Indonesia's War on Terror

Motorcycles burn in Surabaya, Indonesia following the bombing of a church nearby ( Image )

Motorcycles burn in Surabaya, Indonesia following the bombing of a church nearby (Image)


On May 17, 2018, a family of six strapped bombs to themselves and exploded inside three churches in Surabaya, Indonesia. The self-detonation of the two parents and their children, one as young as nine, left 12 dead and 41 wounded. The incident was part of a string of ISIS-affiliated terrorist attacks resulting from the collective stepping up militant recruitment in Southeast Asia over the past few years. The past couple of years have consequently seen a rise in activity - May’s bombing was the deadliest extremist incident in close to a decade and the first time children were involved in carrying out a terror attack in the country.

Indonesia is no stranger to Islamist religious extremism.  The first extremist group to emerge in the country was Darul Islam in the 1940s, which aimed to establish a theocratic Islamic State. Darul Islam was driven underground in the 1950s and 60s, splintering into regional cells that Indonesia has fought ever since. In 2002, coordinated bomb attacks in Bali killed more than 200 civilians and injured over 230 more as a reprisal for the Indonesian government’s support of the US’s War on Terror. Like the Bali bombing, recent attacks have been linked to the groups Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and Jemaah Islamiyah, which now align themselves with ISIS and Al-Qaeda, respectively.

The renewed surge of attacks beginning in 2017 shook Indonesia to the core, and civilians have demanded a governmental response to better ensure their safety and security. Under President Joko Widodo, the Indonesian government has carried out a series of initiatives to bolster national security, enhance intelligence sharing efforts, and defuse future terrorist threats before they manifest.

Ambulances transport victims of a suicide bombing in Jakarta in 2016, the first terror attack in the country in seven years ( Image )

Ambulances transport victims of a suicide bombing in Jakarta in 2016, the first terror attack in the country in seven years (Image)

The 2002 Bali bombings were Indonesia’s 9/11. And similar to 9/11, they were a harsh wake-up call to a nation gripped by fear. Recognizing the need for reform, the Indonesian government in 2003 created Detachment 88, an elite counterterrorism police force specializing in advanced intelligence gathering and specialized training techniques. Detachment 88 was funded and trained by the United States and Australia, who provided $200 million and instruction for more than 500 members in a secret facility jointly operated by the Indonesian government, CIA, FBI, and US Secret Service.

Despite failing to prevent the May attacks, Detachment 88 has been an incredible success overall, capitalizing on international assistance to weave an intricate network of intelligence gathering and foil over 80 terrorist plots in the last eight years. To gather information, Detachment 88’s officers blend a mix of technological and community-based approaches. The police force not only monitors websites, social media, and messaging apps, but also works with prominent religious and community leaders to uncover details about militant activity in the region. Additionally, the organization hires religious and psychological experts to develop “soft interview” techniques that build trust with arrested militants, encouraging them to cooperate with officers and reveal crucial details about planned attacks and terrorist cells. These interrogation methods have expanded Detachment 88’s scope of operation, leading to more than 1,200 arrests and the captures of key militant leaders that orchestrated the Bali attacks.

The government has also turned to the legislature to push counterterrorism measures. In the aftermath of the Surabaya church bombings, President Widodo’s administration pressured the Indonesian Parliament to approve a controversial anti-terror law that permits military involvement in counterterrorism and national security operations previously reserved for the police and intelligence forces. The law further empowers Indonesia’s police forces, allowing departments to detain suspects of terrorist networks for up to 200 days without charge while officers investigate further for evidence. Additionally, it legalizes the imposition of a death penalty on any suspects convicted of smuggling weapons or explosives affiliated with terrorist networks. The government promises that the new measures will successfully eradicate terrorist organizations across the nation. However, critics argue that increasing military involvement will undermine the rights of any group the government views as a threat, serving as a political weapon that could silence opposition rather than a security measure to keep citizens safe.

But focusing solely on domestic reforms is not enough, and President Widodo’s administration recognizes this. To win the war on terror on its home turf, Indonesia is joining global efforts to eradicate religious extremism. In January, Indonesia allied with Singapore, Malaysia, Philippines, Brunei, and Thailand to launch the Our Eyes Initiative (OEI), an intelligence pact designed to improve counterterrorism responses across Southeast Asia. Modeled after the Five Eyes alliance between the US, Britain, Canada, and others, the OEI plans to hold biweekly meetings with security officials from each member nation and exchange information regarding regional militant organizations and potential threats to national security. In doing so, the countries hope to build an extensive database of information which would allow their security forces to operate with extensive foresight; acquiring information to target local terrorist cells would let them generate a much faster response time, diffusing terrorist cells before they have a chance at carrying out attacks. If the OEI succeeds in establishing this intelligence network, Indonesia could become an instrumental part to diffusing Southeast Asian presence of both global networks like ISIS and domestic groups like Jemaah Islamiyah.

Indonesia’s war on terror is escalating, and the government is desperate to show its citizens that no nine year old girl will have to strap a bomb to her back in the future. The bombings in Surabaya have the nation gearing up once again to thwart the immense fear and panic that are necessary for terrorist groups to flourish. Only time will tell whether the Indonesian military and police will continue to use their newfound intelligence capabilities to protect the people rather than to subvert their democracy.