Indonesia needs to step up efforts to confront radicalism

The co-ordinated assault launched by five suicide bombers and gunmen in the heart of Jakarta on Thursday lasted three hours, involved lengthy exchanges of gunfire with police as well as numerous bomb blasts, and only ended after the five attackers blew themselves up. It's miraculous then the death and injury toll was so low. Of the 22 victims, just two died of their injuries, though one person remains gravely ill in hospital. By contrast, seven gunmen and suicide bombers succeeded in killing 130 people in Paris in November, and forcing the entire city into lock-down.

In a now familiar postscript, Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Jakarta attack, a link later confirmed by the city's police chief. He named an Indonesian militant living in Syria, Bahrun Naim, as the attack's mastermind. Bahrun is believed to have travelled to Raqqa (the de facto capital of Islamic State) last year after serving a three-year prison sentence for illegal arms possession, and to be the head of Katibah Nusantara, a military unit run under IS auspices but based in south-east Asia. He also runs a blog site promoting IS's plans for an Asian beachhead for its "caliphate".

Police officers examine a police post where an explosion went off.
Police officers examine a police post where an explosion went off.  Photo: AP

After the Paris attacks, Bahrun published a blog explaining to his followers how easy it was to mount an attack in a major city, and on November 24, when contacted by Reuters news agency, said there were more than enough IS supporters to "carry out an action" in Indonesia and that he was "just waiting for the right trigger".

That Bahrun's acolytes proved unequal to the task of killing and causing mayhem on a scale similar to Paris on November 13 is fortunate. The police response, doubtless helped by intelligence derived from chatter among IS sympathisers, probably helped. It's likely, however, that this "failure" will cause Katibah Nusantara to redouble its efforts to better train and equip its operatives.


From the perspective of countering IS-inspired terrorism, Indonesia represents a daunting challenge, and not just because of the past success of Jemaah Islamiyah, the al-Qaeda-inspired group which organised a series of deadly attacks across Indonesia in the 2000s, including the Bali bombings of 2002 and 2005.

It's believed that more than 700 Indonesians have travelled to Syria to join IS in recent years. That represents a potentially invaluable pool for recruitment and training of Katibah Nusantara recruits. And though Indonesia's Muslim-majority population is largely tolerant of other religions, and less given to extremist sympathies, the number of hardline groups promoting what they argue is a purer interpretation of Islam is on the rise. One region, Aceh, has even adopted Sharia law. In a sign that this was more than a theoretical exercise, Acehnese authorities recently sentenced an unmarried woman alleged to have become too friendly with a male acquaintance to a public flogging.

For all the ill omens pointing towards Indonesia and other countries in the region becoming an active war zone for IS (in another development to that end, three different Muslim insurgent groups in the southern Philippines pledged their allegiance to Raqqa this week), it's worth recalling that Indonesia's response to the JI threat was highly effective. The group's spiritual leader, Abu Bakhar Bashir, was jailed in 2011 (where he remains despite several appeals to the Jakarta High Court) and other prominent figures were either captured or killed by the country's counter-terrorism squad known as Detachment 88.

Though several JI operatives are on the verge of being released from prison, the organisation itself remains fragmented. According to Jakarta-based terrorism expert Sidney Jones, JI appears not be interested in violence in Indonesia for the time being. However, for jihadists, the success of IS in Iraq and Syria has offered new hope, and money. In 2014, Bashir pledged his allegiance to IS, prompting a surge of support for the group – a phenomenon likely to repeated in the wake of Bahrun Naim's "exploits".

It may be that Detachment 88, extensively funded by the United States, has the capabilities to deal with Katibah Nusantara's growing reach and stature. Dealing with IS's appeal to radical elements within Indonesia itself is another matter. Stepped-up efforts by Indonesia's government to confront radicalism elements would seem to be a necessary first step, with help and assistance from allies like Australia. The risks of Katibah Nusantara focusing on Bali are too big to ignore.