Indonesian authorities on Sunday announced the arrests of at least six suspected jihadists who, officials said, were plotting terrorist attacks targeting Christmas and New Year celebrations in Java and Sumatra as well as Indonesia’s tiny Shiite Muslim minority, according to news reports.
The six to seven suspects, who include alleged supporters or members of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, were picked up Friday and Saturday in raids by Densus 88, the national police’s elite counterterrorist squad, in cities across Java island, a local newspaper and news agencies reported.
According to AFP, the suspects were linked to a plot to carry out a suicide bombing in Jakarta during New Year festivities, when many members of the country’s Christian minority would be out and about ringing in 2016.
One of the suspects, Asep Urip, 31, was identified as a teacher at a pesantren – or Islamic boarding school – in Central Java province, AFP reported. A 35-year-old pupil of Asep, Zaenal, was being “groomed” to carry out an imminent attack, police alleged.
"From early information, it's known that Zaenal was a candidate for a suicide bombing in Jakarta to be conducted on New Year's 2016," AFP quoted police documents linked to the arrests as saying.
"They had made plans for actions in the near term, in relation to Christmas and New Year," Budhi Herdi Susianto, chief of police in the East Java regency of Mojokerto, told Metro TV, according to Reuters.
The Jakarta Globe quoted senior police officials as saying that the suspects belonged to a network influenced by IS.
“This terrorist network was preparing for bombing attacks in various locations in Indonesia. They are a mix of ISIS supporters,” National Police Chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti said, using another acronym for IS. “Some are ISIS members and others are sympathizers.”
Police mounted the raids based on intelligence reports from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation and Australian Federal Police, Badrodin added.
Densus 88 arrested three of the suspects in Central Java province and another three in West Java province. Bomb-making materials, jihadist manuals and a map of greater Jakarta were seized during one of the raids, the Globe said.
“Based on the outcome of initial questioning, the suspects said they were planning to bomb a series of Shiite communities in Pekalongan [in Central Java], Bandung and Pekanbaru [in Riau],” an anonymous source at national police headquarters in Jakarta told the newspaper.
Citing the acting Densus chief, Senior Commander Edy Hartono, the Globe said the suspects seemed to be “deeply influenced by Islamic State’s extremist views and wanted to replicate the group’s attacks on Shiites, whom the militants view as heretics.”
Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, is predominantly Sunni.
“They were going to make a cellphone-activated bomb and would have carried out [an attack] if we hadn’t stopped them,” Edy said.
According to the Associated Press, seven suspects were arrested during the raids, including one Abdul Karim (also known as Abu Jundi). The AP quoted a local police official as saying that the suspect was believed to be an expert in shooting and bomb-building because of his membership in Jemaah Islamiyah – the al-Qaeda affiliate in Southeast Asia that carried out the 2002 Bali bombings.
Security build-up to Christian holidays
The arrests on Friday and Saturday took place after Indonesian officials recently raised the terror threat level. Last week, officials also announced plans to deploy 150,000 security personnel to protect churches and other public places nationwide where Christians gather.
The authorities also called on members of Muslim and Buddhist youth groups to reach out to and help protect Christians from the threat of Islamist attacks during the run-up to Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The arrests came as Indonesian police and counterterrorist officials grapple with what they say is an emerging threat from IS efforts to indoctrinate and recruit your Indonesians for its cause via social media and other means. The authorities have also warned that Indonesian IS recruits and veterans returning from combat duty in Iraq or Syria could plot terror attacks on home soil.
In August, Indonesian police arrested three people suspected of having links to IS and who allegedly were planning to launch bomb attacks during Independence Day festivities, on Aug. 17, AFP reported.
The authorities, however, do not have an exact number on how many Indonesians have sworn allegiance to the extremist group.
According to figures disseminated by the BNPT and other governmental agencies, the number of Indonesians who have traveled to Syria or Iraq to join IS ranges from 350 to 800, including about 60 who have been killed in combat in that region.
In addition to the latest arrests and the arrests of three suspects in August, eight men are currently standing trial in Jakarta for suspected links to IS.