Recent Islamic State Attacks in Indonesia

Posted in: Conflict, South & Southeast Asia | Posted on

On 13 May 2018, two motorbikes drove up to the entrance of Santa Maria Catholic Church in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second largest city. Eyewitnesses said they were stopped by the church’s security guard, prompting the drivers to set off bombs they had hidden on their bodies.1.“Heroik, Bayu Hadang Pengebom Sebelum Bom Gereja Meledak” : Detik News Shortly afterwards, at the nearby Indonesian Christian Church, a minivan arrived and let out a woman and two young girls. While approaching the entrance of the church, they were stopped by a security guard, causing them to detonate their explosive vests.2.“Indonesia Sword Attack on Police Follows String of Deadly Bombings” : The New York Times At the same time, the minivan continued to the entrance of Central Pentecost Church Surabaya, and there, explosives hidden inside the vehicle were detonated. Bombs left at two other churches failed to explode for unknown reasons.3.“Surabaya church bombings: what we know so far” : The Jakarta Post The attack was carried out by a single family: a father, a mother, and their four children, two boys aged eighteen and sixteen, and two girls aged twelve and nine.4.“Surabaya church attacks: One family responsible, police say” : BBC Eighteen people, including the perpetrators, died, while over forty were wounded.5.“Surabaya church attacks: One family responsible, police say” : BBC

Later that day an explosion occurred at a block of flats in Sidoarjo, about 30km away from the location of the church bombings. A family had been preparing explosives for an attack, possibly intending to target a nearby police station. Instead, one bomb detonated prematurely. The family’s mother and one child were killed in the explosion; three more children were injured. The family’s father was found by police injured and clutching the detonator to another bomb, but were able to shoot and kill him before he could detonate remaining explosives.6.“Four children become orphans in Surabaya, Sidoarjo bombings” : The Straits Times

The following morning, a family of five drove up to the police headquarters in Surabaya on two motorbikes. When stopped by police at the entrance, they detonated their explosives, injuring six police officers and four civilians. The father, mother, and two children died in the blast but miraculously their eight year old daughter was only injured.7.“Surabaya attacks: Family of five bomb Indonesia police headquarters” : BBC

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The three church bombings and the bombing of a police headquarters were claimed in separate statements by the Islamic State (IS). Police believe that all three families are linked to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an Indonesian terrorist group formed in 2015 from almost two dozen extremist groups that had pledged allegiance to IS.8.US State Department briefing The father of the family responsible for the church bombings is believed to have been a local leader of the group.9.“Four children become orphans in Surabaya, Sidoarjo bombings” : The Straits Times

Police say that this specific attack may have been ordered by IS central authorities in Iraq and Syria, though as of the publication of this piece no evidence has been publicly made available to support that.10.“Indonesia: Second Family Suicide Bombing Strikes Surabaya” : Benar News The claims for the attacks released by IS provide no information suggesting that they directly ordered the attack. In the past IS attacks in Indonesia have been directed by Indonesian IS militants in Syria or have been directly funded by IS in Iraq/Syria.11.UN official reports

The attacks were all linked and appear to be part of an overarching plot. The three families all knew each other and would meet up every Sunday evening to talk about Islam and to watch extremist videos.12.“Families behind Indonesia bombings belonged to same religious study group” : The Guardian The explosives used in all three bombings was triacetone triperoxide, or TATP.13.“Police headquarters attacked in Surabaya, Indonesia” : News Corp AustraliaThis potent explosive can be made from household ingredients, making it popular with terrorists. It is however notoriously unstable, likely the reason for the premature explosion on May 13.

This is often the explosive of choice for IS, having been used in a multitude of terror attacks, including the November 2015 Paris attacks, March 2016 Brussels attack, and the May 2017 Manchester attack.14.“Manchester bomb used same explosive as Paris and Brussels attacks” : The Guardian

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Multiple bombs were found after police raided apartments linked to the attackers.15.“Indonesia Church Bombings Carried out by Family with Children in Tow” : The New York Times At least thirteen people connected to the attacks were arrested in West Java, while an unknown number of people were killed during shootouts with police during raids when they resisted arrest.16.“Indonesia terror: One dead in Surabaya police raids, arrests made” : SBS News One of the arrested suspects is believed to be the leader of JAD in West Java.17.“54 bombs found in home of Surabaya Police HQ suicide bomber” : The Nation A fourth family, who are believed to have returned from Syria after joining up with IS connections there, is still wanted  due to links to the attacks, though the extent of their involvement is not yet known.18.“25 killed in East Java attacks, including 13 suicide bombers” : The Jakarta Post

Since the early 2000s, when Indonesia faced a spate of deadly attacks like the 2002 Bali bombings that killed over two hundred people, the country has clamped down on extremist groups. Indonesia has been viewed as broadly succeeding in reducing the danger posed by extremist groups and in eliminating the threat of attacks.19.Combating Terrorism Center However, with the rise of IS there have been new attacks in Indonesia, including the January 2016 and May 2017 Jakarta attacks.20.“Suicide Bombings Strike Jakarta, Killing 3 Police Officers” : The New York Times21.“Jakarta attacks: Bombs and gunfire rock Indonesian capital” : BBC Hundreds of Indonesians have also travelled to IS territory in Iraq and Syria.22.“An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq” : The Soufan Group All of these issues have had analysts raising concerns about a possible resurgence in terrorism in the country. The church and police headquarters bombings in Surabaya come amidst a series of other attacks and terrorism incidents.

The Surabya bombings came just days after a standoff starting on May 8 in Mako Brimob detention facility in Depok. A group of prisoners attacked guards, took control of part of the prison, and seized weapons. The standoff ended thirty-six hours later after one hundred and fifty five prisoners surrendered. Five guards had been killed and another four were injured. One prisoner, who had originally been arrested on suspicion of being a member of JAD, also died.23.“Indonesia ends militant jail siege after five officers killed” : Reuters Two other JAD members were killed and an additional two were arrested by police while trying to travel to the prison, in what was believed to be an attempt to assist the rioting prisoners.24.“Two more terrorist suspects shot dead after Mako Brimob riot” : The Jakarta Post This attack was also claimed by IS, who released statements as well as pictures taken by the rioting prisoners. The leaders of the rioting prisoners were in contact with three men outside the prison, suggesting this was not a spontaneous event and that it had, to a certain degree, been preplanned and coordinated.25.“Indonesia is Islamic State’s new frontline” : Asia Times 

On 11 May, shortly after the Mako Brimob standoff ended, a policeman was stabbed and killed by a suspected terrorist, also in Depok.26.“Another police officer murdered by alleged terrorist” : The Jakarta Post Two women were arrested the next day for planning to get inside the Mako Brimob detention facility in Depok and stab a guard.27.“Indonesia police arrest 2 women planning to stab officers using scissors” : The Straits Times

Just before the church bombings on 13 May, four JAD members were killed during a shootout with police in West Java. 28.“Cianjur terror suspects plotting Ramadhan attacks” : The Jakarta Post A day later there were two arrests of suspected terrorists in Palembang, while on 16 May three more suspected terrorists were arrested in Tangerang.29.“Pekanbaru citizens to plot attack on Mako Brimob arrested” : Republika Mag All nine suspected terrorists were planning to attack multiple locations including police stations and the Mako Brimob detention facility. It has not been confirmed by police if these suspected terrorists were connected but considering the similarities in their cases based on what has been made publicly available it seems likely. May 15 also saw the arrest of three suspected terrorists and the killing of another in two locations in North Sumatra province. Another suspect successfully avoided capture by police.30.“Indonesia’s police nab terror suspects in Medan” : The Straits Times

On May 16, in Pekanbaru, a minivan crashed into the entrance of a police headquarters and four men got out, attacking anyone nearby with “samurai” swords. One police officer was killed while three others were wounded in the surprise attack. The four attackers who got out of the minivan were killed by police shortly following the attack while a fifth attacker, the driver, fled the scene. He was later arrested after being pursued by police. This attack was also claimed by IS in a statement.31.“Indonesia Sword Attack on Police Follows String of Deadly Bombings” : The New York Times Indonesian police don’t believe JAD was responsible, instead saying that the men belonged to the Islamic State of Indonesia, another group that is part of the wider IS network in the country.32.“Indonesian police kill four men who attacked Riau HQ” : The Straits Times Their original plan was reportedly to attack the Mako Brimob detention facility in Depok once again, and police say they have links to the two terrorist suspects arrested on May 14.33.“Terduga Teroris Riau Sempat Rencanakan Serangan ke Mako Brimob” : Kompas

This spate of recent attacks has been particularly deadly, given the recent period of quiet that the islands have seen. The Surabaya bombings on 13 and 14 of May were the deadliest terror attack in Indonesia since the 2005 Bali bombings, while the Mako Brimob standoff was the deadliest incident for Indonesia’s specialist anti-terror unit Densus 88 since their founding.34.“Indonesia ends militant jail siege after five officers killed” : Reuters

Recent research carried out by the author and Gregory Waters for the Counter Extremism Project also highlighted the large number of extremists in Indonesia, presenting a large pool of recruits who could act as lone individuals, form cells, or join JAD. Of the one-thousand pro-IS Facebook profiles identified during the research, ninety-one belonged to Indonesia, giving the country the third highest number after Syria and Afghanistan.

As well as these attacks suggesting a resurgence in terrorist activity, they also highlight more specific issues that Indonesia may face. The Mako Brimob standoff reiterates the problems with Indonesia’s large population of incarcerated extremists, especially the dangers of keeping large numbers of extremists together. There have been repeated warnings about the failings of deradicalization programs, radicalization of new prisoners, and even how incarcerated extremists have orchestrated attacks.35.“Study: extremists still flourishing in Indonesia’s prisons” : The Associated Press

Entire family units including children staging an attack is exceptionally rare, if not unprecedented in the history of terror activity. While there were three families involved they were all linked and so should be viewed as part of a single incident of this occurring. The possibility of this being the start of such a trend of attacks involving families seems unlikely. Not only is it unprecedented, but it wouldn’t be encouraged by IS central and is considered extreme even for the standards of the group. The fact that the perpetrators included young children was omitted from statements by IS and its media outlet Amaq is especially indicative of this fact.

However, the possibility that this represents a growing trend of women participating in terror attacks in Indonesia is more likely. While women often take a more active role in IS linked groups in South East Asia compared to other regions they still mainly fill support roles, including the recruitment of new fighters and financiers.36.“Who is Farhana Maute?” : Rappler Women from Indonesia also travelled to IS territory in Iraq and Syria in large numbers.37.Liow, Joseph C. “ISIS reaches Indonesia: The terrorist group’s prospects in Southeast Asia” Brookings Institution While these attacks are the first successful suicide bombings carried out by a woman, it was not the first attempt. Dian Yulia Novi was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison in August 2017 for attempting to attack Indonesia’s presidential palace in Jakarta.38.“Indonesian woman jailed for suicide bomb plot at Jakarta Palace” : Reuters Several other women were arrested as part of the cell that attempted to carry out that attack.39.“Indonesia’s new worry: Women turning suicide bombers” : The Straits Times A couple of days after Dian Yulia Novi’s arrest another female suicide bomber preparing an attack on Bali was arrested by police.40.“Indonesia’s new worry: Women turning suicide bombers” : The Straits Times The recent depiction of women fighting for IS in Syria is also likely to embolden female actors into taking action for the group. This all suggests women taking more active roles as suicide bombers in Indonesia is something that may become more frequent.

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The involvement of a family that is believed to have returned from Syria also raises concerns for Indonesia. The countries anti-terror laws have been questioned for being too lax. It is not considered illegal to travel to join a terrorist group.41.“Indonesia: Second Family Suicide Bombing Strikes Surabaya” : Benar News However following these attacks, long proposed tougher counter-terrorism laws have been passed.42.“Indonesia’s anti-terror Bill to extend detention” : The Straits Times With the dangerous roles returnees could play, including planners and ideologues with the experience they gained in Syria and Iraq, the dangers they present should not be underestimated. Such security concerns may have been made evident in the recent bombings, depending on the role played by the currently unidentified family that returned from Syria. As such, it is important for Indonesia to implement a long-delayed counter-terrorism law, first introduced in February 2016 but still not passed into law.43.“Indonesia: Second Family Suicide Bombing Strikes Surabaya” : Benar News

The recent sting of attacks in Indonesia present many questions for the country. Most pressingly is if Indonesia’s counter-terrorism efforts implemented after attacks at the start of the millennium will still be successful considering recent events? The recent attacks reiterate already identified flaws, such as returnees from Syria and issues within the countries prison systems. They also hint at new dangers faced such as from an increased role of female attackers. It is important for Indonesia to act quickly and efficiently to ensure that these recent attacks do not become part of a growing trend of successful and deadly attacks.

Robert Postings
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Robert Postings is a writer for the International Review whose research focus is the Islamic State. As well as writing for the International Review he co-authored the 'Spiders of the Caliphate' research paper for the Counter Extremism Project and has published work with the Modern War Institute at West Point and The Defence Post.

References   [ + ]

1. “Heroik, Bayu Hadang Pengebom Sebelum Bom Gereja Meledak” : Detik News
2, 31. “Indonesia Sword Attack on Police Follows String of Deadly Bombings” : The New York Times
3. “Surabaya church bombings: what we know so far” : The Jakarta Post
4, 5. “Surabaya church attacks: One family responsible, police say” : BBC
6, 9. “Four children become orphans in Surabaya, Sidoarjo bombings” : The Straits Times
7. “Surabaya attacks: Family of five bomb Indonesia police headquarters” : BBC
8. US State Department briefing
10, 41, 43. “Indonesia: Second Family Suicide Bombing Strikes Surabaya” : Benar News
11. UN official reports
12. “Families behind Indonesia bombings belonged to same religious study group” : The Guardian
13. “Police headquarters attacked in Surabaya, Indonesia” : News Corp Australia
14. “Manchester bomb used same explosive as Paris and Brussels attacks” : The Guardian
15. “Indonesia Church Bombings Carried out by Family with Children in Tow” : The New York Times
16. “Indonesia terror: One dead in Surabaya police raids, arrests made” : SBS News
17. “54 bombs found in home of Surabaya Police HQ suicide bomber” : The Nation
18. “25 killed in East Java attacks, including 13 suicide bombers” : The Jakarta Post
19. Combating Terrorism Center
20. “Suicide Bombings Strike Jakarta, Killing 3 Police Officers” : The New York Times
21. “Jakarta attacks: Bombs and gunfire rock Indonesian capital” : BBC
22. “An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq” : The Soufan Group
23, 34. “Indonesia ends militant jail siege after five officers killed” : Reuters
24. “Two more terrorist suspects shot dead after Mako Brimob riot” : The Jakarta Post
25. “Indonesia is Islamic State’s new frontline” : Asia Times
26. “Another police officer murdered by alleged terrorist” : The Jakarta Post
27. “Indonesia police arrest 2 women planning to stab officers using scissors” : The Straits Times
28. “Cianjur terror suspects plotting Ramadhan attacks” : The Jakarta Post
29. “Pekanbaru citizens to plot attack on Mako Brimob arrested” : Republika Mag
30. “Indonesia’s police nab terror suspects in Medan” : The Straits Times
32. “Indonesian police kill four men who attacked Riau HQ” : The Straits Times
33. “Terduga Teroris Riau Sempat Rencanakan Serangan ke Mako Brimob” : Kompas
35. “Study: extremists still flourishing in Indonesia’s prisons” : The Associated Press
36. “Who is Farhana Maute?” : Rappler
37. Liow, Joseph C. “ISIS reaches Indonesia: The terrorist group’s prospects in Southeast Asia” Brookings Institution
38. “Indonesian woman jailed for suicide bomb plot at Jakarta Palace” : Reuters
39, 40. “Indonesia’s new worry: Women turning suicide bombers” : The Straits Times
42. “Indonesia’s anti-terror Bill to extend detention” : The Straits Times