How Indonesia Can Respond to Surge in Terror Attacks

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
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180518-ID-funeral-1000.jpg Relatives of Marta Djumani, a victim of terrorist attacks targeting churches, cry during her funeral in Surabaya, Indonesia, May 16, 2018.

In the days leading up to Ramadan 2018, Indonesia suffered a spate of terrorist attacks. These were among the worst attacks seen in years and they left 48 people dead, including members of two families who carried out suicide bombings in Surabaya.

Indonesia’s changing threat landscape was evident in the repertoire of a series of events, which included a 40-hour prison riot in Depok, near Jakarta, starting on May 8; the stabbing and killing of a police officer at the Mobile Intelligence Unit in Depok on May 10; a triple church attack on May 13, followed by another bombing that night; an attack on a police headquarters in Surabaya on May 14; and a terrorist raid targeting the police headquarters in Pekanbaru, the capital of Riau province.

While the Islamic State (IS) provided general guidance on the tactics and targets, the attacks were perpetrated by Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the Indonesian affiliate of IS.

Without exception, the masterminds or perpetrators were known to the authorities but, because of Indonesia’s weak counter-terrorism legislation, the threats could not be pre-empted.


As the support and operational infrastructure of IS remains intact, Indonesia will need to do two things to fight back.

First, to change the terrorism law to give enhanced powers needed to dismantle terrorist support activity, ranging from propaganda to recruitment, financing and travel.

Second, there must be a shift from counter-terrorism cooperation to collaboration where military, law enforcement and intelligence services exchange personnel, create common databases, conduct joint training and operations, as well as share expertise, resources and experience.

Unless and until Indonesia degrades and disrupts the IS centric threat infrastructure effectively, more attacks will be inevitable in the coming weeks and months.

The context

The Islamic State is expanding worldwide as its battlefield shrinks in its heartland of Iraq and Syria.

Contrary to assessments by Western and other governments that the IS phase of terror is ending, IS has built a state-of-the-art support and operational infrastructure globally. Motivated by the ideology of IS, its wilayats (territories), groups, networks, cells and groups present a long-term threat to the West, Caucasus, Africa, the Middle East and Asia.

Asia hosts 63 percent of the world’s Muslim population. In Indonesia, the country hosting the largest Muslim population, the threat is growing. Contrary to assessments, with the enhanced coalition operations in Iraq and Syria, the threat in Southeast Asia, including in Indonesia, has neither plateaued nor has it declined.

Although Indonesia’s special police detachment Densus 88 (D88) and anti-bombing task force are very capable, they are numerically small compared with the current and emerging numbers of IS sympathizers, supporters and operators.

The IS threat has proliferated from West Papua to Sumatra despite all efforts by D88 to arrest those preparing attacks. The Indonesian law precludes the arrest of IS/JAD ideologues, propagandists, recruiters, operators and supporters unless they mount attacks.

The ideological threat is spreading in cyber space and crystallizing in forming support and operational cells. The IS mastery of technology, especially encryption, has constrained governments from detecting some networks, cells and personalities.


The Indonesian law enforcement, military and security and intelligence services were preparing to counter the anticipated spike in violence during Ramadan. But a season of terror hit Indonesia days before the “Ramadan rage,” a term used to describe the spike in attacks worldwide. IS instilled the belief that perpetrators of attacks would be rewarded greatly if they attacked the enemies of God during Islam’s holiest month.

Until the new law is passed, it is not an offense in Indonesia to pledge support to IS leaders, promote IS propaganda or raise funds, and even travel to IS theaters – Iraq, Syria, the Philippines and elsewhere.

Indonesia is home to a few thousand active IS supporters and several hundred IS operatives. Many of them have links to over 60 Southeast Asian threat groups that have pledged allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The region has constantly underestimated both the al-Qaeda and IS threat, and suffered attacks periodically since 2001.

With the global expansion of IS, the governments have no choice but to work together, or, before their eyes, watch as the region descends into chaos. The leaders should go beyond rhetoric and demonstrate the will to fight back to contain, isolate and eliminate this threat.

Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.


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