Indonesia’s police have become a terrorist target of choice in recent years, but nothing in the past would have matched the carnage that could have been caused if two Islamic State (IS) affiliated suicide bombers had not triggered their backpack devices prematurely at a Jakarta bus stop.
As it was, the May 24 attack in the east Jakarta suburb of Kampung Melayu killed three police officers and wounded 11 other people in a reminder that despite a steady stream of arrests, the threat posed by homegrown terrorists remains very real.
The attack has been blamed on the Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) group, whose leader, Aman Abdurrahman, is considered the de facto leader of IS’ supporters in Indonesia, despite still serving a nine-year term on a terrorism-related conviction in the maximum-security Nusakambangan island prison since 2010.
Sources familiar with the investigation say scores of policemen would have been killed and wounded as they crowded onto buses to leave the scene of two nearby demonstrations, one organized by the extremist Islamic Defenders Front (FPI).
Police also found another unexploded device, believed to have been abandoned by a third bomber who either could not detonate it or got cold feet at the last minute.
It showed the militants are still perfecting the type of pressure-cooker bomb used once again in the latest attack, which can be put together with easy-to-obtain materials for less than US$100 and has a kill radius of about 50 meters.
Although the shrapnel-laden household appliance is unique to IS militants in Indonesia, it was also used in the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as several other lethal incidents, and apparently first appeared in an Al Qaeda instruction manual that instructs its affiliated bomb-makers to put faith in Islam and wear gloves to avoid leaving fingerprints.
The Kampung Melayu bombing came a day after IS-linked fighters stormed and occupied part of the southern Philippine city of Marawi, raising fears that as IS faces extinction in Syria and Iraq the terror organization is looking to other lawless enclaves for refuge.
Indonesian police chief General Tito Karnavian, a former head of the Detachment 88 counter-terrorism unit, says Indonesia’s domestic militants have turned most of their attention in recent years to attacking police because they are considered kafir harbi, or unbelievers who attack them.
Another IS-linked terrorist incident on February 27 saw a lone assailant get shot and killed after detonating a timed pressure-cooker device near a district office in Bandung, the busy hill city south of Jakarta from where JAD apparently planned the bus-stop bombing.
Indonesian militants appear to have lost their ability to carry out large-scale bombings like those directed at religious and foreign targets between 2000 and 2009, which killed 297 people – including 202 who died in the 2002 Bali nightclub blasts.
In the decade that followed, police-led counterterrorism operations decimated the Jemaah Islamiyah network responsible for the bombings, killing more than 100 militants and prosecuting 600 more in a nationwide law and order campaign.
Karnavian has confirmed that one of the bus-stop suicide bombers visited Abdurrahman in his cell in 2014, which presumably would have put him on the police’s radar.
“I am expecting a lot from Detachment 88,” Karnavian said in a post-blast interview with Tempo magazine. “Hit them hard before we are caught unawares. We are asking (police) personnel to be vigilant …. they are weak targets: they don’t know the enemy, but the enemy knows them.”
Abdurrahman, who has taken over the extremist spiritual leadership position once occupied by the aging Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, the alleged spiritual head of Jemaah Islamiyah, is also suspected of ordering the January 14, 2016, bomb and gun attack in central Jakarta which left four civilians and four terrorists dead.
In the fortnight that followed, Detachment 88 detained or killed at least 23 militants from the same terrorist cell that had also planned to carry out attacks on the presidential palace, Soekarno-Hatta international airport, police stations and churches.
Among those arrested was a young overseas domestic worker who would have become Indonesia’s first female suicide bomber if she had not been stopped on the way to blowing herself up outside the presidential palace last December.
There appears to be no shortage of local recruits to carry on what has now become a largely fragmented cause, despite several hundred Indonesian jihadists still trapped by Iraqi and Syrian government forces in Mosul and Raqqa.
A former central figure in the so-called IS Nusantara network, Bachrumsyah, who later went on to command the Indonesian-Malaysian fighting unit known as Katibah Nusantara, was reportedly killed in Syria in early 2017, months after the death of fellow IS Indonesian operative Abu Jandal.
But Bahrun Naim, the reputed leader of IS Southeast Asia and a former student of Abdurrahman, remains in Syria, where he has been since joining the terrorist organization three years ago as jihadists from around the world flocked to the IS banner.
Terrorism experts believe many of the militants who can find a way of escaping IS’ slowly disintegrating caliphate may move on to other Middle East hotspots like Libya, Egypt and Yemen, fulfilling an expectation that they would never come home.
Others are more likely to end up in the southern Philippines, where the Maute Group, also known as Islamic State-Ranao, has recently occupied parts of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Norte province, in a house-to-house battle that has left nearly 100 dead, including 60 militants and 20 civilians.
A list of “martyrs” circulated by the Islamist fighters show at least one Indonesian among Malaysian and other foreign militants killed in the Marawi fighting, but it is widely believed there may be more. Philippine authorities say they have recovered an Indonesian passport from another killed militant.
Initial confusion was sown by the presence of 11 Indonesian members of Jamaah Tabligh, all aged between 31 and 68, who were gathering in Marawi for a gathering of Sunni missionaries and apparently not to join the fighting.
A one-time American colonial tourist spa overlooking picturesque Lake Lanao, Marawi lies 30 kilometers east of the Christian coastal city of Illigan, where tens of thousands of mostly displaced Muslims have fled since the fighting began.
One of four pro-IS groups spread across Muslim-dominated western Mindanao, Maute and a second group, the Ansarul Khilafa Philippines (AKP), have used the IS brand to recruit students from Marawi’s Mindanao State University campus.
Sidney Jones, director for the Jakarta-based Institute of Policy Analysis for Conflict (IPAC), says Maute Group’s connections reach deep into the leadership of the heavily-armed Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and are also well-established internationally, with particularly close links to Indonesia.
Omarkhayam Romato Maute, one of the eponymous group’s leaders, married an Indonesian student while studying at Egypt’s prestigious al-Azhar University and later stayed at his father-in-law’s conservative Islamic boarding school on the outskirts of Jakarta.
Fluent in Indonesian and Arabic, Omarkhayam and his Jordan-educated brother, Abdullah, returned to Mindanao to form what is now known as IS-Ranao, a name devised to denote its IS affiliation, described by Jones in an October 2016 report as the most dangerous of the groups operating in Mindanao.
Omarkhayan brought with him an Indonesian mentor, Ustadz Lanusi, who spent six years in Lanao before being killed in a police operation in November 2012. Jones believes that would have been plenty of time to build and strengthen ties with Indonesian militant networks.
Now those militant connections may be in play. “Over the past two years, [IS] has provided a basis for co-operation among extremists in the region,” she says. “That could take on new importance as IS losses in the Middle East increase and the incentive to undertake violence elsewhere arises.”