An Indonesian who carried out a deadly suicide attack with his wife at a Philippine church was radicalized as a teenager, introduced to bomb making more than a decade ago, and underwent a brief rehabilitation stint, the nation’s top counterterrorism official told BenarNews.
Rullie Rian Zeke, 35, and spouse Ulfah Handayani Saleh, 32, were named by Indonesian police this week as the bombers who killed 23 people and injured more than 100 others during Sunday services at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cathedral in Jolo on Jan. 27 – one of the worst terrorist acts to strike the Philippines in years.
“He joined a radical group in 1999 and was taught bomb making in 2008,” National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) chief Suhardi Alius said of Rullie.
The couple who infiltrated the southern Philippines had been released in 2017 from a month-long Indonesian government rehabilitation program, which followed their deportation from Turkey, where they unsuccessfully tried to join the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Indonesian police said.
The couple and their three children traveled to Turkey in March 2016. They were part of a group of 75 people – 17 men, 24 women and 34 children – who were expelled en masse by Turkish authorities in January 2017.
Suhardi said this group that returned to Indonesia was linked to people who would go on to perpetrate a series of deadly bombings in the city of Surabaya in May 2018, in which churches were also bombed.
“They were part of the group representing three generations, grandparents, parents and children,” he told BenarNews, adding, “the group influenced the East Java bombings.”
He said he met the couple after they returned with the others from Turkey.
Indonesian police said that Rullie and Ulfah were originally from South Sulawesi province.
In 2014, they both came under the tutelage of Khalid Abu Bakar, a member of the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) militant network affiliated with IS, said security analyst Al Chaidar of Malikussalah University.
“In Surabaya, they expressed their desires to be suicide bombers,” Chaidar told BenarNews.
The suicide bombings in Surabaya, the capital of East Java province, were carried out by two families – including children – at three churches and a police station.
Khalid allegedly was the spiritual leader of Dita Oepriarto, who with his wife and their children blew themselves up in the East Java church attacks, according to Chaider. These attacks, along with one a day later at the Surabaya police headquarters, killed 29 people, including 13 suspects.
“The couple may have chosen to go to the Philippines to obey Khalid’s instruction. He once stated that: ‘If you cannot afford to go to Syria, go to the Philippines because it is considered a second IS caliphate,’” Chaidar said.
‘Who can guarantee they were de-radicalized?’
Until this year, Indonesians who returned or were deported after trying to join IS in Syria and Iraq were sent to a facility run by the social affairs ministry in Jakarta before being sent home.
But under revisions to the nation’s anti-terrorism laws that were passed in May 2018, in the wake of the Surabaya bombings, Indonesians who served as fighters or joined militant training overseas are now subject to prosecution.
“Before the anti-terrorism bill was revised, we were only able to have them join a one-month de-radicalization program before we could release them to society,” Suhardi said this week while delivering a speech in the U.S. capital. “Who can guarantee they were de-radicalized?”
“That is why I asked the foreign affairs minister to please identify these people and monitor them,” he said, adding he hoped the new regulation would allow BNPT to ensure that returnees are de-radicalized or charged if necessary.
Suhardi also said Jakarta would create a task force to determine the fate of the Indonesians linked to Middle East militants. The task force will be led by BNPT, foreign affairs representatives and officials from the National Intelligence Agency, the Ministry of Social Affairs and military officers, among others.
Explaining how the couple was able to leave the country without detection after returning from Turkey, Dedi Prasetyo, the national police spokesman in Jakarta, said, “It’s always been the case that police and terrorists play hide and seek.”
“We will strengthen monitoring in the future,” he told BenarNews on Thursday.
Chaidar and Sidney Jones, director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta think-tank, said the couple might have been considered low risk because they never were charged with any crime in Indonesia.
“Maybe because they were not believed to have entered Syria,” Chaidar said.
Tuesday’s announcement by Indonesian police naming the couple marked the first time their identities were made public.
Days after the Jolo church bombings, Philippine officials stated that an unnamed Indonesian couple were behind the attack. Shortly after, Indonesian officials questioned Manila’s claim because police had not been able to match DNA from the bombers with family members.
Ulfah is believed to have entered the Philippines a few days before the attack to join Rullie, who appears to have been in that country since May 2018, according to Jones.
“There was a photo of him in a Jolo camp, as I recall, from around August 2018,” she told BenarNews, adding that both had entered the Philippines illegally.
Indonesian police allege that an Indonesian militant believed to be in the Philippines, Andi Baso, assisted them in getting into the neighboring country.
Andi allegedly was involved in the attack targeting a church in in East Kalimantan, a province in Indonesian Borneo, in November 2016. A 2-year-old was killed and three children younger than 5 were injured a Molotov cocktail was tossed outside the building.
Philippine police, meanwhile, said they were not sure how the couple entered the country, but five Filipinos who were captured recently said they had apparently sailed to Jolo from the nearby Philippine island of Lampinigan.
Philippine police sources said the couple met with Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, a little-known Abu Sayyaf leader on Jolo island who is the new IS Philippine branch leader. He allegedly plotted and financed the attack on the church.
Chaidar said he was not surprised by the couple’s action.
“The materials at the rehabilitation center, as far as I’m aware, revolve around Pancasila (the state ideology) and nationalism. It had no effect on them,” he said.
In Washington, Suhardi said Indonesia was setting up a strategy to counter violent extremism, adding that IS “remains an eminent threat” in the Southeast Asian country.
Suhardi said his agency had developed a strategy combining both hard and soft measures, including engaging members of the local community and former militants, to defeat radicalism. Such measures include providing support for two Islamic boarding schools established by former terrorists in North Sumatra and in East Java provinces.
“If we counter radical ideology using violent means, it might seem that we’ve destroyed it, but actually it didn’t die and it could rekindle itself as new terrorist cells,” he said.