Indonesia is facing an increase in violence because of religious and ethnic unrest that have both resisted permanent solution
The religious problems are all about JAD (Jemaah Ansharut Daulah), an Indonesian Islamic terror group that had affiliated itself with ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). JAD took credit for a series of attacks against Christian churches and other targets in East Java over several days in May. These attacks triggered a massive police and public backlash that quickly led to numerous arrests of known or suspected ISIL supporters. Since these attacks police have arrested at least 120 suspects and killed another 17 who resisted arrest violently. Interrogations and captured documents indicated a larger membership of JAD then previously believed. There was also proof that Aman Abdurrahman, the cleric that played a key role forming JAD, encouraged the recent attacks even though he has been imprisoned since 2009. Abdurrahman was put on trial again and condemned to death. The date of the execution (by firing squad) has not been set but the police made it clear that they have more than a hundred JAD suspects under surveillance all and all of them would be arrested just before the execution of Abdurrahman. This is meant to cripple any plans JAD might have to carry out revenge attacks. Some known JAD leaders are still at large and being sought. New laws were passed making it easier to arrest terrorism suspects and hold them longer for interrogation.
At the same time there has been another flare up of ethnic violence in Papua, which has been less of a problem, and a more distant one than Islamic terrorism. In late June there was an attack at a rural airport by separatist gunmen, which left three dead and two wounded. Police and soldiers in Papua responded, but their actions were not immediately reported because in Papua the police restrict the media and much of the violence takes place in isolated settlements. Eventually the truth gets out but that only shows that police have been using terror tactics for at least a decade, killing a separatist every month or two and calling the incident one involving criminal, not political (separatists) activity. The West Papua National Liberation Army took credit for this latest attack and made it clear the targets were Malays from the Moslem majority of Indonesia coming to settle in a remote are and provide information for police about what native Papuans are up to.
Despite government efforts to make it appear otherwise, separatist unrest continues in Papua. This is a large area that is thinly populated by over 300 Melanesian tribes. It is the poorest part of Indonesia, with some thirty percent of the population being extremely poor. The Papuans, who were ruled as a Dutch colony for centuries, were granted independence by the Dutch in 1961, but a year later Indonesia invaded and no one went to the aid of the Papuans. The UN called for a referendum to determine what the Papuans wanted, but Indonesia never allowed that to happen. The UN has continued to protest and pressure Indonesia, but nothing has changed, except for growing separatist violence. The government has responded by arresting and prosecuting anyone who openly demonstrates support for separatism. This has provided the incentive for more Papuans to join the non-violent and violent separatist groups.
Most Indonesians do not want Papua (the western half of New Guinea, the fourth largest island in the world) to be independent. In addition to lots of valuable natural resources, there's lots of unused land that can be occupied by Moslem migrants from crowded parts of the country. But that causes friction, because the native Papuans are Melanesian, who look quite different from the majority Malays. Moreover, the Melanesians tend to be Christian while the Malays are almost all Moslems. The Malays are better educated and run the government and police. The Malays are also very corrupt and have done little to improve the lives of native Papuans over the last half century. There are a lot of Melanesians outside of Papua, and they are increasingly subject to violence by Malay Islamic radicals.
The Neighborhood Islamic Terrorist
Meanwhile Islamic terrorism continues to be a threat that is closer to where most Indonesians live and easier to report on. Despite that 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 majority country 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 travelled 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, which 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 has 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 May 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 many more wounded. When police raided the home of the men 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, brandishing long swords, attempted to attack policemen. These four swordsmen were quickly shot 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 was interrogated to obtain details of this operation and JAD operations in general. By the end of May the Islamic terrorism and the response had left 53 dead (31 of them terrorists, the rest civilians or police). Another fifty people were wounded. This was the largest one month Islamic terrorism death toll since 2002 (when over 200 died).
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, until then, purposely not been violent inside Indonesia. Now the entire country was on high alert and the government quickly obtained the new anti-terrorism law they had 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. The Indonesian remains relatively free and unrestricted.
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 worked again. Police were soon getting lots of tips and detailed information about what turned out to be JAD/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 and could be jailed before they were ready.
What had the most impact on Indonesians was the use of children as suicide bombers. During the first attack there were survivors who described how the mother triggered 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 was horrific. Indonesia had always practiced a less fanatic form of Islam, in large part because Indonesia was not converted via conquest but gradually via contact with Arab merchants and seamen. The foreign Moslems attracted converts via personal example, not aggressive preaching and threats of physical harm.
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. Another target was the large non-Moslem minorities of Indonesia. 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 and a growing number of Indonesians are becoming less tolerant of intolerant Islamic conservatives. Some of this shift in attitude is in self-defense. As Islam spread peacefully through Indonesia (until Christianity showed up and provided some competition) only some local Hindus, Buddhists and so on proved able to resist the conversion trend. That conversion was helped by the fact that most of the conversions were carried out by Indonesian Moslems who were tolerant of those seeking to keep some of their traditional (and ancient) practices. This is something Christian missionaries had learned to do, with great success. But Islam was different because back in Arabia and Egypt (where the most authoritative Islamic scholars tended to live) the word was that no such modifications were tolerable. But Indonesia was far away and no one ever seriously proposed a military expedition to rectify this incorrect thought.
Then came the Arabian oil wealth in the 1950s and soon there were Arab Islamic scholars opening up madrassas (Islamic religious schools) and building new mosques all over the world, paid for by powerful, pious and now petroleum rich Arabs who sought to protest Islam. All this was to make it clear that a true Moslem did not keep any old religious practices around. Most Indonesians ignored this, but a small minority became believers and by the end of the 1990s there were millions of Indonesians who favored this stricter Islam. Politicians found that the Islamic parties could deliver votes reliably as long as you supported the new lifestyle laws they wanted. So far the Islamic parties, for all their fanaticism, are very much a minority and the majority of Moslem politicians do not want to outlaw “traditional Indonesian Islam” (which tolerates alcohol, night clubs, education and modern fashions for the women and a lot of other stuff that makes the country prosper and brings in the tourists. Extreme groups like ISIL are forcing Indonesia to decide how tolerant it will be of an intolerant form of Islam.
This recent and quite 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 in 2018, even though a lot of Indonesian ISIL members were coming back from Syria and other places where ISIL had been crushed. 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 was apparently 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 may 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 crippled ISIL efforts to expand into Indonesia. Counter-terror forces crushed 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 declared MIT part of 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 hundreds of 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 with Indonesians and ISIL became active in attacking non-Moslems. That had already 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 gave 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.”
That explains why Islamic terrorism continues to survive in Indonesia. 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.
But there is something else unique about Indonesia, the nation with the largest Moslem population in the world. Islam is not the state religion of Indonesia as it is in most other Moslem majority nations. Indonesia officially recognizes five religions; Islam, Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. The founders of the Indonesian state (formerly a Dutch colonial government) found the Dutch approach to religion (deliberately allowing multiple religions and prohibiting religion based persecution) could work in Indonesia because they Dutch has demonstrated that. So Islamic political parties face a formidable number of constitutional and cultural challenges to gaining control of the government. Most Indonesians are fine with letting the Islamic parties operate openly as long as they observe the laws and constitution. So far that has worked.
The recent ISIL attacks, especially those using young children, puts the Islamic politicians on the defensive for a while. The major Islamic party, the PKS (Prosperous Justice Party) has, since 2004, managed attract and keep about eight million voters. The next elections are in 2019 PKS is expected to once more escape any blowback from the outbreak of ISIL violence. While PKS is led by Moslem clerics it has managed to hold onto it voters by playing down Islamic lifestyle rules and concentrating on reducing corruption and promoting what Westerners would see as a socialist economic platform. PKS also encourages more foreign investment and economic expansion. Yet lurking in the background is the fact that Islamic scripture (depending on who is interpreting it) 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. Indonesia, however, is the only Moslem majority nation that deliberately prohibits Islam from dominating the nation. No Indonesian ruler ever invoked “defending Islam” to justify his rule. Indonesia does allow a lot of experimentation. For example the province of Aceh (the first part of Indonesia to be converted to Islam centuries ago) was allowed to implement Islamic law as part of a deal to end a separatist rebellion. Aceh is still subject to federal laws and the use of Islamic (sharia) law does not appear to have made life better for the people of Aceh. Most Indonesians expect Islamic terrorism to be similarly tamed. So far Islamic terrorism is still around, regenerating each time it is crushed.
“The Strategy Page”