In mid-October 2019, the Indonesian police discovered that a cell of Jamaah Ansharud Daulah (JAD) – the largest pro-Islamic State (IS) network in Indonesia – had plotted a suicide attack using a bomb that contained the abrin poison in Cirebon, West Java. The cell had targeted a local police station and a place of worship in Cirebon. Police seized 310 grams of rosary pea seeds, which is the main ingredient of abrin. The police’s forensic test revealed that around 0.7 micrograms of abrin could kill 100 people.
This was the first assembled bomb in Indonesia that used a biological substance as one of its ingredients. However, this was the second terror plot in eight years that used biological agents. The first plot was in 2011, when a militant group in Jakarta attempted to kill policemen by poisoning the latter’s food using ricin, another biological agent.
What does this latest plot imply regarding the current state of the threat of bioterrorism – “the intentional release of viruses, bacteria, or other germs that can sicken or kill people, livestock, or crops” – in Indonesia? The article will assess the threat from the perspectives of biological agents used in attack plots and methods of dissemination in past incidents as well as the intentions and capability of Indonesian terror groups in using biological agents as a mode of terror.
Agents in Bioterrorism
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States’ lead agency for overall public health planning that is also in charge of responding to acts of biological terrorism, has categorized ricin and abrin as potent biological toxins derived from plant sources – castor beans and rosary peas, respectively. Based on initial public health preparedness efforts, the CDC categorized plant toxins under category B, one category lower than category A, the first category. Biological agents in the latter category have the greatest potential for harmful public health impact. They may inflict mass casualties, along with a moderate to high potential for large-scale dissemination and a heightened general public awareness that could cause mass public fear and civil disruption. As such, the threat of bioterrorism requires broad-based public health preparedness efforts.
How have those agents been used by Indonesian militant groups?
“Category A” Agents
Indonesian terrorist groups currently do not seem to have the intention or capability of using a category A biological agent such as anthrax to launch an attack. The last known effort to develop anthrax was in mid-2000, when Hambali, the Indonesian group Jemaah Islamiyah’s liaison officer to al-Qaeda (AQ) and head of JI’s Mantiqi I (the regional area of JI covering mainland Malaysia and Singapore), introduced Malaysian JI member Yazid Sufaat to al-Qaeda. According to the 9/11 Commission Report, Yazid – a member with a degree in medical technology and biochemistry from a U.S. university – led AQ’s biological weapons program. Yazid helped set up the AQ laboratory in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and would spend several months cultivating anthrax for the terror outfit. Despite AQ’s generally unsophisticated laboratory, Yazid claimed that he had been successful in developing some pathogens. He asserted that anthrax was not his “favorite” as it was good for sabotage but not enough to kill people. The laboratory was eventually destroyed when NATO bombed Kandahar in 2001. Yazid returned to Malaysia and was arrested in the same year. He was released in 2008 and rearrested in 2013. He will be released in November 2019.
Since then, security agencies have not uncovered any other efforts by Indonesian groups to weaponize a “category A” biological agent. This could be partially attributed to the absence of serious intention by Indonesian terrorist groups or inadequate resources available – i.e. bio-scientists and laboratories – to weaponize a biological agent. Bioterrorism researcher Gregory D. Koblentz has argued that while the acquisition of many agents is simple and relatively inexpensive, weaponizing them to inflict mass casualties is indeed the most significant challenge to a potential bioterrorist. In the 1990s, the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan failed to effectively aerosolize “category A” virulent strains of anthrax and botulinum toxin in seven separate incidents. According to terrorism expert Adam Dolnik, this is despite the group having an estimated $1 billion in assets and some 26 university-trained chemists and microbiologists working in top-notch research facilities, virtually without constraints in conducting experiments. Based on available information, the capability of Indonesian militant groups and radicalized individuals of using category A as a weapon of terror does not match that of Aum Shinrikyo or even Yazid Sufaat.
Category B Agents
In June 2011, a militant cell consisting of seven persons, led by Santhanam, attempted to kill policemen by poisoning food at a canteen the latter frequently visited using ricin. Santhanam was a student of extremist preacher Halawi Makmun, who was the administrator of JI offshoot Majelis Mujahidin Indonesia (MMI) and subsequently Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT). Makmun left JAT in 2010 and pledged allegiance to IS in 2014 before dying in the same year. The 2011 incident was the first terror plot in Indonesia that employed a biological toxic agent. Santhanam’s cell was arrested when they were about to head to the canteen to poison the food. Previously, they had “tested” the ricin in a porridge food stall in a Chinese housing complex in Jakarta and claimed that it had worked. However, it is unknown whether the “test” resulted in fatalities.
The usage of category B agents – plant toxins – in 2011 and 2019 can be partially attributed to, first, the agents’ availability and low-cost procurement. Both castor beans and rosary peas grow in tropical countries like Indonesia and, with the advent of e-commerce, they can be bought online at a relatively low price. The Santhanam cell had extracted ricin directly from castor bean plants they found in Jakarta. Poisoning was chosen as a method partly due to the cell lacking in funds.
Second, there was possible inspiration from overseas militants; Santhanam’s cell had claimed they were inspired by a similar attack in the Middle East, but there were no details regarding that specific incident. However, a few months after the Indonesian ricin plot was discovered, The New York Times reported that the U.S. counterterrorism officials were concerned that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen had tried to produce ricin, which was to be packed around small explosives for attacks against the United States. The Cirebon cell plot to build a bomb with abrin mixture resembled an attack plan in Germany by a pro-IS individual who planned to build an explosive device containing ricin in 2018. Indeed, tradecraft manuals on how to extract ricin from castor beans have been circulating among the militant community in Indonesia from 2012 until today. Unlike ricin, manuals on abrin have been absent in the Indonesian militant community’s cyberspace. This is probably because abrin has not been previously used in past terror attacks, according to the CDC.
Dissemination of Biological Agents
Indonesian terrorist cells have attempted two out of three ways that Koblentz listed as main methods to disseminate a biological toxic agent. First, to disseminate biological agents using explosive energy; this was the method planned by the Cirebon cell. Indonesian militant groups have traditionally used either low or high explosive materials, with added nails or nuts and bolts to enhance the bomb’s deadly effect. The Cirebon cell had assembled a high explosive bomb and added abrin to make it even more lethal. This suggested that the Cirebon cell’s use of abrin was not intended as a biological attack per se but rather to give the conventional bomb a more lethal effect.
Second, contamination of food, which according to Koblentz is easier to achieve as a sophisticated aerosolization device to spread the biological agents would not be required. This method was planned to be employed by the Santhanam cell.
The third method would be to place the agent into an aerosol-like device that could be triggered by pressure. While this is the most efficient method to create aerial dispersal of properly sized biological agent particles, Indonesian militant groups have never attempted this tactic because it requires a high-quality agent, which the Indonesia groups — and even IS central in Syria — are unable to produce.
There is the possibility that the Indonesian militant groups may still harbor an intention to use plant-based toxins for attacks. This is due to these agents’ availability and relatively simple production process for use in a small-scale attack with limited impact, that is, an attack unlikely to result in mass casualties. Manufacturing of category B agents in past attack plots did not require a laboratory and trained bio-scientists like Yazid. Paimin, a member of the Santhanam cell who manufactured ricin, did not even complete his primary school education. He worked under Santhanam’s production instructions, which had been based on internet research.
A black swan circumstance could occur if Indonesian militant groups manage to recruit trained biochemical scientists with access to the equivalent of a state-run laboratory. However, there is little to suggest that they currently have the intention or capability to weaponize biological agents as a mass casualty tool. The use of biological agents may thus be limited to poisoning or being used as a mixture in other conventional attack tools (bombs or sharp weapons), rather than aerosolizing the agent with a sophisticated device, the most deadly procedure in bioterrorism.
The key to disrupting such attacks in the future will heavily rely on the Indonesian security apparatus’ surveillance and disruption of militant cells, as successfully done so far today.
V. Arianti is an Associate Research Fellow at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit in the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore.