In Indonesia, Jihadists Struggle to Cultivate Tradecraft

Apr 10, 2017 | 20:46 GMT

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In Indonesia, Jihadists Struggle to Cultivate Tradecraft

Indonesia is no stranger to the threat of jihadist violence, but its domestic jihadist movement pales in comparison with those in the Middle East or even elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Indonesia has contributed only a few hundred fighters to the Islamic State's efforts in Iraq and Syria — fewer than Russia or France.

In January 2016, an attack outside the Sarinah shopping mall in Jakarta marked the beginning of a new chapter in Indonesia's decadeslong struggle with jihadist terrorism. Since the attack, jihadists in Indonesia have made several attempts to stage similar assaults. But each incident has made the modest Sarinah mall attack, which killed four people, look like a spectacular success by comparison. A suicide attack in July 2016 on a police station in Solo, for instance, injured a single police officer and killed only the bomber. A month later, a would-be assailant slashed a priest with a knife during a church service in Medan after the bomb concealed in his backpack failed to detonate. Churchgoers restrained the man, however, and no one was killed. In October 2016, another attacker likewise resorted to charging police officers with a knife when his homemade pipe bombs failed to detonate at an intersection just outside Jakarta. The following month, a man on a motorbike lobbed a Molotov cocktail at a church in Samarinda. A young girl in the congregation later died from her injuries — the sole victim fatality in the spate of attacks.

Aspiring terrorists in Indonesia haven't fared much better this year. In February, an assailant managed to detonate a pressure cooker bomb inside a government building in Bandung, setting fire to the structure. The building was empty at the time of the attack, though, and responding security forces eventually shot and killed the perpetrator.

Beyond these simple and poorly executed attacks, authorities in Indonesia have thwarted several plots since early 2016 that revealed more ambition and, in some cases, more sophistication. Some of these plans, such as an over-the-top scheme to fire missiles over the Malacca Strait at targets in Singapore, were intended more as a publicity stunt than as a viable attack plan. But others were deadly serious. In November 2016, for example, police discovered that an agriculture student in West Java was manufacturing military-grade explosives in his home, supposedly for use in an attack on the Myanmar Embassy in Jakarta. Authorities also uncovered and stopped a plot to conduct a suicide bombing on Jakarta's Presidential Palace during the changing of the guard a month later. Still, as the rash of failed attacks in Indonesia attests, jihadists in the country, much like grassroots extremists around the world, are struggling to cultivate the tradecraft necessary to match their intent.