A police security team guard the entrance to the Indonesia National Police Headquarters in Jakarta on 31 March, 2021, after gunfire was heard in the compound. (Photo: Mariana/ AFP)

A police security team guard the entrance to the Indonesia National Police Headquarters in Jakarta on 31 March, 2021, after gunfire was heard in the compound. (Photo: Mariana/ AFP)

The New, and Not, of Terrorist Attacks in Indonesia

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New perpetrators and tactics, and persistent ideological battles, make fighting terrorism harder.

In the first three months of this year, Indonesia already has suffered two domestic terrorist attacks; the bombing of the Makassar Cathedral on 28 March (the Christian holy day of Palm Sunday), and the attack at the National Police headquarters in Jakarta three days later. These are a reminder of the persistent nature of the terrorist threat. More worryingly, analysts have identified a number of new and emerging characteristics of these latest attacks.

First, increasingly, women are the main actors or perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Indonesia and more broadly. This can be seen from the church bombings and the police office bombing in Surabaya in May 2018, the Sibolga bombing in March 2019, the Medan bombing in November 2019, and the two attacks this year. 

Second, perpetrators are becoming younger and now include millennials. Zakiah Aini, who attacked Police headquarters in Jakarta, was born in 1995. The young married couple who blew themselves in the Makassar bombing was too.

Third, the planning and execution of terrorist attacks are increasingly a family affair. A newly married couple, just seven months after their wedding, was responsible for the Makassar Cathedral attack. The two Surabaya bombings in 2018 were conducted by a whole family including their small children. Even the 2002 Bali bombing was a collaboration of family members, Amrozi, Ali Gufron, and Ali Imron.

Fourth, social media and digital technology have become more important in cultivating hatred towards others and recruiting people to become terrorists. Direct contact for indoctrination, on-the-spot training, and in-person bai’a (oath of allegiance) are no longer necessary. Making it much harder to track and stop, recruitment and indoctrination can be done online. Without joining or directly affiliating themselves with any terrorist network or organisation, “lone wolf” terrorists are responsible for a growing number of terrorist attacks.

These letters expressed the terrorists’ belief that their attacks are part of jihad (struggle), and that they and their families will be rewarded tremendously by God in heaven.

Fifth, the perpetrator(s) of the two attacks last month left similar farewell letters. These expressed hatred for: police or thaghut (worshippers of false deities); democracy, asking family to not participate in elections; non-Muslims; and modern commercial systems like banking. These letters expressed the terrorists’ belief that their attacks are part of jihad (struggle), and that they and their families will be rewarded tremendously by God in heaven.

Sixth, the targets of terrorist attacks in Indonesia are changing. Previously, those frequented by “Westerners”, Western embassies, tourist spots, and luxury hotels, predominated. Lately, churches are favoured, and the police and police offices as well. Since 2013, police offices have been targeted more than ten times.

While the two attacks this year underline much of what is new with terrorist attacks in Indonesia, the persistence of such attacks also underlines enduring difficulties and ambiguities in the response to them. Again, Indonesian government leaders, including President Joko Widodo, and those of mainstream Muslim organisations, such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah, condemned the latest attacks and repeated that “terrorism has no religion.” The choice of churches as targets and the farewell letters suggest that the terrorists thought otherwise.

Another ambiguity is that while Indonesian police have been trying to defeat terrorism and arrest suspected terrorists, the embryo of terrorism, the culture of intolerance and exclusivism, is sometimes allowed to grow and flourish through the words of some religious leaders and preachers. 

Lastly, combating the ideology of terrorism is made more difficult by the controversy over Wahhabism and Salafism. In response to the Makassar Cathedral attack, Said Aqil Siradj, chairman of the NU, loudly declared that the root of terrorism does lie in religion, specifically Wahabi and Salafi teachings. Wahhabism, for him, is the breeding ground of terrorism. Not surprisingly, this condemnation was condemned itself by many and exacerbated tensions within the country’s Muslim communities. 

The issue of Wahhabism and Salafism is complicated and not suited for sound bites. Wahhabism and Salafism are not monolithic. There are various forms of Salafism and the one that is commonly associated with terrorism is Salafi Jihadist. This controversy obstructs the effort to defeat terrorism, and, worse, it widens ideological divisions within Muslim communities. 

What is not new about terrorist attacks in Indonesia is that while the enemy (terrorism) is already in front of people, they are, instead of fighting together, debating and blaming each other.

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