Those behind the attacks in Jakarta on Jan. 14 desperately hoped to emulate the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. This time they fell far short. The attackers, contrary to initial impressions, were entirely locally organized and failed at almost every level. Four innocent lives were lost but they had clearly hoped to take many more.
Although ready to give their own lives they were ill-prepared, ill-equipped and had not properly thought through their plan of attack. Their crude improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were ineffective, killing only the bombers themselves. It is hard to imagine what the attackers realistically expected to achieve when they deployed in the middle of Jakarta that January morning.
Even before the attacks, awareness of the danger posed by the globalizing impact of so-called Islamic State radicalization in the region was high. Since December, Indonesian police had been acting on information that IS supporters linked to Syrian-based Indonesian IS leader Bahrun Naim were planning an attack. Through December and January a number of Naim’s associates were arrested and several planned attacks interrupted.
As the more expert and better prepared militants were taken out of the picture, it was left to a B team of locally organized amateurs to step in.
The elite police counterterrorism unit, Special Detachment 88 (Densus), deserves much credit not only for its rapid response to the attacks, but also for containing the threat in the weeks and months prior. Sustained success and development of capacity since the 2002 Bali attacks has positioned Densus well to deal with the new threat.
Yet there remains much to be concerned about. It is probable that more than 500 Indonesians have travelled to Syria and Iraq to live and fight for IS. As the fight against IS in the Middle East turns into a long war, its influence across Indonesia and Southeast Asia will continue to grow.
Whether due to a spirit of rivalry or some more complex alchemy, jihadi extremism of all kinds — not just support for IS — is on the rise in the region. Recent reports suggest that the old Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) network has now recovered to a force comparable to its pre-Bali attack period, with around 2000 committed militants.
Even among those who unambiguously support IS, rivalries threaten to increase recruitment as factions compete to launch successful attacks. The longer IS maintains its “caliphate” in the Middle East, the greater the numbers that will be drawn into the gravitational pull of this unprecedented jihadi brand. Not even al-Qaeda in its heyday had the drawing power that IS now exercises.
All four of the January attackers visited the prison island of Nusa Kambangan in the weeks leading up to the attack. There they sought the blessing of charismatic IS supporter Abdurrahman Aman. One attacker, Sunakim (alias Afif), was a former detainee, having been arrested in 2010 and sentenced to a seven-year jail term for his role in a terrorist training camp in Aceh. Bahrun Naim himself was arrested the same year and sentenced to two and half years on charges of weapons possession. Since previous attacks in Jakarta in July 2009, there have been more than 40 similar cases of clear recidivism by former terrorism detainees.
Plans to place influential detainees in isolation cells suggest that authorities are finally responding to the threat posed by Indonesia’s large population of detainees convicted on terrorism charges in its overcrowded and notoriously porous prison system.
Several hundred of those currently detained on terrorism charges will be released in the next few years. The government has recently announced legislative reform targeting IS supporters. But new laws alone will not be able to contain the threat posed by recycled militants. And attempts to pass and apply new legislation that is seen to be overly draconian risk a backlash that compounds current problems.
IS, for all its drawing power, is presently unpopular in mainstream Indonesian society. Those who support it are seen as being guilty of sedition. The January attacks strengthened this sentiment. But IS is a formidable machine. It is led by expert marketers and strategic planners who exploit popular attitudes to turn the young against the establishment.
IS supporters portray themselves as the true champions of the global Muslimummah (community). They will exploit any miscalculation by authorities cracking down on extremism. As IS faces a year of great military challenges in the Middle East, it will continue the campaign it began last year of outrageous attacks on soft targets and exploiting its notoriety to feign potency.
The first ever attack in Southeast Asia in the name of IS saw poorly-constructed IEDs and low-power non-automatic weapons deployed by ill-prepared amateurs. Future attacks — and they will certainly come — may well see the use of military assault rifles of the kind uncommon in Indonesia but plentiful in the neighboring Philippines. They are also likely to see more expert direction and organization in orchestrating attacks.
One of the key lessons to take from the November attacks in Paris is not to underestimate the enemy. A principal organizer, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, is now thought to have been involved in four of the six terrorism plots thwarted in France in 2015. Prior to Paris, Abaaoud and his motley gang of associates, most of them known to the authorities for petty crimes, seemed pathetic figures and were all too easy to dismiss.
Indonesians are generally well-prepared to face the challenges ahead. But those challenges are likely to get much more serious in the coming year.
Greg Barton is professor of global Islamic politics at the Alfred Deakin Institute and co-director of the Australian Intervention Support Hub (AISH) at Deakin University and the ANU. This appeared originally in the East Asia Forum, based at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University