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May 22, 2018 | 07:00 GMT

8 mins read

Looking for a Silver Lining in Indonesia's "Black May"

VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
Scott Stewart
VP of Tactical Analysis, Stratfor
In this photograph, police in Indonesia examine a minivan used five men to attack a police headquarters in Pekanbaru, Riau, on May 16, 2018.
(DEDY SUTISNA/AFP/Getty Images)
Highlights
  • This month has been labeled "Black May" by the Indonesian press because of an unprecedented number of jihadist attacks by a local militant group that pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
  • Despite the high tempo, a result of jihadists returning from Syria, the attacks were largely crude in nature. 
  • The use of women and children in suicide bombings will ensure jihadists in Indonesia remain marginalized.

It has been a violent month in Indonesia. Nicknamed "Black May" by the Jakarta Post, the sheer number of attacks linked to militant group Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) took many by surprise. Over the course of nine days, about 40 people — including attackers — have died in a string of bombings and edged weapon attacks, leaving more than 50 wounded. Also in contrast to previous years, most of the violence began before Ramadan, a month in which jihadist violence often surges. However, if a silver lining can be found in the attacks, it is this: The tempo has been unusually high, but the level of sophistication has been low, sparing the country from a higher body count. Furthermore, Indonesians have been repulsed by the use of women and children in some of the bombings, and that will continue to keep jihadism marginalized in the world's most populous Muslim country.

The Big Picture

Despite an increased operational tempo in May, Indonesia's jihadists continue to struggle to conduct sophisticated, well-planned operations such as those seen in the early 2000s. Indonesian authorities continue to work hard to ensure jihadist groups such as Jemaah Ansharut Daulah remain limited in their capabilities.

Nine Days of Murder and Mayhem

Since the emergence of JAD in January 2016, the group has attempted a number of attacks, some even successfully. Despite executing a string of three attacks between July and August of 2016, nothing suggested the sudden peak of activity that took place this month. It all appears to have started with a May 8 prison riot: 

May 8: Over 150 prisoners at a National Police detention center housing terrorist inmates rioted and seized control of part of the facility in Kelapa Dua, on the outskirts of the capital, Jakarta. During the siege, the inmates killed five members of the elite counterterrorism unit Densus 88. The incident ended on May 9, when authorities permitted the leaders of the prisoners to speak to Aman Abdurrahman, the founder of JAD. He is in custody awaiting trial in connection with a January 2016 attack outside the Sarinah shopping mall in Jakarta. The Jakarta Post reported that 145 of the rioting prisoners were sent to a maximum-security prison on the island of Nusa Kambangan, while 10 others are being investigated for planning and initiating the disturbance.  

May 9: A few hours after the siege ended, a police officer noticed a man behaving suspiciously outside a police hospital where officers injured during the riot were being treated. After being taken to a nearby police station for questioning, the man attacked and killed an officer with a knife and was shot dead at the scene.

May 13: A family of suicide bombers attacked three churches in East Java, killing 12 people and injuring over 40 others. According to officials, Dita Oepriarto dropped his wife, Puji Kuswati, and two daughters (ages 9 and 12) at one of the Indonesian Christian Church locations in Surabaya. When Kuswati and the girls were challenged by a security guard outside the entrance, the mother detonated the bomb vest she was wearing, killing herself and her daughters and wounding several others. Meanwhile, Oepriarto drove his van to the Surabaya Center Pentecostal Church, where he crashed through the front gate and triggered his own device in the parking lot amid congregants leaving the church. The couple's two teenage sons then drove a motorbike into the Santa Maria Catholic Church, where they detonated their suicide belts, killing a man who attempted to stop them and five other members of the congregation. All told, the six family members died along with 12 victims. The chief of the Indonesian National Police said that the family had traveled to Syria — reportedly to support the Islamic State — and had recently been deported. Indonesian police also identified Oepriarto as the head of the Surabaya branch of the JAD. 

May 13: A bomb detonated prematurely inside a flat in Sidoarjo, East Java, killing a woman and her daughter. When police arrived, they were confronted by the woman's husband, who was reportedly holding a detonator, and shot him dead. Sidoarjo is adjacent to Surabaya, and authorities reported that this family was linked to the Oepriarto family.

May 14: A family on motor scooters attempted to drive into the police headquarters compound in Surabaya. Officers at a checkpoint stopped them, which resulted in some of the family members detonating their explosive devices. The father, mother and two children were killed, but an 8-year-old daughter survived. Four police officers and six civilians were wounded. This family was also reportedly connected to the Oepriarto family.

May 16: In a more traditional attack, five men assaulted a police station in the town of Pekanbaru in Riau province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Driving through the gate of the local police headquarters, four of them got out of the vehicle and attacked officers with samurai swords. The driver continued onward and struck and killed one officer and injured two journalists. Two other police officers suffered sword wounds before the assailants were shot and killed. The driver of the vehicle was arrested. 

Looking for a Silver Lining

While these attacks show that Indonesia is home to jihadists who are dedicated to — and willing to die for — their beliefs, a tactical breakdown of their tradecraft provides some valuable insight.

First, the Surabaya cell was capable of producing a number of bombs, but they were not large or sophisticated. They were small and crude. The cell was able to kill only 12 people while losing 13 of their own in the two bombings and one accidental detonation. In addition, the attacks against the churches and the police headquarters, were poorly planned, and the bombs were not detonated at optimal times and places to cause maximum casualties.

Most people who travel to places like Syria to fight with jihadist groups receive training in basic guerrilla warfare tactics and are taught how to use a rifle and other infantry weapons. Few receive training in advanced terrorist tradecraft. Oepriarto may have picked up some bombmaking training in Syria, but if so, it was not of a good standard. Or, he didn't have access to the same type of components that he had been trained to use and therefore struggled with inferior ingredients. It is fairly easy to make bombs when you have access to military-grade explosives, detonators and other components, but far more difficult when you are forced to work with improvised components and low-explosive or homemade explosive mixtures. 

 

In recent years, Indonesian authorities have been able to deny jihadists inside the country the ability to build large, sophisticated vehicle bombs like those used in the attacks on Bali in October 2002, on the Marriott Hotel in Jakarta in August 2003 and on the Australian Embassy in Jakarta in September 2004.

The second reassuring aspect is the use of low-quality bombs in Surabaya, swords in Pekanbaru and a knife in Kelapa Dua, which demonstrates that jihadists in Indonesia are struggling to obtain military weapons such as rifles and hand grenades despite the plentiful weaponry available nearby in the Philippines. The difficulty in getting weapons, especially firearms, makes it far more difficult for Indonesian jihadists to conduct deadly attacks, or mount major operations similar to the heavily armed militants that assaulted Marawi City, Philippines, last year.

Finally, the Surabaya assaults were a departure from past attacks in Indonesia due to the inclusion of women and children in suicide bombings, which shocked the country. Jihadism has never achieved much traction in this nation of 261 million. The percentage of Indonesian Muslims who adopt radical ideology has always been much smaller than in countries such as Tunisia and Libya. The revulsion over JAD's decision to use women and children will help ensure that the jihadist ideology remains heavily isolated. 

Keeping a Lid on JAD

Indonesian authorities typically ramp up operations against jihadists after an attack, and this month is no exception. Since the May 8 prison riot, police have shot dead at least 10 suspected terrorists, arrested dozens of others, and seized two firearms and three bags of explosives. Police say they were to be used in an Eid al-Fitr holiday attack at the end of Ramadan in June.

These attacks and the latest seizure of suspects and weapons clearly indicate that Indonesia faces a persistent, low-level threat from grassroots jihadists, who will use simple weapons against soft targets. Since its emergence, JAD hasn't demonstrated the capability to plan and execute sophisticated operations. Authorities fear they could receive a boost to their capabilities from fighters returning from Syria (or even the Philippines). Signs of more professional operations would include better bombmaking techniques, access to military grade weaponry, and more efficient and effective operational planning and execution. For Indonesia, the challenge will be to keep JAD and other groups from becoming more proficient and returning to the more deadly form of terrorism that plagued the country in the early 2000s.

 

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor's analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

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