Jakarta has reacted to the Paris attacks with condolences, assurances that everything is under control, and scepticism from all sides that there could be any fallout at home. From senior officials to hardline Islamists, the message is that it can’t happen here. But it’s not that simple. It’s true that a coordinated attack on the scale of Paris is not going to happen in Jakarta or Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia. We could, however, see a change in tactics on the part of pro-ISIS groups here, including a decision to target foreigners.
Those who say there’s nothing to worry about are correct on their key points. Indonesia is not a member of the Western coalition bombing Syria; there’s no reason for it to be a target like France or the US. There’s no chatter that any Indonesian agency has picked up about plans for violence. The jihadi groups still active in Indonesia are focused more on getting to Syria than on undertaking any action and anyway, they are poorly trained, poorly led and largely incompetent.
But there are other signs that suggest that this is no time for complacency. More and more Indonesians are getting killed in Syria. Earlier in the year, those deaths came in battles against the Kurds, but the most recent deaths have been airstrikes – and revenge is a powerful motive. If Indonesian police have been the main victims of homegrown terrorism since 2010, we could now see a shift back toward Westerners and soft targets.
The Paris attacks drew praise from Indonesians with ISIS in Syria, among them Bahrun Naim, an ex-prisoner and jihadi intellectual who was involved in trying to organise an attack in Central Java from Syria last August. In a blog posting entitled 'Lessons from the Paris Attacks' (Pelajaran dari Serangan Paris), he urged his Indonesian audience to study the planning, targeting, timing, coordination, security and courage of the Paris teams. His readers aren’t fellow fighters in Syria, they’re too busy. He's writing for the terrorist wannabes on Java.
One of the saving graces for Indonesia over the last five years is that local terrorists have thought small. Bahrun Naim and some of his friends think bigger.
The fact that Indonesian agencies are not picking up chatter may be partly because many of the committed ISIS supporters from Indonesia are using encrypted communications over WhatsApp and Telegram, not ordinary mobile phone communications that the Indonesian police can tap. Even if Telegram has decided now to close down pro-IS channels, it is still going to be difficult to track private groups. The jihadis are also faster to adapt to new technologies than law enforcement agencies.
Indonesian women extremists have been eager for a more direct role in jihad than ISIS has allowed thus far. Unlike al Qaeda, the ISIS leadership never sanctioned women suicide bombers, for example. But the Frenchwoman who was initially reported to have detonated her explosive vest in St Denis on Wednesday has captured the imagination of some Indonesian 'lionesses', and if policies change in Syria toward more active participation of women, that could have ramifications for Indonesia.
A power struggle between two Syria-based Indonesian ISIS commanders, Bahrum Syah and Abu Jandal, could also lead the contenders to urge their respective followers in Indonesia to undertake attacks, in a kind of lethal one-upmanship. (Bahrun Naim is with Abu Jandal.) In the absence of new leadership, there is not too much to worry about, but it could be of serious concern if anyone with combat experience or training came back from Syra to add some planning and organisational capacity to cells here.
There is as yet no ISIS structure for Indonesia, and pressure from some pro-ISIS quarters to form a unified organisation has not yet succeeded. Fortunately for us, the groups are divided along multiple lines, ideological as well as personal, and fears that a united Jamaah Anshorud Daulah or Anshorud Daulah Islamiyah could emerge, or a Wilayat Nusantara be declared, are still unrealised. If a structure does come into being, it could be more responsive to calls from the ISIS leadership for attacks on Westerners than we have seen thus far.
The Indonesian authorities are right that the risk of a Paris-like spectacular in Jakarta is low. But while the police and army have been focused on going after Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, in the hills of Central Sulawesi, ISIS has succeeded in building a network of supporters in the suburbs of Jakarta.
Bahrun Naim in his 'Lessons' article notes approvingly that the Paris attackers well understood the oath of loyalty they had taken toward ISIS and its consequences. None of the hundreds, maybe more than 1000 Indonesians who have sworn allegiance to ISIS since June 2014 have been asked to demonstrate their obedience to their leader. That could still come.
The essence of terrorism is unpredictability. If we assume that because it’s quiet now in Jakarta, it is going to stay that way, we could be in for an unpleasant surprise.
Image courtesy of Flickr user Global Panorama