On May 13, 2018, Indonesia woke to the news of a new terrorist attack. A family of six, including four children, targeted three churches in the city of Surabaya, East Java, killing at least 13 and injuring over 40 churchgoers on their way to morning mass. On May 14, 2018, the police headquarters in Surabaya was attacked by another family of suicide bombers, leaving at least four police officers and six local residents injured.
It has been a difficult few weeks for the country. These latest attacks follow an incident on May 8 at Mako Brimob, a maximum-security detention center that houses terrorist inmates in Depok on the outskirts of Jakarta. After a siege that lasted over 36 hours, five police officers were dead – most of them members of Indonesia’s elite counter terrorism squad Densus 88. Several hours after the church attack in Surabaya, another bomb exploded in Sidoarjo, East Java, killing three. On the same day, four terrorists were shot dead in Cianjur, East Java.
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The timing of this uptick of violence is worrying. “Welcome to the Holy Month of Jihad” is a brittle joke used on Indonesia social media that references the fact that the Muslim fasting month often brings with it a spike in terrorist activity. As Ramadan is due to start on May 15, it could explain why Indonesia is being freshly rocked by wave after wave of terrorist atrocities.
“The Surabaya attacks could be tied to Ramadan; we don’t know for sure,” Zachary Abuza, a professor at the National War College and expert in Southeast Asian politics, says. “Some groups have used Ramadan to increase the scale and tempo of attacks. While most Muslims think that to carry out violence during the holy month is even more un-Islamic, most Salafi jihadists believe that becoming a martyr during Ramadan is an even holier action.”
This is not an issue confined solely to Indonesia, but it does underscore a potentially worrying trend for the country. As Ian Wilson, a lecturer in Politics and Security Studies at the Asia Research Center at Murdoch University explains, “Attacks during Ramadan have been a trend elsewhere in the world, linked to Islamic State. We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in activity over just the past couple of weeks in Indonesia, so it’s reasonable to assume that there are likely more attacks being planned.”
The latest attack on the three churches in Surabaya was also particularly shocking in its use of minors. Two of the children, girls aged 9 and 12, had bombs strapped to them, which were denoted along with a bomb strapped to their mother. But this attack, while barbaric in itself, also points to another issue which should worry the Indonesian authorities in their fight against terrorism; it was entirely orchestrated to target civilians. As Wilson says, “The attack on religious minorities, previously a hallmark of Jemaah Islamiyah, has returned it seems, rather than the singular focus on attacking the police that we’ve seen in recent years.”
In addition to fasting month, there may be deeper political reasons for an increase in violence. Wilson continues, “Some are speculating it’s part of a strategy to intensify sectarian division, already rife as a product of the broader political climate and likely to increase heading towards the presidential elections in 2019.”
Whether the recent spate of attacks is linked to Ramadan or the wider election season in Indonesia is unclear at such an early stage. But it does show that the authorities need to double-down on foiling terrorist attacks, something that the Indonesian government has done well in recent years, but which clearly needs to be looked at again. Following the incident at Mako Brimob, there have been calls for revisions to Indonesia’s anti-terrorism laws (UU Antiterorisme).
“The terrorism law at the moment is responsive, so if there is no action then [terrorists] can’t be arrested. We hope that police officers will be given the power to act preventatively,” said Boy Rafli Amar, the head of police public relations division, as reported by CNN Indonesia.
One of the ways in which the law fails to act preventively includes the fact that it doesn’t make it illegal for Indonesians to travel abroad and join terrorist organizations. It appears that the family behind the church bombings in Surabaya had traveled to Turkey and were affiliated with Islamic State-inspired terror group Jemma Ansharut Daulah.
Following the attacks in Surabaya, Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo gave a press conference during which he urged the House of Representatives to make amendments to the law that would give the police greater authority to arrest and hold terrorist suspects. The law has been stalled in parliament since 2016, and some are now blaming the recent attacks on the delays to the amendments, which would allow police to hold terror suspects for up to six months. Jokowi has warned that if parliament doesn’t make the amendments soon, he will pass a presidential regulation (Perppu) instead.
But there is an argument that changes to the law could be used to imprison not only suspected terrorists but anyone deemed a threat to the government (including, for example, political activists) and could be an infringement on civil liberties. On the other hand, if the incidents in Depok, Surabaya, Cianjur, and Sidoarjo point to terrorist cells being activated across Indonesia in the lead up to Ramadan and the elections, then revisions to its laws that help foil further attacks could prove extremely timely. One of the main issues at this early stage is for the Indonesian authorities to work quickly to find out how many of these attacks are linked – and if they are indeed designed to coincide with Ramadan or influence the elections – or if they are just a deadly coincidence and the work of lone wolves.
As Wilson says, “It’s hard to know if the perpetrators are thinking strategically or whether it’s simply driven by an ideological hatred.”
Aisyah Llewellyn is a British freelance writer based in Medan, Indonesia. She is a former diplomat and writes primarily about Indonesian politics, culture, travel, and food.