Family Bombers Expose New Security Threat in Indonesia

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
180514-ID-abuza-620.jpg Police respond to the suicide bomber blast site outside the Surabaya Central Pentecostal Church in Surabaya, May 13, 2018.
AFP/Surabaya City Government/Andy Pinaria

Pro-Islamic State (IS) militants launched a wave of spectacular suicide bombing attacks in and around the eastern Indonesian city of Surabaya, killing and injuring dozens of people, including police.

Three families were responsible for four successful and one unsuccessful bombing. In all 13 of 16 family members were killed in the attacks that utilized female suicide bombers for the first time in Southeast Asia and involved children ages 8 to 19.

The bombings began Sunday morning when three improvised explosive devices (IED) were detonated almost simultaneously at three separate churches in Surabaya. The father detonated a car bomb, two teenage sons detonated a bomb on a motorcycle while the mother and two young daughters detonated another bomb. Security forces defused two additional IEDs.

Later that day, another family planned to set off their IED at a police housing complex outside of Surabaya. The bomb, which authorities have said was made of extremely volatile acetone-based TATP, went off prematurely in an apartment, killing the couple and their son while two other children survived. There were no police or civilian casualties.

On Monday, a family of five on two motorcycles, including a young girl, detonated bombs at the police headquarters checkpoint in Surabaya. The girl miraculously survived the blast that killed her family members and injured four police and six civilians.

Historical context

Indonesia was hit by a string of terrorist attacks by militants linked to al-Qaeda from 2000 to 2009. Those attacks led to the arrests of more than 500 militants, including many top leaders.

By 2010, al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) was riddled with factionalism, a dearth of leadership and hampered by debates over targeting and tactics.  Raids on a training facility in Aceh in 2010 led to the neutralization of more than 120 militants and JI all but ceased militant operations.

The spread of IS in 2014, revitalized terrorist networks across Southeast Asia. In Indonesia, many groups and cells formerly tied to al-Qaeda defected to IS following the lead of top JI ideologues Abu Bakar Bashir and Aman Abdurrahman.

The two men established Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), an umbrella group for all the IS-pledged groups and a key IS affiliate.

An estimated 1,000 Southeast Asians went to Syria and Iraq where men fought with IS or the al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusrah. Most of those who traveled were the fighters’ wives and children.

An estimated 200 to 300 militants formed a Bahasa-language speaking company known as Khatibah Nusantara that included Malaysia’s first group (at least nine) of suicide bombers.

In addition, IS leadership for Southeast Asia inspired and recruited terrorist attacks in the region, starting with the January 2016 attack in Jakarta. The attacks through 2017 were relatively amateurish with low death tolls.

An exception was the five-month siege of Marawi by IS militants which attracted more foreign fighters. Despite the deaths of hundreds of militants in the losing battle, the relatively ungoverned space there continues to attract militants from the region where they can train and execute terrorist attacks.


There are three salient takeaways from the Surabaya attacks.

The bombers used their own children in five separate bombings, something that is unprecedented in Southeast Asia. While it shows an unbelievable degree of callousness, it also demonstrates the thoroughness of the cell’s ideological indoctrination.

While one hopes that the use of children will not be replicated, it likely will be. Indonesia has many radical madrassas linked to IS and al-Qaeda that do the most important indoctrination and radicalization.

The pool of students is large. In addition, Southeast Asian militants who fought with IS in Syria established a school for their own children where they were indoctrinated.

Some of these students are likely to return to the region. Finally, the use of children makes sense tactically as any parent traveling with children arouses less suspicion from security forces.

Second, there were three female suicide bombers, also unprecedented in Southeast Asia and part of a larger trend. Indonesian police arrested the first woman being trained as a suicide bomber in December 2017.

This fits into a tactical shift, called for in Dabiq and other IS publications, which is filtering down to Southeast Asia.

This could be out of desperation. With the loss of significant territory and other setbacks, IS has to increase the pace and scope of attacks.

Women give them additional recruits, but their use could also motivate or goad men into action. Tactically, women tend to arouse less suspicion and are screened less thoroughly.

It is important to note that in Malaysia, security forces have been concerned about the pro-active role women have played in IS activities, though to date that has been confined to recruitment, indoctrination, fundraising and logistics.

Third, the degree of coordination and sophistication we have seen in these attacks is something not seen in years. There were four successful and one unsuccessful coordinated suicide bombings. This is the highest casualty count since 2005 and displays a growing technical sophistication – a far cry from many of the more amateurish attacks perpetrated since January 2016.


Indonesian society is resilient and will bounce back. The government is unlikely to overreact.

Security forces deserve inordinate credit for mitigating the threat posed by al-Qaeda and then IS-affiliated groups. It is unrealistic for us to expect that in a country of 260 million, security will be able to uproot all terrorist cells completely.

We need them to continue to do their intelligence-driven police work.

The arrest last week of three IS militants in Bogor who had manufactured TATP makes clear that the threat is widespread and there is growing technical sophistication.

Second, the prison riot by detained IS-militants at the Brimob headquarters last week that led to the death of five police, reinforces the urgent need for prison reform. Ironically, the police had done what experts had long called for – concentrating terrorism detainees and keeping them out of the general prison population where they would be able to recruit and indoctrinate.

But the facilities in Depok were insufficient and placing the room where guns, ammunition and explosives seized from militants adjacent to their holding cells is almost farcical.

Third, the most important impact probably will occur with the passage of counter-terrorism legislation stalled in parliament for more than two years.

There are two provisions that have been particularly contentious. The first involves giving the Indonesian military a legal counter-terrorism role which alarms democracy and human rights activists.

The second is the draft legislation to criminalize traveling overseas to join a militant group. The fact that joining a militant group overseas is not illegal is under increased scrutiny today.

While security forces are obsessed with the potential of returning foreign fighters the greatest threat might be posed by militants who never left the country.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College or BenarNews.


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