Indonesia Attack Brings Islamic State to Southeast Asia’s Door

Chris Brummitt and Rieka Rahadiana
January 15, 2016

A deadly gun-and-suicide bomb attack claimed by Islamic State in central Jakarta shows the growing reach of the jihadi network from outside its base in the Middle East.

The assault on a Starbucks cafe and a police post in the Indonesian capital, while unsophisticated, was the first in Southeast Asia to be directed or inspired by IS, and follows months of warnings by security officials that its members posed a threat to the region.

“Paris in November, Istanbul this week and Jakarta today,” Hugo Brennan, Asia analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, said on Thursday. “This latest attack can be seen as further evidence of Islamic State’s increasing ability to inspire deadly attacks in cities around the globe.”

For Indonesia, which has more Muslims than any other nation, it was a grim reminder of the resilience of a radical fringe that has existed since independence. In the 2000s, militants linked up with al-Qaeda to carry out a string of attacks, the last in Jakarta in 2009 on luxury hotels, but have been under pressure from a concerted crackdown by security forces.

Southeast Asian leaders have for some time warned of the risk from Islamic State — either from locals going to the Middle East to fight and then looking to use their deadly skills at home — or from radicalization from afar. The region, home to about 15 percent of the world’s 1.57 billion Muslims, has also seen local militant groups carry out insurgencies in southern Thailand and southern Philippines, seeking either autonomy or independence.

The attack was planned by an Indonesian militant called Bahrun Na’im, who is believed to be in Syria where he commands an Indonesian militant brigade, Jakarta Police Chief Tito Karnavian said Thursday. Islamic State claimed the attack, saying it targeted foreign nationals and security forces, jihadist monitoring group SITE Intel said on Twitter, citing an IS-affiliated news agency.

“The people who carried out this attack have links with an IS group in Raqqa in Syria,” Karnavian told reporters. “We know who this group is and we are currently tracking them.”

Three people were arrested near Jakarta on Friday, including a bomb maker, though there was no indication of involvement in Thursday’s attack, Metro TV reported, citing police. Another alleged terrorist was shot in Poso, Sulawesi, after a three-hour gun battle on Friday, state news agency Antara reported. A militant called Santoso, who has sworn an oath to Islamic State, is believed to be hiding near Poso.

Indonesian ‘Ambitions’

Australian Attorney-General George Brandis said last month that Islamic State had identified Indonesia as a location for a “distant caliphate.” The group “has ambitions to elevate its presence and level of activity in Indonesia, either directly or through surrogates,” he was quoted as saying in The Australian newspaper.

Indonesian authorities received a threat from Islamic State in December that it would shine an international spotlight on Jakarta, Metro TV reported.

Investigators will be looking at the nature of the linkages between the attackers and Islamic State, said Judith Jacob, a terrorism researcher working on a Ph.D on the evolution of international jihadism in Indonesia.

“It’s important to look at the substance of the responsibility claim, what does it entail,” she said. “Is it providing funding and weapons, or did the attackers actually go to Syria and train and return? If it is the case that they have simply borrowed the style of recent attacks, it shows the group has the ability to inspire attacks without having to invest in them themselves.”

A suicide bomber first hit the Starbucks cafe in a busy commercial area before others opened fire and bombed a nearby police post, killing two people and wounding 20 others. Five assailants were also killed.

President Joko Widodo said after taking office in 2014 that there needed to be a global effort to combat Islamic State, which he saw as a threat to national and international security. After the Paris attacks in November he called for countries to “wage war against terrorism.” Yet in his first year in power he has focused more on infrastructure to revitalize the economy than on security.

The attack was the first so-called “swarm” assault in Indonesia, long a hallmark of extremists in Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as Islamic State. While it was audacious and grabbed global headlines, the death toll was low, reflecting a lack of competency or perhaps a rushed job. Security authorities have arrested several extremists over the last four weeks, and the guns carried by the militants were rudimentary, police said.

‘New Generation’

“The new generation of terrorists in Indonesia is still not organized or skilled enough to match their predecessors,” said Achmad Sukarsono, Indonesia analyst at Eurasia Group in London. “I think we should also credit the security forces that can weaken the capacity of these extremists.”

Most attacks in Indonesia since 2009 have been small and directed at police in retaliation for their crackdown on extremism. Thursday’s strike marked a return to a Western target. One of those killed was a foreigner, and at least two of the wounded were Westerners drinking at Starbucks.

“Starbucks is a symbol of the West,” said Kumar Ramakrishna, head of policy studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. “So this is an indicator that there may be an ISIS signature here.”

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