Indonesia’s measured response to terror

Author: Editors, East Asia Forum

Indonesia had been quietly winning the war on terror. The response — from both Indonesian government and society — to the Bali bombings in 2002, which killed 202 people and injured 208 was measured, effective and served to dismantle the extremist Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI).

An effective counter terrorism police unit was set up, there was assistance from neighbours like Australia (from where there were the largest casualties from the Bali bombings) and a grassroots campaign to identify radicalisation all played a major role. That Indonesia has a stable democracy and little internal conflict is a contributing factor. Importantly, nonviolent Islamist political activism is not forced underground and towards radicalisation. The response to the Bali bombings was robust but measured, with governments so far resisting the urge to use the terror threat to significantly roll back civil liberties.

Radicalisation has been limited since 2002. Casualties have been relatively low, even in the Marriott and Ritz-Carlton Hotel suicide bombings in 2009, and the attempted terrorist attacks have largely been solo missions that have failed in their aims. The response by the government to the most recent attacks is first and foremost to do more of what it has been doing since Bali.

But, on 14 January this year downtown Jakarta was rocked by explosions and gunfire. What many had feared and expected as imminent — another terrorist attack in Indonesia — had occurred only two months after the devastating attacks in Paris.

Four people were killed, in addition to four attackers, and 30 were injured. It could have been much worse. Jakarta was saved from a more deadly attack by the incompetence of the terrorists and their lack of funding. The police response was swift and the casualties limited. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the terrorist attacks were linked to the so-called Islamic State (IS) militant group and that is likely a sign of more to come. Next time the terrorists may be better trained, prepared and funded.

Indonesian police have now arrested 40 people in connection to the January attacks. And the parliament is again debating new laws to prevent future terror attacks.

With IS into recruiting heavily the existing laws are not enough. Over 400 Indonesians are suspected to have joined IS in Syria, and close to 50 have returned. And it appears JI is back with close to 2000 members. As Yohanes Sulaiman points out, with 7 per cent of state high school students reportedly supporting IS, the ground is fertile for the radicalisation and recruitment of Indonesian youth into these groups.

It appears that Indonesia’s legislative body, the People’s Representative Council, will only get its act together in reaction to terrorist attacks — and not to prevent them. There is a certain element of repetitiveness where, like the introduction of the anti-terrorism law in 2002, the current reforms will only pass because of the groundswell of popular sentiment. It’s not the best way to make law and if the government is not careful with the drafting, it will be once again stuck without the legislative framework Indonesia needs to prevent future terrorist attacks.

There are obvious gaps in Indonesia’s security and anti-terror laws. Currently it is not a crime for Indonesians to join IS in Syria or to recruit for IS and other extremist groups. Extremist leaders are in regular contact with their followers who can visit them in prison. All four of the January terrorists had done just that prior to the attacks. Purchasing chemicals and other materials to make bombs and improvised explosive devices is also not illegal.

Some of the measures that are being suggested may go too far. Greater powers to arrest and detain suspects for lengthy periods based solely on intelligence reports and other measures that impinge on civil liberties will stir memories of the authoritarian Suharto regime.

Greg Barton, in this week’s lead essay, says ‘attempts to pass and apply new legislation that is seen to be overly draconian risk a backlash that compounds current problems’.

Indonesia has the world’s largest Muslim population of whom the vast majority are moderates who hold unfavourable views towards IS. Barton explains that those who support IS in Indonesia ‘are seen as being guilty of sedition. The January attacks strengthened this sentiment’. Overreach by the government in beefing up its anti-terror laws could feed resentment and the recruitment drive of IS.

The government should make it illegal to join IS, JI and other terrorist groups, crack down on the planning of attacks and communications from within prisons and fill other obvious gaps in the 2003 anti-terror laws. Authorities must do a better job of monitoring the activities of terror convicts after they finish their sentences. Improving coordination between intelligence agencies on the ground is a priority, as well as extending coordination and cooperation beyond Indonesia. That has been crucial to early detection.

Indonesia is not alone in fighting terrorism. Cooperation in Southeast Asia ‘in counter terrorism efforts’ says Sulaiman, has ‘managed to fragment and degrade terrorist organisations’. That cooperation — with the help of Australia, the United States and others — is important in the face of the recent trend of internationalisation of the radicalisation of youth in Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.

Sustained and effective online recruitment by IS will mean there is a need for more intense regional cooperation and capacity building among intelligence agencies.

‘How do you defeat terrorism?’ Salman Rushdie once wrote. ‘Don’t be terrorized’ was his answer. After January’s violence Indonesians responded in such spirit, rallying around the slogan ‘we are not afraid’ on social media and stoically returning to normal life. But these attacks are a wakeup call. The challenge will be to continue the measured response: doing more of what has worked in the past and filling the gaps in the current laws without being terrorised into over-reaction.

The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Ryan Manuel and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

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