What if there was a suicide bombing in Central Java — and no one cared?
That is effectively what happened a week ago, on 5 July, the last day of Ramadan, when yet another inept Indonesian terrorist killed himself and no one else at the municipal police command in Solo. Unlike the Jakarta attacks in January, this time there was no panic, no international media coverage, no glorification on radical social media. The death of Nur Rohman, part-time parking attendant and meatball seller, served no terrorist purpose whatsoever. It could, however, cause Indonesian extremists to think more carefully about their next move.
Bahrun Naim, the man who appears to have encouraged the attack, now has a failure record of three for three with his gullible followers from an anti-vice group in Solo known as the Hisbah Team (Tim Hisbah). In August 2015 he tried to get them to bomb a few sites in Solo, but the police found out before plans had matured very far, and in any case they had purchased the wrong explosives. In December, he tried to put the same group up to attacking the national headquarters of the paramilitary police as well as senior police officers. Nur Rohman was part of that ill-conceived plot and had been a fugitive ever since.
In January, ironically, police initially named Bahrun Naim as the mastermind of the attacks although it was later established that he had no role. The media coverage, however, was to die for.
With a third attempt that the public all but ignored, one would think there would be some introspection among Indonesian leaders in Syria – men higher up than Naim — about how to be more effective. The only answers are training and leadership and the question is where they will come from.
The obvious solution is to send someone back from Syria to be an instructor, but that is easier said than done given the vigilance at the Turkish border. ISIS may also need its most experienced fighters to stay put. It is still an option but probably not the preferred one.
A second option is to designate someone with more professional training to whip a terrorist cell into shape. The possibilities are released prisoners with overseas training or combat experience at home, in Ambon or Poso; someone with more recent experience working with pro-ISIS groups in the southern Philippines; or someone with a background in the military or police.
Indonesia’s prisons continue to be a revolving door for terrorists. At any one time, some 100 are in police custody awaiting trial, some 200 are in prison, serving sentences and about 70 people per year are being released. Last week two known ISIS supporters were released to rapturous welcomes on extremist social media, one of them a former police officer from Ambon. He no doubt will be carefully watched, but he has exactly the profile needed to be an instructor.
In late June, ISIS released a video showing an Indonesian, a Malaysian and a Filipino in Syria acknowledging the leadership of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon as amir of ISIS in Southeast Asia. Hapilon operates out of Basilan, in the Sulu archipelago, and the video urged Southeast Asians to join the jihad there if they could not get to Syria. This suggests that another possibility for an instructor is an Indonesian trained there in all of the skills that Abu Sayyaf is known for — including bomb construction, attacks from the sea and hostage-taking. The Indonesian who appeared in the June video, Muhammed Yusop Karim Faiz, now better known as Abu Walid, spent nine years in a Philippine maximum security prison and has extensive contacts there.
A third possibility is that someone long inactive could be persuaded to come out of retirement. In the last year, we have seen a few Jemaah Islamiyah old-timers come back as ISIS supporters after more than a decade of no activity. (JI as an organisation remains implacably opposed to ISIS but some members loyal to Abu Bakar Ba’asyir have defected.) We have also seen a former member of Laskar Jundullah, a Makassar-based militia that sent people to fight in Poso at the height of the conflict there, be persuaded by his old commander to come back into the struggle for the first time since 2002.
So far, none of these developments have produced a leader with the ability to take any of Indonesia’s large supply of would-be mujahidin and turn them into something more than poster children for fecklessness. But the fact that terrorist attacks keep failing is not the point. Indonesian extremists are seeing 'successes', not just in Paris, Brussels, Orlando, Dhaka and Istanbul but also from their Malaysian counterparts. The first-ever ISIS attack on Malaysian soil on 28 June managed to get more news coverage than the latest attack in Indonesia. The incentive to try again will be high.
Photo by Kuncoro Ardi/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images