Potential Hot Spots: ISIL Ignores Indonesian Reality

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May 17, 2018: Indonesia had another Islamic terrorism outbreak, with the local branch of ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) taking credit for a series of attacks against Christian churches and other targets in East Java over several days (May 13-14) followed by another attack on the 16th. These attacked triggered a massive police and public backlash that quickly led to numerous arrests of known or suspected ISIL supporters. ISIL leaders had apparently deluded themselves into believing that they could gain a lot of local support by carrying out several horrific attacks during a short period of time. Al Qaeda had tried this over a decade earlier in Indonesia and failed spectacularly. ISIL failed to note how the al Qaeda Indonesia fail developed because ISIL, as a more radical offshoot of al Qaeda, believed they were immune to past realities. They were not and that may provide other Moslem nations with another example of how a Moslem nation can tolerate Islamic conservatives while also being able to crush Islamic terrorism.

Most of the recent Indonesian attackers were known supporters of ISIL who had traveled to Syria to live in (and fight for) the caliphate and then returned when the caliphate collapsed. Most of the Indonesians who went to Syria did not come back. Even many of those who were not killed believed they were safer outside of Indonesia.

The 500 or so known returnees underwent screening and extensive warnings to not support Islamic terrorist activity while back in Indonesia. Even before these attacks, the government was trying to get the counter-terrorism laws changed to deal with the way ISIL operated (indoctrinating entire families and advising them to conceal their religious fanaticism). In 2017 the government admitted that the popularity of ISIL had led to counter-terrorism forces detecting small groups of ISIL supporters in all but a few of the 33 Indonesian provinces. The May 13-14 attackers belonged to JAD (Jemaah Ansharut Daulah), an Indonesian Islamic terror group that had affiliated itself with ISIL. JAD had ordered its members to make attacks like these after a May 8th incident at a high-security prison for convicted Islamic terrorists, including some senior JAD leaders. Five prison guards died while preventing 156 prisoners from breaking out. After that the failed prison break there was an incident on the 10th where a policeman, standing guard in front of a West Java police hospital was stabbed by a man who turned out to be an Islamic terrorist. The attacker was shot dead by other police but was identified. Police have intercepted and arrested or shot dead (if resistance was encountered) several armed men intercepted as they sought to get close to the prison where the escape attempt was being suppressed. This did not indicate that ISIL was planning a larger series of attacks. So the JAD attacks came as a surprise.

The first five attacks were carried out over two days and began with three separate attacks against churches in Surabaya, in East Java. All three attacks were carried out by six members of a Moslem family that had returned from Syria and pretended to be no longer radicalized. In reality, the parents managed to obtain or build explosive vests and vehicle bombs and carried out a plan to make simultaneous bomb attacks on the three churches. The mother and her two daughters (nine and twelve years old) wore explosive vests while the father and the two sons (16 and 18 years old) use a car and two motorcycles carrying larger bombs. All six attackers died along with seven people at the churches. More than 40 were wounded. Late on the 13th in the nearby city of Sidoarjo police, alerted by neighbors, raided an apartment and the three adults detonated the bombs they were preparing, killing themselves. Three children in the apartment survived.

After the May 13th incidents there was another attack against a police compound in Surabaya. The two days of Islamic terrorist violence left 26 dead, including 13 suicide bombers. There were over 60 people wounded. When police raided the home of the many who attacked the police compound they found a bomb building workshop and 54 completed pipe bombs.

There was one last attack on the 16th when five men attacked a police compound in eastern Sumatra (Riau province). The attackers were in a van that crashed through the front gate. Four of the men got out and, using long swords, attempted to attack policemen. These four were quickly shot the swordsmen but the driver of the van backed up the vehicle, running over and a killing a policeman and injuring two reporters. The van then drove away and the driver later abandoned the vehicle and escaped on foot. One of the swordsmen apparently survived his gunshot wounds and is being questioned.

Within a few days police, especially Detachment 88 were allowed to arrest dozens of people they had been watching but could not touch because ISIL had not been violent. Now the entire country is on high alert and the government is probably going to get the new anti-terrorism law it has been seeking. The new law gives the police and military the power to arrest “potential terrorists.” This kind of power is unpopular with many Indonesians who remember the decades of military dictatorship that used similar powers to suppress any critics. The military leaders insist they will not abuse the new law and that may well be true if the military is constantly watched for misuse of the new arrest powers.

Meanwhile, the government called for all Indonesians, especially those active on the Internet, to report any suspicious activity. That has worked in the past after a major attack (like the one in 2002) and is working again. Police are getting tips and detailed information about what turns out to be ISIL members trying to hide in plain sight. The problem is this ISIL stealth mode does not stand up to a lot of scrutiny, especially by neighbors. The counter-terrorism intelligence experts quickly reconstructed the “how to” manual Indonesian ISIL supporters created to avoid police attention. Suddenly the local ISIL threat was a lot larger than believed. On the plus side, many of these ISIL members were still going through training and preparations for major attacks.

What had the most impact on Indonesians was the use of children as suicide bombers. During the first attack, there were survivors who saw the mother trigger the vest her nine year old daughter was wearing before setting off her own. Indonesian Moslems knew this sort of thing took place elsewhere, like in Syria, Iraq and Nigeria. But to have it happen in Indonesia, the most populous (264 million people) Moslem (87 percent of the population) nation had always practiced a less strict form of Islam. But that made it easier for more conservative clerics to attract some Indonesian Moslems who were willing to “defend Islam” against the “heresy” rampant throughout Indonesia plus large non-Moslem minorities. The government tried to placate the Islamic radicals and that seemed to work for a while until it didn’t. Now is another of those “they have gone too far” moments for the Islamic radicals.

This major outbreak of ISIL violence was not unexpected, but ISIL did manage to gain the element of surprise. There had not been much Islamic terrorist violence this year. In February there was an attack on a church in Java. The attack consisted of an attacker armed with a sword. He was subdued but not before he wounded several people. That attack did not set off calls for a major crackdown because it apparently was a lone wolf operation. It was the high security prison breakout attempt on May 8th that did get the attention of counter-terrorism experts. The prison contained dozens of key Islamic terrorist leaders and technical experts. Such an effort to get them out of a heavily guarded prison indicated that many of the returned ISIL members had been busy, and discreet. Four days later the attacks on Christians showed that the local ISIL activists were desperate, determined but not prepared for a major effort.

Indonesia has established a remarkable record of suppressing Islamic terrorist violence within its own borders but that has resulted in most Indonesian Islamic terrorists fleeing the country and showing up elsewhere. This approach to suppressing Islamic terrorist activity required continuous and active measures to detect and arrest Islamic terrorists. But ISIL was different, even though most Indonesian ISIL recruits also fled the country. Until recently there was no indication that something big was coming.

While the war against ISIL in Syria and Iraq was raging during 2016 Indonesian counter-terrorism forces ended a busy year by raiding two Islamic terrorist hideouts near the capital, killing three Islamic terrorists at one location and capturing several bombs. The other raid led to the arrest of four Islamic terrorists, including a female suicide bomber and the bomb was apparently set to use in an effort to bomb the presidential palace. That round of raids was part of the annual pre-Christmas effort to prevent attacks on the thousands of Christian churches during the holiday season. This danger had become a familiar part of the Indonesian counter-terrorism landscape. Security forces encountered Islamic terrorists 170 times in 2016, versus 85 in 2015. These actions included Islamic terrorist attacks or, most frequently security forces raids or other encounters with Islamic terrorists. In 2016 that led to 33 Islamic terrorists killed. There were more killed in 2017 and that growing activity was behind proposals to allow counter-terror forces to imprison potential Islamic terrorists rather than wait until they carried out a suicide attack that left the terrorist dead as well as others. The victims were usually other Moslems, local Christians or, worst of all foreigners.

In addition to the crippling ISIL efforts to expand into Indonesia, counter-terror forces managed to cripple MIT (Mujahadeen Indonesia Timur, or Mujahadeen of Eastern Indonesia), the last of the older Islamic terrorist organizations still active in the country. MIT was long led by Santoso (single names are common in this region), who openly allied MIT with ISIL in 2014. In 2016 a series of raids and arrests left Santoso dead and MIT reduced to fewer than ten active members. MIT carried out some attacks before 2017 but suffered heavy losses in the process. Since 2014 MIT concentrated most of its efforts on recruiting and setting up trained cells of terrorists in other parts of the country. MIT failed because Indonesian counter-terror forces are among the best in the region, most Indonesians are hostile to groups like ISIL and many MIT members left the country to join ISIL in areas like Syria and Libya where ISIL was a less of a disadvantage than in Indonesia. There was only one known MIT attack in Indonesia during 2017 and MIT had never recovered from the loss of its senior leaders and had quietly been displaced by other new ISIL groups like JAD.

After late 2014, with the Islamic state established in eastern Syria and western Iraq Indonesia cooperated in identifying its citizens suspected of going overseas to work with Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus over a hundred Indonesians were arrested overseas (usually in Turkey) and deported to Indonesia to face prosecution or, at the very least, constant surveillance. This is because many Indonesians remember what happened when several dozen Indonesians who went to fight in with al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Many of these men returned to Indonesia and formed Islamic terrorist groups that, after 2001, carried out several spectacular attacks, including one in 2002 that killed nearly 200 foreign tourists. This resulted in a major counter-terrorism campaign that eventually killed or drove into exile nearly all the active Indonesian Islamic terrorists. There was a real fear that some of those ISIL members returning from Syria will try to emulate what the Afghan veterans did. In 2015 police revealed that they were monitoring returning ISIL men and would act against any suspected of engaging in terrorist activities in Indonesia. Many arrests since then are apparently a result of that surveillance program. ISIL responded by urging members to conceal their Islamic radicalism as much as possible.

There were some forms of Islamic terrorism that were more acceptable to Indonesians and ISIL became active there. This also led to increased counter-terror activity each year on Java and Sumatra before Christmas. Police make numerous arrests and seized bombs or bomb components intended for attacks on Shia and Christian communities. Christians are ten percent of the population while Shia are less than a half percent of Indonesian Moslems. These minorities are not evenly distributed so there are areas that are all Moslem and easier for Islamic terrorist groups to recruit and survive. The Christian islands used to be almost entirely Christian, but since the 1980s the government has encouraged (with laws, money and land) Moslems from overpopulated areas to move to less populated Christian territories. This has created frictions on islands like Sulawesi that are not entirely religious. Islamic terrorist groups began forming in the late 1990s and concentrated their attacks on non-Moslems, both local and foreign (tourists). Since 2013 small ISIL type (or affiliated) groups have been appearing and single out Shia Moslems as well as Christians and other non-Moslems (or Moslem sects ISIL does not approve of). Islamic conservatives in the government (especially parliament and the judicial system) deliberately target Christians by accusing them of anti-Islamic acts. These accusations are almost always false but because of the way politics works in democracies with a Moslem majority, such accusations mobilize many Moslems who are willing to demonstrate, often violently, in support of “defending Islam.”

Despite all this, since 2004 Indonesia has been pretty successful in preventing most Islamic terrorist violence, especially compared to other nations in the region and beyond. But there are still attempts. Few of these succeed because counter-terror efforts have kept the most competent Islamic terrorist leaders, planners and bomb-builders unable to function. These men are constantly hunted, often caught (and killed or jailed) and many prefer to flee the country and operate elsewhere. Police keep a close watch on Islamic radicals and the increased use of security cameras provides clues not available before. It has become very difficult to be an Islamic terrorist in Indonesia. This was evident during the current outbreak of ISIL inspired attacks. Many of the bombs were poorly built and there were not a lot of other weapons available. Thus you had one attack on a police station where the four Islamic terrorists were armed with swords while the police had pistols and rifles.

Since 2013 Detachment 88 (the primary counter-terror unit) has had a lot of success detecting and arresting Islamic terrorists all over Indonesia. These Islamic radicals are not popular with most Indonesians and the police get plenty of useful tips, especially after an attack. Islamic terrorist groups help make themselves targets by carrying out armed robberies and other criminal acts to support their operations. When counter-terrorism efforts wiped out or drove away Jemaah Islamiah (JI, the largest Indonesian terror group) new Islamic radical groups formed, especially in places like Sulawesi Island. The Indonesian ISIL affiliates that appeared after 2014 were largely JI splinter groups composed of Islamic radicals who wanted a stronger effort and that’s what ISIL offered.

Since 2004 the police have been working their way down an increasingly threadbare list of terrorist suspects. Moreover, it's been years since JI has been able to launch a major attack. This is because counter-terrorism forces have created a good intelligence network. Thus threats are quickly detected. Since 2007 attacks against non-Moslems have resulted in a stronger and stronger backlash from the police, and Christians. After 2007 the vigilantes switched tactics and began concentrating on driving Christians into ghettos and reducing the number of Moslems converting to Christianity. Anti-infidel (non-Moslem) violence remains a growing problem, as Islamic radicals seek an outlet for their aggression that won't land them in prison. All this Islamic radical activity keeps producing new recruits for Islamic terror groups. With little support from mosques or the larger Islamic organizations, these new Islamic terrorists have to resort to crime to fund their operations.

Since the 1990s Sulawesi has been the scene of growing Islamic radicalism and terrorism. That’s because over half the population on the island of Sulawesi is non-Moslem (mostly Christian). In the late 1990s, Islamic militants came along, preaching violence against infidels (non-Moslems). Over a thousand people died before additional police and soldiers eliminated most of the violence. Hundreds of Islamic radicals are still on the island and nearby West Java and are still preaching violence. Christians are a minority nationwide while most of the population is Moslem. The tensions in Sulawesi are not entirely religious. The Christian areas used to be almost entirely Christian, but over the last three decades the government encouraged (with laws, money, and land) Moslems from overpopulated areas to move to less populated Christian areas. This has created friction.

There’s another major reason why Islamic terrorism continues. That’s because the government does not want to offend the many Islamic conservatives out there. The Islamic conservative politicians use religion as a tool to get what they want, which often has nothing to do with religion or the “infidel (non-Moslem) threat.” Islamic political parties are unable to gain wide popularity but together they have gained control over 10-20 percent of the seats in parliament. The percentage varies depending on how active Islamic terrorists have been. The recent ISIL attacks, especially those using young children, will put the Islamic politicians on the defensive for a while. The major Islamic party, the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) has seven percent of the seats in parliament and attracted 8.5 million votes in the last elections. The will change for the worse in the next elections but parties like PKS won’t disappear. That’s because Islamic scripture approves of and encourages violence against non-Moslems and Moslem heretics. Islam is the only major religion to be burdened by that and it is a persistent problem that no one has found a permanent fix for.

 

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