Police stand guard the site of a bomb blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya, in East Java, Indonesia on May 13, 2018.  Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Moch Asim
Police stand guard the site of a bomb blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya, in East Java, Indonesia on May 13, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Moch Asim

Suicide bombings carried out by separate families at three Surabaya churches, a police station and a suburban apartment block has raised fears of further attacks during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and produced renewed calls for tougher anti-terrorism laws.

Thirteen bombers and at least twelve civilians died and more than 50 people were wounded in the blasts, just days after militants brutally murdered five policemen during a riot in a temporary detention center at Jakarta’s Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob) headquarters.

A family of six newly-returned from Syria, including a mother and her two daughters, perpetrated the May 13 church attacks, while three family members died in the apartment blast that evening and a third family of four was killed riding two motorcycle bombs into the police compound the following morning. 

Earlier on May 13, heavily-armed counter-terrorist officers killed four terrorist suspects in a dawn shootout at a Cianjur bus terminal in South Jakarta after they were tracked to the capital from the West Java town of Sukabumi, bringing the total death toll over the two days to at least 25.

Flying to the East Java port city with chief security minister Wiranto, armed forces head Air Chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto and police chief Gen Tito Karnavian, President Joko Widodo angrily declared: “I have ordered an investigation of this terrorist network down to its roots.”

What shocked most Indonesians is that the suicide bombers were all from the family of Dita Priyanto, reportedly head of a Surabaya cell of Jemaah Anshurat Daulah (JAD), an umbrella organization of Indonesian militant groups loyal to Islamic State (ISIS).

President Widodo, center, holds a press conference in Surabaya on Sunday with security minister Wiranto to his right. Photo: AFP/ Presidential Palace handout

Handed a report on the bombings after his arrival, a grim-faced Widodo could be seen shaking head, as if the former town mayor from rural Java could not comprehend how two Indonesian parents could have sacrificed their children in such a way.

According to police, Priyanto dropped his wife and two daughters, aged nine and 12, at a downtown Protestant church in the country’s second biggest city, where minutes later the black-veiled mother detonated an explosive pack strapped to her waist.

He then drove a van to a Catholic church and blew himself up after ramming the gates. Meanwhile, CCTV footage showed his two teenage sons riding a motorcycle to the third target, another Catholic church, turning into the driveway and triggering a similar device.

The blasts went off within minutes of each other in what was the deadliest act of terrorism in Indonesia since 2005, when three suicide bombers linked to the now-defunct Jemaah Islamiyah network killed 20 people in Bali’s Jimbaran Beach restaurant belt.

The most serious previous attack carried out by ISIS-affiliated militants was in January 2016, when four assailants carrying pistols and explosive packs killed four civilians and wounded 24 others in downtown Jakarta before dying in a hail of bullets and bomb shrapnel.

Authorities said the Priyanto family was among 500 Indonesians who have so far been deported by Turkey, but it was unclear how long they had been there and whether they had actually spent any time in Syria or Iraq before returning last year.

Chief of Surabaya Police, Rudi Setiawan, shows a family photo of suspected suicide bombers of the three churches in Surabaya, following a raid at their home in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia, May 13, 2018 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken May 13, 2018. Antara Foto/Nanda Andrianta/ via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. INDONESIA OUT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
Surabaya police chief Rudi Setiawan shows a family photo of suspected suicide bombers of the three churches in Surabaya, May 13, 2018. Photo: Antara Foto via Reuters/Nanda Andrianta

It is believed another 500 Indonesians remain unaccounted for in in the war-torn region, which they flocked to in 2014-2015 in response to calls to protect the newly formed ISIS caliphate. As with the Priyantos, many included young families.

Although there have been few large-scale attacks on the scale of Jemaah Islamiyah’s protracted bombing campaign spanning 2000-2009, the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) recorded 172 terrorist cases last year, a steady rise from 163 in 2016 and only 73 in 2015.

Former BNPT chief Ansyaad Mbai lashed out at politicians for blocking efforts to revise the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, which would allow police to more assertively head off more terrorist attacks. “We are afraid to take firm action,” he said. “We are intimidated by the political situation.”

Mbai said those who have returned from Turkey, Syria and Iraq have been re-forging links through social media without any real effort by authorities to keep track of what they are doing. “We know these people,” he said, “but we don’t know when they will act.”

Marsudi Syuhud, head of the 35 million-strong Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, echoed calls for stronger anti-terrorism legislation, along with religious leaders from other faiths who gathered at a press conference hours after the latest bombings.

“It’s time for a sober assessment of why most prevention and CVE (countering violent extremist) programs have not worked or been seriously evaluated,” said Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) director Sidney Jones, noting Indonesia’s inability to monitor ISIS deportees or newly released terrorism convicts.

A mobile brigade policeman stands in front of the Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob) headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta, Indonesia, May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Beawiharta
A policeman stands in front of the Mobile Police Brigade (Brimob) headquarters in Depok, south of Jakarta, May 9, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Beawiharta

Police have linked the latest incidents to the last week’s Jakarta prison riot and the recent conviction on arms smuggling charges of Philippine-trained Zaenal Anshori, the alleged leader of JAD’s East Java chapter and reputed No 2 to the organization’s jailed mastermind, Aman Abdurrahman.

Anshori, 43, was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment in the East Jakarta District Court last February for collecting a shipment of weapons purchased from the Philippines by fellow JAD militant Suryadi Mas’ud, 45, who received a 10-year prison term.

Ma’sud fought with the Moro National Liberation Front in the Philippines in 1996-2000 before returning to Indonesia, where he was imprisoned for a peripheral role in the 2002 bombing of a Makassar fast-food outlet that claimed three lives.

The latest incidents have piled new pressure on Karnavian, one of Indonesia’s top terrorism experts and a former commander of the elite Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit. He had to quickly return from Jordan when the prison riot broke out on May 9.

The 155 rioters, many of them hard-core militants, took control of a massive Detachment 88 arms cache from an unsecured evidence room, then shot and stabbed to death five policemen, almost beheading two of them.

Aman Abdurrahman, 38, one of chief ideoloques for a group of suspected extremists allegedly belonging to "Al-Qaeda in Aceh" facing multiple charges, including carrying out acts that caused "terror or fear", possessing illegal firearms and participating in militant training, listens to the prosecutor's indictment at a Jakarta court on August 26, 2010. The suspects are the first to appear in court out of more than 100 people detained after the discovery of a militant training camp in Aceh province, Sumatra, in February. If convicted they could face between three years in jail and death. AFP PHOTO / BAY ISMOYO / AFP PHOTO / BAY ISMOYO
Aman Abdurrahman, reputed leader of the Jemaah Anshurat Daulah terror group, in a file photo: AFP/Bay Ismoyo

The seizure of 88 weapons during the 36-hour siege, including 59 assault rifles and light machine-guns, and 28,400 rounds of assorted ammunition, raised serious questions about why it was stored so close to dangerous inmates.

Brimob commander Major General Rudy Sufahriadi, who has only been in the job since January, led the operation that finally tracked down rebel Islamic leader Wiji Joko Santoso soon after becoming Central Sulawesi police chief in March 2016.

Santoso’s Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) is one of almost two dozen radical groups which loosely formed themselves into JAD in 2015 and was later described by BNPT officials as “the most dangerous terrorist organization in the country.”

That was largely due to its two leaders, aging Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) founder Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, and Abdurrahman, head of Jamaah Tauhid wal Jihad (JWJ), which he created in 2004 when Ba’asyir’s Jemaah Islamiyah was striking targets in Jakarta and Bali.

Despite serving lengthy prison sentences for terrorist offenses over the past decade, both have continued to wield considerable influence from behind bars – even at Central Java’s supposedly maximum security Nusakambangan island prison.

Analysts say JAD is a network of sleeper cells, comprising hundreds of followers spread across at least 18 of Indonesia ‘s 34 provinces. The fluid and compartmentalized nature of the organization makes it difficult to define its overall structure.

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