Old militants with new brand behind Jakarta attack

Stephen Wright
Associated Press

Jakarta, Indonesia — Through six years without a major attack, Indonesia’s confidence had been growing: It was right on top of any threat from Islamic militants. This week, that notion was punctured.

Reality came on Thursday in the form of a bold attack in the middle of Jakarta, the capital. The style of the attack, and the people who appear to be behind it, suggest that remnants of the networks responsible for the notorious 2002 Bali bombings and later attacks are trying to regroup under the banner of the Islamic State group.

The daylight attack by suicide bombers and gunmen targeted a Starbucks and a traffic police post in a busy commercial district of Jakarta frequented by locals and foreigners. Two civilians, one an Indonesian and the other a Canadian, were killed along with five attackers. Some 20 people were injured.

There had been warning signs of a possible emerging threat for months, including government acknowledgment that hundreds of Indonesians had traveled to Syria to fight for the IS group. At the same time, pro-IS rallies in Indonesia were attracting small crowds.

Some terror experts say an IS network was developing in the suburbs of Jakarta while counterterrorism efforts were focused on hunting down Indonesia’s most wanted militant in far-off Sulawesi. The blog of Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant in Syria, urged his Indonesian followers to study the methods of the Paris attackers who killed 130 people in November.

Police quickly tied the IS group to Thursday’s attack, labeling Bahrun Naim as its instigator and funder, but they’ve given scant details beyond saying that an IS flag was found in one attacker’s home. Supporters of Islamic State claimed responsibility online.

Experts say that while it’s difficult to know how much of a foothold IS has established in Indonesia, the attack achieved two things: It showed that domestic militant groups are still capable of attacks despite being fragmented by the government’s counterterrorism campaign, and gave at least the impression that IS now has the ability to launch attacks in Southeast Asia.

Both IS and any affiliate “have an interest in being seen as part of a larger network because it fits with their scare tactics,” even if they are tied only by sympathies, said Carool Kersten, an expert in Islam at King’s College London.

In Western capitals, Indonesia has long been a kind of poster child for progress: a developing nation with the world’s largest Muslim population that has embraced both democracy and moderate Islam.

Its reputation for tolerance took a battering from the Bali bombing that killed 202 people, mostly foreigners, and from other high-profile attacks on Western targets such as hotels by Jemaah Islamiyah militants who wanted to replace civilian government with a caliphate. But the violence also unleashed a sustained government effort — aided by the U.S. and Australia — to break up militant cells, which produced hundreds of arrests and the killings of key figures with the knowhow to mastermind devastating attacks.

The atomization of militant networks was evident in Thursday’s attack, with its low death toll, basic weapons and unsophisticated execution that betrayed limited resources and capacity.

“It was a simple attack. Their arms were pretty limited,” said Scott Stewart, a tactical analysis expert at Strafor, a global intelligence and advisory firm. The main impact, he said, is from the “hype and fear that it conjures.”

Stewart considers the association with IS a “rebranding” effort by militants who previously identified with al-Qaida, rather than a sign of a new and rising radical movement. He said Indonesia will continue to see a persistent and low-level threat of attacks, a situation not different from the past six years, when there were no major attacks but several thwarted plots.

“It’s basically the same people,” he said.

National police chief Gen. Badrodin said one of the men killed, known as Sunakim, was previously sentenced to seven years prison for his involvement in Jemaah Islamiyah-orchestrated military-style training in Indonesia’s Aceh province. He was released early.

Still, the IS link in Indonesia is likely to raise concern in other Southeast Asian nations, particularly Singapore and Malaysia, which have both thwarted plots. Along with Indonesia, they recently agreed to increase their joint efforts to combat radicalism and share intelligence. Some Malaysians are also believed to have traveled to Syria to join IS.

Southeast Asia’s fairly open societies, easy travel and Muslim-majority populations in Indonesia and Malaysia make it vulnerable, said Vikram Singh, a former Obama administration defense official on South and Southeast Asia.

The Jakarta attack, following the extremist assaults in San Bernardino, Paris and Istanbul, suggests that the ability of IS to direct or inspire attacks around the world is building, he said.

“They are sending the message that we are not going to be just a Syria-Iraq issue. We’re going to reach far,” Singh said.