31 January 2017, Indonesia – ISIS to attempt more violence in 2017 in the face of effective Indonesian counterterrorism operations, with Jay Heisler

In the final months of 2016, there was a flurry of ISIS-related activity in Indonesia, including, but not limited to, the following:

On 28 August in Medan, Sumatra, a man burst into a Catholic church and stabbed a priest who was leading a service, and then attempted to explode his suicide vest, which failed to detonate properly. Time magazine reports that the priest sustained minor injuries to his arm. Churchgoers subdued the attacker and discovered a pipe bomb and an axe on his person. The attacker’s backpack had an ISIS flag on it along with a note that said, “I love al-Baghdadi,” referring to the leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

On 20 October in Jakarta, ABC News and SBS reported that a man placed an ISIS sticker on a traffic police kiosk and then threw a pipe bomb at police manning the post. After the device failed to detonate, the man then attacked officers with a machete, injuring three, including a local police chief. The police shot and killed the attacker. A sweep of the scene found a pipe bomb nearby. Authorities said that the man was affiliated with the radical Islamist group, Daulah Islam (also written as “Daulah Islamiyyah,”) which means “Islamic State.”

On 13 November at 10:20 am in Samarinda, East Kalimantan province, Time magazine reports that a man wearing a “jihad way of life” t-shirt and who was previously convicted of Islamist jihadist terrorism threw a Molotov cocktail at the Oikume Church. The attack killed a child and wounded three others. Authorities tracked down the perpetrator and arrested him and four cohorts for aiding in the attack and for being associated with ISIS.

On 14 November in Singkawang, West Kalimantan province, assailants at 3:00 am (other reports say 2:30 am) firebombed a Buddhist temple, says Time magazine. The specific target was the Budi Dharma Vihara temple, which was empty at the time. There were no casualties. This anti-Buddhist targeting appears to be in line with Islamist attack ideology, and the timing of the attack came on the heels of the Samarinda church attack.

Additionally, just after the Buddhist temple attack, a bomb threat apparently made by a woman was called into the Paroki Gembala Baik (Good Shepard) Catholic church in Kota Batu, East Java.

On 26 November in Jakarta, police arrested a man named Rio Priatna Wibawa for attempting to bomb multiple targets in Indonesia in support of the Rohingya cause in Myanmar. Rio’s targets included the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta. Rio is alleged to have received guidance and funding from Indonesian ISIS leader Bahrun Naim, who is currently based in Syria. Rio reportedly had a large cache of explosives, including RDX, TNT, HMTD, and possibly TATP. Authorities say that Rio’s cache could have been used to build a bomb more powerful than the 2002 Bali bomb that killed 202 and wounded 209. (This bombing entailed a small device in a nightclub, and a larger one, 2,250 pounds, in a van on the street.)

On 10 December, authorities rounded up a three-person, Bahrun-linked terror cell planning an attack on the changing of the guard at the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. Their plan included using a woman as a suicide bomber, which would have been a first for Indonesia. Police said they were hunting for two more accomplices at the time of the arrest.

On 18 December, police arrested yet another three people in a suspected suicide bomb plot that they again linked to Bahrun. This group, like the one arrested on 10 December, planned to use a woman as the bomber at an undisclosed target, reports the Jakarta Globe.

On 20 December in Jakarta’s popular tourist district, Ubud (a sub-district of Kedewatan,) a bomb in a backpack was found near a food stall in Jakarta, reports Time magazine. The crude bomb was built of “explosives, fireworks, pipes and nails,” and an ordnance disposal team safely detonated it. The backpack was stolen from a Dutch tourist. A food stall owner discovered the device. A note was found in the backpack with the word “bomb” written on it. (Several news outlets report that, because the device contained fireworks, it must have been a non-threatening incident. Because the police reported that it also contained “low grade explosives,” however, and because the police detonated the device, this was probably a viable bombing attempt. If it were simply a bag of fireworks, the police would have just secured the bag and emptied its contents. Muir Analytics suspects that this bombing attempt was linked to the other Islamist attacks, primarily because there have been multiple such attacks and attempts as of late. Moreover, the government would have pinned this bombing on a non-Islamist jihadist party if it were the case in order to reduce the image of the country being a hotbed of ISIS activity. For example, police on 27 December were quick to blame a possible Islamist bombing attempt in Magelang, Central Java, on an employment dispute involving the leader of the Ponpes Islamic boarding school.)

On 21 December in Tangerang, a city 16 miles west of Jakarta, police counterterrorism unit Densus 88 killed three terrorists and arrested a fourth in a firefight at a militant safe house. Police evacuated the neighborhood after the melee upon discovering multiple bombs on site. Authorities said the bombs were part of a Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve attack plot in Jakarta. They also said this cell was connected to the suicide bomb plot reported on 18 December, thereby making it an ISIS-related incident.

There are seven key takeaways here. First, the terrorists mentioned here, whether coordinated or not, demonstrated good organizational capacity and high motivational fervor. They carried out or attempted a total of nine operations in five months, which is an adequate operational tempo for a relatively new terrorist initiative.

Second, despite the adequate tempo, their overall effectiveness was low. Of these nine operations, only four were executed. Of those not executed, one was foiled in the field, and four were thwarted in the plotting phases. The terrorists were not able to inflict high casualties, though the casualties were still odious. One person was killed, and seven were wounded.

Fourth, tactically, these terrorists relied heavily on explosives. Of the nine operations mentioned here, seven involved explosives, and two involved arson. (It is likely that some of the foiled plots might have involved raids such as the 14 January 2016 attack in Jakarta analyzed by Muir Analytics here.)

Fifth, despite their reliance on explosives, the terrorists’ bombing expertise appears minimal because of at least three failed detonations.

Sixth, the targeting regimen of these terrorists clearly falls in line with traditional Islamist jihadist methodologies, particularly in Indonesia, aimed at destabilizing society and rallying like-minded religious zealots. Three targets entailed religious cleansing (two churches and a Buddhist temple,) at least three targets included the government (the police, the Presidential Palace, and the Myanmar embassy,) and two targets were purely civilian.

Seventh, the Indonesian government has demonstrated considerable counterterror expertise by keeping these ISIS-related operations to a minimum. The fact that the police were able to detect and foil the more ambitious Bali-like plots is highly significant.

Looking forward, in 2017, ISIS in Indonesia will attempt to increase its operations. It needs to correct its low performance record in order to remain relevant, and there is no indication that its motivational fervor has decreased. In fact, it has increased, and not just in Indonesia, but in Southeast Asia, overall. At the same time, Indonesian society writ large has continually rejected Islamist jihad, a key reason the Muslim majority nation has never fallen to a radical clique.

Regarding tactics, because of their lack of success in 2016, and because of the high-powered explosives cache discovered in November, ISIS-related cells can be expected to increase, or attempt to increase, 1) operational security, 2) bombing expertise, and 3) destructive capacity. Using women as bombers and/or fighters, as attempted twice in December 2016, remains a possibility. A widening of tactics beyond bombings is possible as well. This might include hard hitting and highly destructive Mumbai type raids, and/or a more professional version of the 14 January 2016 Jakarta attack. ISIS’ targeting regimen, wide as it is, will probably continue on its present course.

As an aside, it is entirely possible that, because of the many failings mentioned here, ISIS in Indonesia might abandon its ambitious, urban operations for smaller, rural attacks in order to build up more tactical expertise and increase its ideological following. This would represent a Mao-like “countryside first strategy,” which might allow the organization to mature under less pressure from Indonesia’s security forces.

If the Indonesian government stays with the ISIS attack curve as it has been doing, or if it gets ahead of it – which requires added intelligence operations and increased physical security – then protection from more hard-hitting ISIS operations is possible.

Sources and further reading:

Investigation of C. Java homemade bomb case continues: Police,” Jakarta Post, 30 December 2016.

Christmas terror plot suspects killed by Indonesian police in shoot-out,” ABC, 21 December 2016.

Christmas bomb plot foiled in Indonesia, three killed,” Gulf Times, 21 December 2016.

Indonesia police: 3 suspected militants killed, bombs found,” Fox News, 20 December 2016.

Indonesian police kill three as suspected bomb found near Jakarta,” The Guardian, 20 December 2016.

Police Arrest Three Over Another Suspected Suicide Bomb Plot,” Jakarta Globe, 20 December 2016.

Bali Police on alert after small bomb found in Ubud,” Jakarta Post, 20 December 2016.

Indonesia police arrest three over suspected suicide bomb plot,” Reuters, 20 December 2016.

Indonesian Police Have Found a Backpack Bomb in a Popular Tourist Area of Bali,” Time, 20 December 2016.

Indonesia mob kills man arrested for school stabbing spree,” Yahoo News, 13 December 2016.

Indonesia police say arrest of woman in bomb plot points to new militant tactic,” Reuters, 11 December 2016.

Indonesia: 200,000 protest Christian governor of Jakarta,” CNN, 2 December 2016.

Indonesia police arrest Islamist militant planning attack on Myanmar embassy,” DW, 26 November 2016.

A Terrorist Attack at an Indonesian Church Has Killed a Toddler and Wounded Three Others,” Time, 14 November 2016.

Suspected Islamic State ‘sympathiser’ attacks Indonesian police officers with machete,” ABC, 20 October 2016.

Militant in Jakarta attack dies,” SBS, 20 October 2016.

The 12 October 2002 Bali bombing plot,” BBC, 11 October 2012.

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