The latest suicide attack in Indonesia, on a mosque during prayers, is proving what authorities feared—jihad groups are getting smaller, their attacks harder to predict, and they are far from over.
Muhammad Syarif, 32, drove this shift home when he detonated explosives strapped to his body at a mosque inside a police station in Cirebon, West Java. He killed himself, injured 30 others and became the first suicide bomber to strike inside an Indonesian mosque.
The attack came after the discovery of book bombs—bombs hidden in hollowed-out books and mailed to liberal Muslim figures and a counter-terrorism official. Most of the bombs were successfully defused and only a few people were wounded, but again, the dynamics have changed.
This change in strategy was noted by the latest report from the International Crisis Group (ICG), which said the attack fits an emerging pattern of individual jihad. Others have called it do-it-yourself jihad. ICG says this trend favours targeted killings over indiscriminate bombings, local over foreign targets and individual or small group action over more hierarchical organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) that once dominated Islamic militancy across Southeast Asia.
In the report, ‘Indonesian Jihadism: Small Groups, Big Plans’, the Brussels-based ICG found groups like JI and Jemaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT) are emphasizing local enemies as oppressors.Police, Christians and unwanted minority Islamic sects like the Ahmadiyah provide ideal targets of opportunity—a sharp contrast to the powerful bombings that have almost routinely rocked parts of Indonesia, like Bali, over the past decade.
Indonesia is a secular state with the world’s largest Muslim population of 240 million people. Traditionally, large Islamic terrorist groups focused attacks on Westerners in large hotels, embassies and resorts in Bali. The last major terrorist attack occurred in July of 2009, when two suicide bombers killed nine people at Jakarta’s Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. Meanwhile, the last significant figure in the 2002 Bali bombings, Omar Patek, has been captured in Pakistan.
Success by Detachment 88 in rounding up the last of JI’s old school of bombers has significantly raised the stakes, particularly since February last year, when police broke-up a militant training camp, arrested more than 100 people and killed another 25 along the way.
‘I think that series of events, more than anything else, just catapulted the police to the top of the enemies list,’ ICG senior advisor Sidney Jones says. As result, ICG is urging Indonesia to adopt prevention programmes, which seems sound advice for other countries in the region given the ability of these groups and terror cells to multiply across borders.
Importantly, police are struggling to find out who taught the likes of Muhammad Syarif how to make his bomb, target and detonate.
‘The critical task is to identify vulnerable communities, starting with areas that have produced extremist groups in the recent past, and think through possible programmes that might strengthen community resistance to extremist teaching,’ Jones adds.