It had been years since Indonesia had experienced an attention-grabbing terrorist attack. That changed on January 14. Early in the morning, four militants launched a brazen assault in downtown Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital.
Several of the militants were suicide bombers, and detonated their explosives near a Starbucks outside of Sarinah, a popular shopping plaza. Others threw grenades, and fired at police officers stationed at a nearby traffic post. Once the smoke finally cleared, eight people were dead, including the four militants. More than twenty others were injured.
Soon afterwards, the Islamic State (ISIS) issued a statement via social media, claiming responsibility for the attack.
The attack, according to some, was the opening of a new battlefront for ISIS – yet another signal of how dangerous the group was becoming, not only in the Middle East but also in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
But such claims – that ISIS poses a major danger to the peace and security of Indonesia – are overblown. Yes, ISIS sympathizers and militants are active in Indonesia, as they are in other countries in the region, such as Malaysia and the Philippines. But that does not mean that they pose – or are capable of posing – a major threat to the Indonesian state and its people. Indeed, most Indonesian militants are poorly trained and largely incompetent, and prior to the January 14 assault they had failed to launch any large-scale attack, despite several attempts.
With this in mind, the Indonesian government response to the January 14 attack should be careful and measured. An overblown reaction risks the government losing popular support, and driving more Indonesian Islamists into the arms of ISIS.
It is important to note that a only tiny fraction of Indonesian Muslims has joined ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Indonesia has about 210 to 250 million Muslim citizens. Just five hundred or so have travelled to ISIS-controlled territory to fight with the group. As a proportion of Indonesia’s total Muslim population, that amounts to just 0.00012 percent, or about 1.4 people per million. The ratio of ISIS fighters travelling from Australia, meanwhile, is 14 per million. From Belgium, it’s 40 per million.
What’s more, few Indonesian extremists travelling to ISIS-controlled territory want to come home. As Sidney Jones, a veteran Indonesia watcher and Director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, points out: Indonesian Islamists who have traveled to ISIS territory want to live in the caliphate. They do not want to return to Indonesia, making it all the more difficult for them to train a new generation of Indonesian terrorists. (Most of Southeast Asia’s most-dangerous terrorists cut their teeth in Afghanistan, fighting against the Soviets in the 1980s. And when they returned to their home countries, they set up several deadly terrorist organizations, including Jemaah Islamiah (JI), an Al Qaeda affiliate.)
Indeed, in its struggle against ISIS, the Indonesian government is already winning on one of the most important fronts: the battle for public opinion. Many Indonesians practice a moderate form of Islam. They do not approve of ISIS’s harsh interpretation of their religion or the acts of violence perpetrated by extremists in the name of their faith. According to a recent poll from Pew Research Center, about 79 percent of Indonesians view ISIS unfavorably, and after the attacks in Jakarta, Indonesians took to the streets and to social media to condemn the militants. Indonesia’s two largest Muslim organizations – Nahdlatal Ulama and Muhammadiyah, with a combined following of 60 to 70 million people – strongly denounced the attacks, as well.
What is concerning, though, is how the Indonesian government will respond to the January 14 attacks in the coming months. The government needs to maintain the support of moderate Indonesian Muslims, and it needs to avoid using heavy-handed tactics against the extremists and their sympathizers. Indeed, if the government does respond with excessive force, it risks empowering those very same extremists.
Unfortunately, that story has played out before. Previously, in Aceh, a small province on the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the Indonesian military and police used excessive force – such as extrajudicial killings – to quell a secessionist movement. Yet such tactics only enraged the local population, and over time, the leading secessionist group in Aceh, known as GAM, became increasingly popular.
Will the Indonesian government avoid making the same mistake? Given recent history, it seems like the government has learned from past experience. For instance, after the JI-orchestrated terrorist attacks in Bali in 2002, which killed more than 200 people, the Indonesian government created a new police counter-terrorism outfit. Known as Densus 88, the unit received training and funding from the United States and Australia. In a series of small-scale, surgical operations, the unit killed or captured many JI fighters, and within a matter of years, JI ceased to exist, at least in terms of being able to plan and conduct major terrorist attacks, as it had in Bali.
But Densus 88 was almost too successful. The Indonesian government saw the unit as a well-trained hammer, and a lot of the country’s internal conflicts suddenly looked like nails. Soon thereafter, Densus 88 was deployed against secessionist movements in Maluku and Papua. But the unit did not fair so well in those environments. It had trouble, in particular, operating among hostile populations, and reports accusing Densus 88 of human rights abuses began to emerge.
Some Indonesian Islamist groups even began to accuse Densus 88 of unfairly targeting Muslims. No other group, they said, was treated so harshly by Densus 88 – not even the secessionist groups. The unit, along with the Indonesian government, they suggested, were waging a war against their faith.
Those claims, at the time, rang hollow to most Indonesians, and still do. But the Indonesian government needs to make sure that this does not change. It needs to avoid the perception that it is unfairly targeting Islamists, so it does not lose mainstream Muslim support. One way of doing that is to continue to treat counterterrorism as a police issue, rather than as a military one, and to only use Densus 88 for counter-terrorism operations.
So far, at least, it seems like the government is doing exactly that. After the January 14 attack, the government did not respond with bellicose rhetoric, and it did not launch a brutal crackdown on the country’s Islamists. Rather, Indonesian President Joko Widodo – more commonly referred to as Jokowi – ordered the police chief and the coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs to “pursue and arrest the perpetrators and their networks.” It was a criminal matter, according to Jokowi, and not a war. The police should therefore handle it. “I hope that people remain calm,” he added, “because it is all controllable.”
Indeed, in Indonesia, terrorist attacks – particularly those against police outposts – are nothing new. They have occurred, if not regularly, then at least consistently, during the course of the last several years (although few have been as deadly as the January 14 assault). And just because the most recent attacks were done in the name of ISIS, does not mean that Indonesia needs to panic. It is still facing the same poorly trained and poorly armed extremists as before, and they do not, at the moment, pose a major threat to the state or its people, despite their recent claims of being ISIS fighters.
As Luhut Binsar Panjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, told a press conference after the attack: “the government is planning to take a soft approach toward alleged IS sympathizers, in contrast to Western counterterrorism practices.”
That, at the moment, is exactly what is needed, and the Indonesian police have already arrested several suspected ISIS militants. Depending on what happens during the course of the next few months, Indonesia’s experience might ideally serve as a reminder about how effective a softer approach to counterterrorism can be.
William Mackey is a Bosworth Scholar at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He previously lived in Indonesia, and worked at the US-Indonesia Society in Washington, DC. He has contributed pieces to The Jakarta Globe and Inside Indonesia.