Amalina Abdul Nasir, research analyst at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) in Singapore
In May 2019, two men were arrested in Malaysia after they managed to assemble and conduct a few tests on a high-quality home-made explosive (HME) called Triacetone Triperoxide (TATP). This is the first TATP assembled by Malaysian militants. Such a milestone in assembling a high-end explosive bomb is a cause for concern. However, a brief look into countries like Indonesia and Philippines reveals that the use of TATP and other high-end explosives is not new. Where and how did pro-IS militants acquire this set of expertise? As militants continue to adopt new skills in assembling different type of explosives, what is the possible bomb-signature outlook in Southeast Asia?
Islamic State (IS) linked groups in Southeast Asia have long known to use Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) and suicide attacks as its modus operandi.1 In many of its publications, IS urges its supporters to weaponize any convenient tool – from vehicles to pressure cookers. While their core tactics such as using IEDs is still practiced, tactics have evolved to reflect their expanding bomb-making knowledge.
Against this backdrop, the use of TATP has become salient as it is increasingly used in regional terrorist plots and attacks such as the 2018 Surabaya Church bombings in Indonesia. It is one of the most common types of explosive used by IS because of three reasons: Firstly, TATP can be made with easily-obtained materials, such as hydrogen peroxide and acetone, which can be bought from any hardware store or supermarket.2 Secondly, TATP is able to create a more powerful explosion than such military grade explosives as TNT resulting in more casualties. Thirdly, TATP can avoid X-ray detection since chemicals used can be found in household items such as hair bleach and nail polish remover.
Within the greater Asia Pacific region, TATP was used in the recent Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka in April. Specifically, in Southeast Asia, it was used during the 2018 series of Surabaya Church bombings. The same type of explosive was used in the 2005 London bombings, the 2015 Paris bombings and the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.3 TATP was also used by criminals in October 2015, when Indonesian Leopard Wisnu Kumala threatened to detonate several TATP bombs in Tangerang, a suburb of Jakarta, Indonesia.
The TATP Footprint: From Indonesia to Malaysia
The first successful IS-linked attack occurred in Malaysia in 2016 when a local cell launched a grenade attack at the Movida nightclub in Puchong, Selangor. The cell learned how to make IEDs from the internet.4 In other instances, similar bomb making manuals were shared by pro-IS militants in the region through Telegram groups and channels. Despite the availability of such manuals in the open source, members of wolf pack, Muhammad Syazani and Muhammad Nurul Amin, did not tap into it. They were the duo who managed to assemble the first TATP in Malaysia. Investigations showed that they undertook bomb-making training with the Indonesian pro-IS group, Jemaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) based in Yogyakarta in 2018.5 During the training, they managed to acquire skills to build large-scale explosives including car bombs.6 Although the duration of their training was not known, they were dubbed as “bomb experts” at the time of their arrest as they were able to replicate and reproduce TATP.
This signifies two important developments. Firstly, the importance of offline bomb-making training is recognized by IS members as it allows a certain degree of practice and training for terrorists to handle such delicate explosives. In this case, it is clear that the duo received enough training to be able to produce the explosive confidently and accurately, without it detonating prematurely. History is replete with incidents of terrorists whose bombs detonated prematurely or did not explode on time.7
Secondly, it demonstrates the deep transnational linkages between pro-IS militants in Malaysia and Indonesia.8 Typically, pro-IS supporters undertake roles as facilitators, helping pro-IS supporters from Indonesia travel to the Philippines. In other instances, pro-IS militants from Malaysia would receive logistical and financial support from foreign militants. Hence, it is telling that Malaysian pro-IS supporters have traveled to Indonesia to acquire new skills. This allows them to import and roll out new operational tactics that are foreign to Malaysian authorities. Links between militants in both countries have gone beyond the transfer of commodities to also include training and knowledge.
This transfer of knowledge is significant as Malaysian pro-IS militants were known to be skilled bomb-makers. However, they were skilled in low-end home-made explosives and were inexperienced in constructing high-end explosives. Amongst them were Najib Hussein 9, Marwan 10 and Amin Baco. All three were either killed or believed to be dead. Against this backdrop, the transfer of high-end explosive-making expertise from Indonesia to Malaysia will likely enhance IS’ overall tactics and pose a growing threat to Southeast Asia.
Unlike pro-IS militants in Malaysia, those in Indonesia are more familiar with TATP. Some terror cells from the latter specifically consult online bomb-making manuals or instructions provided by the infamous Indonesian militant fighting for IS in Syria, Bahrun Naim.11 Although he had no experience in assembling bombs prior to his departure to Syria, he subsequently compiled bomb-making manuals and was recognized as an accomplished bomb maker. These manuals were posted on his blogs and widely referred to by Indonesian pro-IS cells/individuals.12
On his blog, “Bahrun Naim: Analis, Strategi dan Kontra Intelijen” (Bahrun Naim: Analysis, Strategy and Counter Intelligence),13 the militant included tips and ways to become a hacker and a spy. More importantly, he crafted bomb-making manuals titled “How to Make a Bomb in 10 Minutes”, “Make Explosive Materials in Your Kitchen” and bomb-making tutorials, including that of TATP, which virtually guided several militants in their attempt to produce explosives.14 His infamous “Nuclear for Dummies”, in particular, managed to inspire an Indonesian terrorist to construct a ‘dirty bomb’ in 2018.
To assemble TATP, terrorists purchase the chemicals from various places ranging from physical stores 15 that sell aluminum plates and ball bearings to online stores, all of which house ordinary products that can be used in making bombs. A case in point is Dita Operianto, one of the suicide bombers of the 2018 Surabaya Church bombings. Dita purchased chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide (to make TATP) from an online supplier to avoid detection of authorities who could have been alerted by chemical stores.16 Furthermore, to ensure that he did not leave any suspicious trace, he refrained from using bank transfers when making payments for his purchases. Instead, he would head to convenience stores with financial services to make online payments.
Possible usage of radioactive material
Apart from TATP, pro-IS militants in Southeast Asia have also experimented with deadlier bombs such as those using radioactive material as a mixture in a conventional bomb. Pro-IS cells in Indonesia have demonstrated their ability to assemble a dirty bomb albeit at a very rudimentary stage. In 2017, a JAD-linked cell in Bandung possessed the chemical know-how of transforming “low-grade radioactive Thorium 232 into deadly Uranium 233”17 based on Bahrun Naim’s manual. Even more alarming, in the same year, a Bandung-based cell had purchased hydrogen peroxide and dozens of petromax mantles and started the process of, what the cell members thought was, extracting Thorium to make a “micro-nuclear bomb”.
These efforts in Indonesia have convinced Malaysian authorities of the likelihood of local IS supporters using radioactive materials to produce bombs.18 Over the past few years, Malaysian authorities have recorded cases of missing radioactive and nuclear materials. On several occasions, the Atomic Energy and Licensing Board would find radioactive materials dumped without any clear trace of its origins and purpose of use. It is likely that such materials can end up in the hands of militants and thus, begs much scrutiny.
Governments in the region should not underestimate the intention of pro-IS militants to construct high-end bombs like TATP or use radiological substances in future attack plots. Compounded by the deepened transnational linkages between cells in this region, the knowledge transferred through terror networks will continue. This way pro-IS groups in the region can also ensure that they continue to exist despite the loss of IS’ main foothold in Syria and the death of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi thereby upholding the group’s narrative of endurance and resilience.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
1 Lourdes, M. Islamic State launches first successful attack in Malaysia. July 4, 2016. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2016/07/04/homepage2/islamic-state-attack-malaysia/index.html.
2 Macan-Makar, M. Islamic State sneaks into Asia through family terror cells. May 21, 2019. Retrieved from https://asia.nikkei.com/Spotlight/Asia-Insight/Islamic-State-sneaks-into-Asia-through-family-terror-cells.
3 Doherty, B. Manchester bomb used same explosive as Paris and Brussels attacks, says US lawmaker. May 25, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/25/manchester-bomb-same-explosive-paris-brussels-attacks-mike-mccaul.
4 Teen who targeted Malaysia beer festival a skilled bomb-maker. October 20, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.tnp.sg/news/world/teen-who-targeted-malaysia-beer-festival-skilled-bomb-maker.
5Arrested Malaysian militants tested bombs in Kedah. May 24, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.asiaone.com/malaysia/arrested-malaysian-militants-tested-bombs-kedah.
6 Malaysia detains three accused of planning attacks, links to IS. May 16, 2019. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-malaysia-security/malaysia-detains-three-accused-of-planning-attacks-links-to-is-idUSKCN1SM168.
7 MacAskill, E., & Hopkins, N. Bomb-making guides are online, but getting them to work is not easy | Ewen MacAskill and Nick Hopkins. May 23, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2017/may/23/bomb-making-guides-are-online-but-getting-them-to-work-is-not-easy.
8 Abdul Nasir, A. Countering the visible and potent threat of Islamic State in Malaysia., September 24. 2019. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/islamic-state-wants-stay-relevant-and-visible-malaysia-how-can-terror-threat-be-overcome.
9 Golingai, P., & Katharason, P. K. Malaysian bomb maker believed killed in Basilan. December 16, 2015. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2015/12/16/malaysian-bomb-maker-killed/.
10 Hume, T. FBI confirms most wanted terror suspect Marwan dead. April 3, 2015. Retrieved from https://edition.cnn.com/2015/04/03/world/philippines-marwan-confirmed-dead/index.html.
11 Moore, J. An ISIS-inspired jihadi group planned a chemical bomb attack on Indonesia’s presidential palace. August 17, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/indonesia-foils-isis-inspired-chemical-bomb-plot-presidential-palace-651774.
12 The Ongoing Problem of Pro-ISIS Cells in Indonesia. April 29, 2019. Retrieved from http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2019/04/Report_56_Final.pdf.
13 Gunaratna, R. Life and Death of Bahrun Naim: SE Asia’s Most Wanted Terrorist. October 3, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.benarnews.org/english/commentaries/asia-pacific-threat-update/bahrun-death-10032018124337.html.
14 Galih, B. Terduga Teroris di Bima-Kampung Melayu Belajar Bom dari Bahrun Naim. June 19, 2017. Retrieved from https://nasional.kompas.com/read/2017/06/19/11345891/terduga.teroris.di.bima-kampung.melayu.belajar.bom.dari.bahrun.naim.
15 Chan, F. Suspect arrested after ‘pressure-cooker’ blew up prematurely in Bandung. July 8, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.straitstimes.com/world/europe/suspect-arrested-after-pressure-cooker-blew-up-prematurely-in-bandung.
16 The Surabaya Bombings and the Future of ISIS in Indonesia. October 18, 2018. Retrieved from http://www.understandingconflict.org/en/conflict/read/75/The-Surabaya-Bombings-and-the-Future-of-ISIS-in-Indonesia.
17 Allard, T. Exclusive: Indonesian militants planned ‘dirty bomb’ attack – sources. August 25, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-indonesia-security/exclusive-indonesian-militants-planned-dirty-bomb-attack-sources-idUSKCN1B51FW.
18 IS supporters in Malaysia may build bombs with radioactive materials. January 2, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.todayonline.com/world/supporters-malaysia-may-build-bombs-radioactive-materials.