University of Auckland’s PhD candidate Sigit Prasetyo and Dr Chris Wilson contemplate an inexplicable new terror tactic involving entire families in Indonesia
In the past week, Indonesia has seen its worst wave of Islamist terrorism for a decade. On May 8, a riot at one of the country’s main prisons for members of Isis and other terrorist groups killed five elite Mobile Brigade (Brimob) police officers and one inmate.
Whether this event near the capital inspired cells of terrorists elsewhere in the country, or whether a coordinated wave of attacks was already planned, is unknown.
But on the following Sunday, bombs exploded at three churches (Catholic, Pentecostal and Protestant) in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya. The devices were homemade – pipes filled with triacetone triperoxide, a chemical cocktail known as the Mother of Satan. Timed to hit the congregations as they conducted their weekly service, the explosions killed 13 people and injured many more.
Adding a new, heinous and almost inexplicable tactic to the terrorist repertoire, the perpetrators were identified as an entire family of six. The father delivered one bomb, two teenage sons (16 and 18) another and the mother and two young daughters (aged nine and 12) the last.
The children themselves wore bomb belts. Demonstrating that this family was not acting alone, the same day an explosion ripped apart an apartment in nearby Sidoarjo killing a mother and her children preparing bombs for a similar attack. And the following morning another family attacked the police station in Surabaya, detonating bombs at the entrance. Police have stated that the three families knew each other and met regularly to pray and watch Islamist videos from Syria.
While women and children have been used in terrorism and other forms of political violence in Indonesia and elsewhere before, this is likely to be the first time an entire family has conducted a suicide mission. Similar to previous tactical innovations by Isis, using a family unit not only increases the difficulty for security services to identify suspects but also the terror felt within the community (the very goal of terrorism).
The perpetrators, like most involved in recent attacks in Indonesia, were associated with the Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) network founded in 2015 by Aman Abdurrahman, currently detained in the prison in Depok which saw the riot a week ago (the rioters demanded to speak to Aman and were later allowed to do so). The group has pledged allegiance to Isis and its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who is still in hiding after the fall of Mosul.
Initial reports claimed that the family which attacked the three churches had joined Isis in Syria. The risk posed to Indonesia by returned ‘foreign fighters’ has been a major focus of the media, police and government agencies even before the Surabaya attacks.
Police estimate there are now approximately 500 such returnees in Indonesia, and national law does not proscribe fighting with an organisation overseas, so these people simply rejoin society. The reports regarding the family now appear incorrect, none of them had travelled to the Middle East. Indeed, of the dozens of terrorist incidents to have occurred in Indonesia over the past five years, only one – a knife attack against a police officer in the city of Medan in 2017 – was carried out by a returned foreign fighter, a young man who had fought with Isis in Syria.
All other attacks appear to be by ‘homegrown’ terrorists, meaning they haven’t gained bomb-making or combat skills nor undergone the more intense process of radicalisation fighters experience away from home and in the heat of battle. Leading ideologues from JAD, including Aman Abdurrahman, have also not spent time fighting alongside Isis. This is not to say that returned foreign fighters don’t pose a risk to Indonesia (or other countries in the region) but a reminder that, for now, the main danger comes from those who did not (or could not) travel to fight. And those who haven’t passed the border are far more difficult to identify as a potential risk.
The recent attacks against churches also show that Islamists may again be targeting non-Christians, as they frequently did in the years around 2000. For the past decade, terrorists have predominantly targeted police. They regard security personnel as the representatives of a kafir state, and the officers have often also arrested and killed their fellow militants.
While most attacks still target police officers, religious targets (most often Christians but also Muslim sects such as Shia and Ahmadiyah) now make up an increasing proportion of attacks. JAD may be attempting to drive a wedge between Indonesia’s Muslim majority and its minorities, but such attacks, particularly against a congregation professing their faith, is likely to do the opposite.
It seems more likely that rather than being so explicitly rational, the increasing targeting of minorities reflects the extremist ideology of Isis, to which JAD adheres, which disallows non-Muslims from living in Muslim lands. Either way, the particular brutality of this wave of suicide attacks, and the ‘homegrown’ nature of most contemporary perpetrators, shows that the extremist ideology of Isis still resonates, even as the group itself is decimated in Syria.