the communications and courier roles they play. Deradicalisation programs targeted only at men are bound to fail; their female relatives must also be included.
For all the horror of these recent family bombings, however, they may not indicate that extremism is growing in Indonesia: Violence can be as much a sign of weakness as of strength, an effort to keep motivation high precisely because recruitment is declining. Now that their energies are no longer focused on getting to Syria, ISIS’s supporters in Indonesia may be turning their attention back to waging war at home. But now they are having to operate in an environment that is more hostile to their views than it was when the caliphate was proclaimed.
The recent bombings have sparked a torrent of outrage from other Indonesian Muslims, especially over the use of children as bombers. Although the rise in religious intolerance is often associated with terrorism in Indonesia, by and large the two phenomena are separate. Supporters of Saudi-style Salafism may have played a major role in, for example, bringing down the Christian governor of Jakarta on blasphemy charges, but they are quick to criticize terrorism, and terrorists rarely recruit from their ranks.
Yet they may have an indirect influence: The more that conservative hard-liners reject Christians as equal citizens under the law, the more, perhaps, terrorists will see churches as appropriate targets. Terrorism cannot be disassociated from its political environment.
The attacks this month are the work of a tiny fringe desperate for attention, but they undermine Indonesia’s self-image as a nation of largely tolerant, moderate Muslims. It is now up to the government to translate citizen outrage over the bombings into programs to monitor jihadist returnees, curb extremist teachings and protect religious minorities.
Sidney Jones is director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict in Jakarta, Indonesia