Author: Yang Razali Kassim, RSIS
On 14 January 2016 Indonesian supporters of so called Islamic State (IS) militant group launched a coordinated bomb and gun assault in the heart of Jakarta. The attack is a game changer for terrorism in Indonesia. But Indonesia’s leaders are closing ranks as the government of President Joko Widodo (Jokowi) pursues a long-term response to the growing IS threat in the region.
The location of the audacious suicide assault was Sarinah at Thamrin, Indonesia’s oldest shopping plaza, where the real targets were a Starbucks café and a nearby police post. Indonesian police have linked the assailants to an emergent loose alliance of nine cells called the Jamaah Ansharut Khalifah Daulah Nusantara, variously referred to as Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).
The immediate public reaction showed that the brazen attacks only succeeded in alienating Jakarta’s population. Shocked Indonesians took to social media to show defiance with hashtags such as #KamiTidakTakut (WeAreNotAfraid). The same week, a public opinion poll by the Saiful Mujani Research and Consulting group showed 95 per cent of those interviewed nation-wide rejected IS and its methods.
Why did the militants attack at Sarinah Thamrin? Strategically located in the heart of Jakarta Pusat — the ‘Navel of Jakarta’ — it is within a 20-minute drive from a number of prominent sites, including the US, French and other embassies, a United Nations office, international media hubs and government buildings. The choices of a Starbucks café and a police post indicate that IS supporters had two key targets: symbols of Westernisation and the state security apparatus.
Unprecedented in scope and tactics, the attacks took terrorist violence in Indonesia to a new level. Prior to the Thamrin assault, the modus operandi in Indonesia was largely suicide bombings: the 2002 Bali bomb blasts, the 2004 car bomb outside the Australian embassy, the 2005 triple bombs in Bali and the 2009 twin bomb attacks on JW Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels.
This time it was a combination of suicide bombings and gunfire — a simultaneous, coordinated and multi-targeted assault, reportedly involving a bike-mounted offensive. Four attackers were killed while six more who were directly involved were arrested in subsequent police raids. In terms of body count, the attacks were seen as a failure. But the coordinated offensive has exposed Jakarta’s vulnerability to urban terrorist assaults.
Officials reported that the attackers were second-line militants due to the first team having been neutralised following pre-emptive police strikes in December last year. ‘We were lucky that the second team were amateurish’, commented Atmadji Sumarkidjo, special assistant to the Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs.
The green light for the attacks was apparently given by Aman Abdurrahman, the jailed spiritual leader of JAD, while police have named Bahrun Naim as the mastermind of the assault. Bahrun Naim, believed to be in Syria, has a bigger ambition of setting up an IS ‘province’ in Southeast Asia, covering not just Indonesia but also southern Philippines, southern Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.
The national police chief has reported that the local pro-IS network has a core of four Indonesian leaders: Bahrumsyah, Bahrun Naim, Salim Mubarok At-Tamimi and Aman Abdurrahman. JAD was formed in March 2015 to rally IS supporters from Southeast Asia for the Syrian front. According to Indonesia’s national police chief Badrodin Haiti, JAD brings together nine previously disparate groups — essentially amounting to a network of IS-inspired cells, if not a de facto IS Indonesia.
The Thamrin attacks have jolted Indonesia’s political elite into unprecedented cohesion and action. Within days the Jokowi government and the fractious legislative branch closed ranks to propose reforms to the country’s currently weak anti-terror laws, including granting the government effective preventive powers. The legislative changes look set to be passed, despite whimpers of concern over the potential for governmental abuses of power.
The Jokowi government also intends to implement closer coordination of three existing domestic intelligence bodies: the national intelligence agency, Badan Intelijen Nasional; the military intelligence unit, Badan Intelijen Strategis; and the police’s counter-terrorism arm, Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme. The creation of a fourth intelligence body, the Badan Siber Nasional (National Cyber Agency), is also in the works.
On the foreign policy front, Indonesia has sought closer cooperation and coordination between Jakarta and regional intelligence agencies. Backed by the United States, Indonesia has secured the support of Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines, with Thailand still pending. Overarching this will be closer personal links and communication amongst Southeast Asia’s leaders, given their common interest in countering the growing threat from IS and its affiliates.
The effectiveness of Indonesia’s response to the 14 January Thamrin assault ultimately depends on Jokowi’s leadership, which has been hampered by a hostile parliament despite the president’s popularity. He needs to win over the parliament to push through reforms of the anti-terrorism law. The Jokowi government is becoming stronger in the face of the growing threat from IS.
Parties from the non-governing coalition are increasingly crossing to support government policies. The game changer will be Golkar, which is currently patching up a major split between two rival factions. In January 2016, the faction led by Aburizal Bakrie hinted it might reposition Golkar as a government supporter, though it would not leave the non-governing coalition.
What President Jokowi needs now is the full support of Indonesia’s Muslim community to lend public backing for his security policies. He has a head start as the two biggest Islamic movements in Indonesia — Nahdlatul Ulama and Muhammadiyah — have indicated their support for his government. Yet another game changer could emerge should both groups break new ground by jointly leading the mainstream counter-narrative that IS, in spite of its name and given its abhorrent ideology, is fundamentally antithetical to Islam.
Yang Razali Kassim is a Senior Fellow with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
An earlier version of this article first appeared here on RSIS.