“May Bloody May”
Earlier this year, Indonesia suffered what became known as “May Bloody May”. On May 13, a husband and wife and four of their children carried out suicide attacks on three churches in Surabaya, East Java, killing 12 people. The attack in Indonesia’s second-largest city was the deadliest since 2005, when three suicide bombings on the resort island of Bali killed 20 people.
A second attack took place the next day. A family of five riding on two motorcycles detonated a bomb at the entrance of Surabaya Police headquarters, injuring several officers who were posted at the gate. The only survivor among the family members was an 8-year-old girl.
A third wave of attacks followed on May 16, when four men armed with swords were shot dead after ramming a car into a security checkpoint and assaulting officers at Pekanbaru’s provincial police headquarters in Central Sumatra.
Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a jihadi group that supports the self-styled Islamic State (IS), claimed responsibility for the “martyrdom attacks”. It also said it was behind a riot that took place in a police detention center outside Jakarta one week before the bombings. Terrorism suspects and convicts held there, most of whom were linked to IS, staged a two-day uprising, seizing weapons and hostages and killing five guards before eventually being overcome.
The attacks happened even though a key figure in Indonesian terrorism had already been detained. Aman Abdurrahman, a cleric and a radical firebrand, was the de facto leader of IS supporters in Indonesia, according to the U.S. Treasury. In May 2016, he was charged with helping to plot an attack on a Starbucks cafe in Jakarta from his prison cell. The January 2016 bombing killed seven people and injured 25. Convicted on these charges, Abdurrahman was sentenced to death last June.
New Tactics, Old Objectives
Over the last three years, Indonesian Islamist extremists have changed their tactics and targets, leaving past strategies behind. Most attacks have targeted religious minorities and law enforcement personnel. Furthermore women and children are now participating in suicide attacks. JAD is at the forefront of this shift and it has carving out a prominent role in the Indonesian jihadi scene.
The role of women in Indonesian terrorism is particularly notable and marks a change. Back in 2009, a message released by Ayman al-Zawahiri’s wife urged women to support the mujahidin. Some assumed women should be involved in combat, but the al-Qaeda leader’s wife stood firm on the view that women should only play a supporting role in jihad. This view was circulated on jihadi web sites in Southeast Asia such as Arrahmah.com. In later years, IS’s female supporters in the region duly provided guidance to tough-minded fighters on how to emigrate to Syria to join the fighting.
The case of Siti Khadijah helps to explain the role of women in social media promotion of jihad. She is an Indonesian woman who travelled to Syria with her family in 2014, where she posted about her personal experiences on Facebook. In her first post, published on 29 September 2014 on the Indonesian extremist website Panjimas.com, Khadijah announced the establishment of IS’s Southeast Asian military unit Majmu’ah Al-Arkhabiliy, known in Bahasa language as Katibah Nusantara (Katibah Archipelago). The article noted the religious justification for the establishment of IS, the obligation to wage jihad, and the need for polygamy. In addition, according to strict Islamic precepts, women would not be allowed to interact directly with men, so jihadi messaging online was attractive.
In fact, the use of digital and social media as a means of encrypted communication, recruitment, and propaganda has been “both rampant and crucial”, according to the Indonesian international politics professor Joseph Liow Chin Yong. Through digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Telegram, militants have managed to draw significant attention to themselves and deepen the pool of sympathizers and potential recruits.
According to a survey carried out by the Wahid Institute and Indonesia Survey Circle, social groups that are more vulnerable to radical ideological messages online share common defining characteristics. First of all, they believe in the concept of jihad as a violent struggle. Secondly, they justify and show verbal support for radical groups. Finally, they deny or oppose the rights of citizenship of other groups that are not favored. Indeed, they are highly exposed to religious preaching which pushes suspicion and hatred towards other religious or ethnic groups. The same study also revealed that people with low education levels and earning a monthly income of less than US$80 are more likely to adopt radical ideologies.
Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) looms large in the Indonesian extremist story. It is a jihadi-inspired organization that was founded in January 1993. The group formally came into being at Camp Saddah, the mujahidin training camp set up in Afghanistan by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a close adviser of Osama bin Laden. It carried out dawah (Islamic outreach) and publishing operations to promote a radical interpretation of Islam.
JI was directly inspired by the militant wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and it aims to establish an Islamic state in Southeast Asia (Daulah Islamiyah Nusantara). Initially, JI’s caliphate would have encompassed Malaysia, Indonesia, and Mindanao. Later it added southern Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei.
Arrests after the first Bali bombings in 2002 decimated JI’s leadership. By late 2003, with the arrest of Indonesian terrorist Hambali – the 52-year-old whose real name is Riduan Isamuddin and who has been held at Guantanamo for the past twelve years – the Indonesian Government cut off JI’s direct and deep-rooted links to al-Qaeda, although sporadic communication continued.
According to the Australian Government, JI’s network of 50 or more affiliated religious schools continually works to indoctrinate future generations of Indonesians. JI’s recruitment and the activities of a set of religious charities are designed to build up a support base in Indonesia for an Islamist state under sharia and legitimize the use of violence against property and individuals to achieve their objectives.
At the peak of JI’s expansion, just before the Bali bombings in 2002 and 2005, families were committed to the cause, but only an adult male would ever be considered a combatant. JI’s men usually married the sisters or daughters of other JI brothers or chose wives from Salafist schools where the girls had learned the organization’s values.
Broadly speaking, Indonesia has successfully handled terrorism because the violence has not matched “the scale or persistence of terrorist violence in the Middle East and North Africa”.
The country’s counter-terrorism efforts can be divided into three phases. The first phase was before 2002, when Jakarta saw terrorism as a domestic criminal problem, handing the issue to the Indonesian Police (Polisi Republik Indonesia, Polri) to deal with under general criminal law.. In the wake of President Suharto’s resignation in 1998, Polri became independent from the military, but remained poorly funded, equipped and trained, and as a result, ill-disciplined and corrupt.
The second phase followed the Bali attack of 2002, which killed 200 people. As a response, the central state decided to pass a national counter-terrorism law and establish the Desk Koordinasi Penanganan Terorisme (Counter Terrorism Coordination Desk, DKPT) and Datasemen Khusus 88 (Special Detachment, Densus). This era marked a change because terrorism was recognized as a part of global threat as opposed to an internal problem. Countering the threat required international co-operation in both intelligence and police operations.
A third and final phase started in 2010 with the reformation of the DKPT into the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (National Agency for Combating Terrorism, BNPT). BNPT was given authority to use preventive measures to curb radicalization. In addition, and importantly, the Indonesian National Military (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) became involved in the national counter-terrorism efforts, particularly in the second division of BNPT. which focuses on de-radicalization.
The EU and Indonesia reached a framework agreement in 2014 where the parties recognized the importance of the fight against terrorism and pledged to cooperate in the prevention and suppression of terrorist acts through the exchange of information on terrorist groups; exchange of views on means and methods used to combat terrorism; co-operation in law enforcement and the promotion of border control and management; and strengthening capacity building through the establishment of networking, training and education programs.
Most recently, the Jokowi Government proposed a new anti-terrorism law that would further broaden its powers to arrest members of terrorist groups.
Although prosecutors have never demonstrated the active role of Aman Abdurrahman in any terrorist attacks in Indonesia, he is accused of being the leading ideologue justifying the use of violence to achieve a caliphate in Indonesia based on sharia. This decision will probably render Aman a scapegoat. As Bilveer Singh argues, “executing a terrorist is far more acceptable than murdering a religious teacher, and this is where Indonesia is straddling a dangerous ground at a time when Salafism is gaining roots in the country”.
*Raimondo Neironi is a PhD Candidate in Institutions and Policies, Department of Political Science, at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan. He has been conducting research on the U.S. contribution to the process of ASEAN’s foundation in the 1960s. His main research interests focus on Southeast Asian politics, the Cold War History of Asia and U.S. foreign policy.