Do Indonesia’s Surabaya Attacks Signal a Rising Terrorism Threat?

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Do Indonesia’s Surabaya Attacks Signal a Rising Terrorism Threat?

A closer look at the significance of recent developments in the Southeast Asian state.

A string of attacks in the East Java capital of Surabaya last week in the wake of a prison siege in West Java has once again brought Indonesia’s fight against terrorism to the forefront. The first of the Surabaya attacks, orchestrated by one family unit including young children, appears to be a major departure from ‘traditional’ Islamic extremism in the region which is almost exclusively conducted by men. Paired with fears of fighters returning from Syria and other structural issues including in the legal realm, concerns have been sparked about how serious the threat is and how Indonesia will respond.

In the wake of these natural concerns, it is important to note that the actual dimension of the challenge is difficult to quantify and that there are various elements to this – from returning fighters from the Middle East all the way down to how the Indonesian government walks the line between freedom and security and resources its agencies and institutions to contend with the threat.

On returning fighters, for example, it bears reiterating that though swirling rumors about the family’s links to Syria and Islamic State revealed an anxiety over returning figures, the specter of which is a scary one, the actual number of Indonesians joining the fight in Syria has been quite low.

Speaking last month at a Foreign Policy Community Indonesia event, renowned terrorism and security analyst Sidney Jones said that around 500 Indonesian nationals had been detained and then deported from the Turkey-Syria border over the last few years. Of the fraction which did manage to make it into the country, Indonesia, she said, should not anticipate a similar post-conflict influx of returning fighters as seen following Afghanistan in the 2000s.

Rather, Jones says, it is unlikely Indonesian nationals will even be able to leave the area. At this stage her research shows there are around 400 to 500 Indonesians in and around Syria, although this figure also includes women and children who are unlikely to be engaged in combat. Crucially, many of these family units had no intention of returning to Indonesia with the belief in the establishment of the Caliphate so strong there was no entertainment of failure. Now, it may be too late. Efforts to repatriate will be hampered by counter-forces and the threat of arrest.

Still, Jones notes that if even just a few returned fighters slip through the nets, Indonesia could be forced to deal with attacks even more gruesome than those seen earlier this week. “We wouldn’t need very many, just a handful of people with skills, combat experience and international connections to make a difference to the level of risk,” she said.

But even those whose return is detected by authorities still could pose a great risk, with tensions rising in Indonesia’s prisons as authorities struggle to contain homegrown terror convicts. That speaks to a broader problem: that for all the focus on returning fighters, one of Indonesia’s longtime challenges has been simply holding on to and managing those that the government has already detained. Speaking prior to last week’s prison riot in Depok, just south of Jakarta, Jones called the Indonesian prison system a “revolving door” of terror groups.

The 36-hour siege in a cell block housing hundreds of terror convicts ended with five elite counterterror police and one prisoner dead. The riot was sparked by a disagreement over food brought to the prison by an inmate’s family member and escalated quickly as other inmates became involved. Reports detainees were easily able to obtain weapons from nearby police caches underlined the failures in housing terror detainees, but not all hope is lost Jones said previously.

Speaking before the riot, Jones noted poor conditions including overcrowding and corruption within the system undermined the aspects in which Indonesia has gotten it right. Still, Indonesia’s fundamental approach when it comes to dealing with terror suspects and convicts differs greatly from much of the rest of the world.

“The philosophy in Indonesia is that terrorists are not by nature killers, they are fundamentally good people led astray,” she said, adding that it is why we are unlikely to ever see Guantanamo-like super-prisons. But in the aftermath of the Depok riot and now with the expected release of Islamic State-aligned convicts over the next 18 months questions must be answered if this approach can be maintained.

Raids across the country have coincided with the beginning of Ramadan, generally a time of harmonious quiet time for reflection. Islamic State and those aligned to its ideology, however, believe Ramadan is the best time to target ‘infidels’ and those against its cause. The fasting month in 2016, for instance, saw high profile attacks from the United States to Saudi Arabia.

Whether Indonesia suffers more attacks or not, the month will be dominated by terrorism talk and a swift political response. President Joko “Jokowi’\” Widodo, who has long been seen as soft on matters of national security when compared to more strongman-type opposition figures, has resolved to issue a presidential decree (Perppu) by the start of June if the House of Representatives is not able to resolve issues with revisions to the terrorism law, launched after the 2016 attack in Central Jakarta.

Indonesia rightfully enjoys a reputation as having so far countered the terror threat effectively while leaving its reputation for democracy and tolerance intact. But as the severity of the threat increases and other challenges loom, whether or not it can continue to do so is an open question.