Indonesia's Sputtering Jihadist Movement Motors On

8 MINS READApr 7, 2017 | 09:15 GMT
Terrorism threat in Indonesia
(ROMEO GACAD/AFP/Getty Images)
Since an attack in Jakarta in January 2016, jihadist violence in Indonesia has been sporadic, lacking the sophistication of previous attacks in the country. But jihadist fighters returning from abroad may change that equation.
Forecast Highlights

  • The jihadist groups currently active in Indonesia have yet to prove their capabilities, but that could change in the coming years.
  • More advanced bombmaking techniques and the weakness of deradicalization programs in Indonesia's prisons could breathe new life into the jihadist movement.
  • Though the country's conservative Islamist groups are not as extreme as its jihadists, they will continue to jeopardize Indonesia's security by creating an environment conducive to radicalization.

Governments around the world are grappling with the threat of jihadist violence. And though Indonesia is no stranger to this struggle, its domestic jihadist movement pales in comparison with those in the Middle East or even elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Wahhabism, the hard-line, conservative strain of Islam that underpins extremist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State, hasn't caught on in the world's most populous Muslim-majority country, home to more than 250 million people. In fact, Indonesia has contributed only a few hundred fighters to the Islamic State's efforts in Iraq and Syria — fewer than Russia or France.

Nevertheless, the island nation has suffered its share of terrorist attacks over the years. Jemaah Islamiyah, a militant group with ties to al Qaeda, staged several devastating attacks across Indonesia throughout the 2000s, including a 2004 bombing at the Australian Embassy in Jakarta. A splinter faction carried out similarly deadly strikes on the capital's Ritz and Marriott hotels in 2009. But in the years that followed, the groups declined. Then, 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. Although subsequent attacks in the country have failed, and the jihadist threat there is still low, the tide could soon turn.

A Tough Attack to Follow

Since the January 2016 attack in Jakarta, 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.


Map of Terrorist Attacks in Indonesia

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.

A Splintered Movement

Just a decade ago, by contrast, Indonesia was dealing with a far more formidable jihadist movement. Jemaah Islamiyah had established a robust network in the country, enabling it to carry out large attacks on hard targets such as the Australian Embassy. Its attacks on soft targets exhibited much better planning and execution than the current generation of Indonesian jihadists has mustered.

Since Jemaah Islamiyah's main bombmaker, Noordin Top, and emir, Abu Bakar Bashir, split off to form their own groups, however, Indonesia's jihadist landscape has grown increasingly fractured and disorganized. A few months after conducting the Ritz and Marriott bombings in 2009, Top was killed. In 2013, turmoil erupted in Bashir's Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid group after the leader pledged allegiance to the Islamic State from prison. The move brought the al Qaeda-Islamic State rivalry to Indonesia, where it continues to fester.

What remained of Jemaah Islamiyah after the schisms went on to become Mujahidin Indonesia Timur. The group, based on the island of Sulawesi, managed to seize and hold territory in the remote jungles outside the town of Poso. It reached the pinnacle of its prominence in 2012-13, conducting numerous attacks on security forces and government targets in the area, and gained some notoriety as the first Indonesian jihadist group to take up the Islamic State banner. But it never had more than a few dozen members and dissolved altogether in 2016 after Indonesian security forces killed its leader and deputies.

Some of its members went on to join the latest iteration of Indonesia's jihadist movement, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, a group apparently formed from the remnants of various defunct organizations. That group has ties to the Islamic State and reportedly takes instruction from Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian commander in Syria whom Indonesian authorities have linked to the Sarinah mall assault, the Medan church bombing and the plot on the presidential palace. The assailant behind the Bandung government building bombing in February was reportedly a member as well. So far, however, the group has yet to demonstrate that it is capable of the kinds of large-scale, sophisticated attacks that Jemaah Islamiyah and its successors coordinated in the first decade of the 21st century.

The Threat Evolves

But that could change. The homemade high explosives discovered during the investigation into the Myanmar Embassy plot in November indicate that Indonesian jihadists may be improving their bombmaking techniques. And as more Indonesians return from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq, they could begin coordinating attacks at home. Though returning fighters have so far been processed through the judicial system and imprisoned, that won't necessarily stop them from plotting attacks. In fact, the prison system could actually intensify the problem. Indonesian police have expressed concern recently that deradicalization programs in the country's prisons are ineffective. The combination of violent criminals and ideologues in prisons, moreover, could produce dangerous results as the groups rub off on each other — particularly once battle-hardened jihadists are introduced to the mix.

The rise of Islamist civil society groups is another cause for concern in Indonesia. Over the past few months, hard-line Islamist groups have staged mass protests against Jakarta's governor in the run-up to local elections, drawing upward of 200,000 demonstrators. The Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), an ultraconservative Islamist group that for years has made violent efforts to enforce Sharia, is at the forefront of the movement. Along with the recent protests, the FPI conducts extrajudicial raids on bars, casinos, Christian churches and Muslim minority groups to promote their brand of hard-line Islam. Its leader has been arrested on several occasions for inciting violence, although the FPI has tried to distance itself from terrorist groups. On the more extreme end of the spectrum is the Betawi Brotherhood Forum. The group, more of a criminal gang than a religious organization, is only loosely affiliated with Islamist causes, but its members have participated in attacks on security guards and Jakarta city officials in the past two years.

Neither organization has been officially labeled as a terrorist group. But together, they have been responsible for more acts of violence than Indonesia's transnational jihadist groups. Like the nationalist movements currently sweeping the West, the FPI is pushing moderate political forces toward more conservative positions. The group has tempered its extremism to advance its nationalist agenda in the political system, thereby giving the ideology it espouses an air of legitimacy. Furthermore, the FPI shares some ideas with Indonesia's radical jihadist groups. Both frequently target Christian and other minority religious populations, for instance. And Naim, the prominent jihadist leader, has also taken aim at Jakarta's Christian governor, albeit more literally; in 2015 security forces foiled his plot to assassinate the politician.

Islamist groups such as the FPI diverge from jihadist groups in their interests, priorities and tactics. Even so, they create an environment that encourages individuals to become more radical and to develop networks with likeminded people. Although these groups are unlikely to stage the next jihadist attack in Indonesia, their involvement in communal violence, harassment and intimidation is equally damaging to the country's security environment.


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