ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Terror Threats in Indonesia

Ramadan is always a prime time for JAD to conduct terrorist attacks. How will the pandemic affect that trend?

By Ulta Levenia and Alban Sciascia for
How COVID-19 Is Reshaping Terror Threats in Indonesia
Credit: Tribrata News Polri

Since the beginning of 2020, 57 individuals suspected to be members of terrorist groups have been arrested by the Indonesian National Police. Most of them, including the latest three arrested in East Java on April 23, are related to the Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) group, a terrorist organization that often plans attacks during Ramadan. Nevertheless, the current COVID-19 outbreak might have led some of them to review their plan.

As a matter of fact, different JAD operatives have reacted in different ways since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some believed that the most important thing is to avoid spreading the virus in order to pursue their radical agendas during the eventual recovery period. In some ways, like any other social group, they are implementing their own contingency plans. This is mainly the case for members of JAD in charge of recruitment and of doctrine, mostly high-ranking individuals within the organization. On the other hand, some members who aim to become martyrs would like to use this opportunity (i.e. the relative decrease of attention from Indonesia’s security apparatus during the outbreak) to conduct terror attacks.

Indeed, despite the COVID-19 outbreak, JAD remains active in spreading radical narratives, planning operations, and selecting their targets, benefiting from the security forces’ new focus on handling the current crisis. Additionally, within JAD doctrine, Ramadan – currently underway — is believed to be the most proper time to conduct Amaliyah or acts of terrorism

The current pandemic is also giving JAD new motives and targets for such acts. Through January 2020, several protests were organized and orchestrated against the Chinese Embassy in Jakarta, in order to demonstrate against Beijing’s treatment of Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. That anger against China might be exacerbated due to the current COVID-19 outbreak and lead JAD members to focus on new targets.

This pattern was seen in the arrest of a group in Batang, Central Java on March 25. Subhan, the leader of the group, was preparing a time bomb to target a police station. In parallel, he and his group planned to lead attacks and robberies – or Fa’I, which means robbing the “infidels” or enemies of Islam in order to secure funds for defending the faith – on stores own by Chinese Indonesians in Central Java. The group also planned to attack a bank.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

It is important to keep in mind that targeting Chinese-Indonesian assets is not something new for radical groups such as JAD. As an example, Abu Rara, who stabbed former coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs Wiranto, had been planning to attack a local store owned by a Chinese Indonesian before he decided to target the minister. Abu Rara was instructed by a friend named Syamsuddin, who had convinced him that China – and, by extension, all ethnic Chinese people — is a new enemy of Islam, due to Beijing’s oppression against Uyghurs. Like Subhan, Abu Rara and Syamsudin aimed to rob Chinese Indonesian businesses in the name of Fa’I in order to fund their radical activities.

The antipathy directed at everything that is symbolically linked to China – be it Chinese companies operating in Indonesia or Chinese-Indonesian communities by conflation – is spreading within radical groups amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Our field research shows that in JAD’s perspective, a new narrative is emerging: COVID-19 is seen as a punishment from God inflicted upon China and the world for letting the Uyghurs being oppressed in Xinjiang. As a result, terror groups in Indonesia are more likely to project every symbol of China – including Chinese Indonesians — as potential targets. The risk might be imminent. JAD members will continue to fuel radical speech with this new narrative, while those looking to carry out attacks might consider local Chinese-Indonesian communities and Chinese symbolism in their vicinity as opportune targets.

It is important to note that JAD’s radical narratives on Uyghur oppression and COVID-19 are similar to the rhetoric of external terror groups, including the Islamic State (IS). In 2017, IS released a video avowing the organization’s support for Uyghurs and threatening the Chinese government. In Indonesia, the support from local organizations for Uyghurs can be found as early as 2015, when Batam Khatibah Gongong Rebus Group supported two Uyghurs who were part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) to join the Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT) group in Poso, Central Sulawesi. The smuggling of ETIM operatives was coordinated from Syria, by Bahrum Naim, the mastermind of the Jakarta 2016 attacks, along with ETIM cells in Syria and Turkey. However, this connection with ETIM stopped when the two Uyghurs were arrested and, later, when Bahrum Naim was killed in Syria.

The Islamic State’s support for Uyghurs and ETIM seems equivocal at first sight. ETIM was considered as a Uyghur franchise of al-Qaeda, an IS rival. However, the situation got confused when the Uyghur group decided to pledge allegiance to IS. While this cooperation — on a global level with IS and at the local level with JAD — has been impaired by the current crisis, the threat is still vivid as the new narrative continues to spread within JAD. The anti-China rhetoric is providing the terrorist organization with new justification to target anything or anyone they consider as Chinese, as recent arrests prove.

On April 15, Indonesia’s law enforcement arrested Zulfikar in Sidoarjo, East Java. He had also planned to target Chinese-Indonesian assets and confirmed that his plan was motivated by an anti-Chinese sentiment fueled by Uyghur issues and the COVID-19 outbreak. Just like Subhan in Batang, Zulfikar was arrested in possession of explosives, long and short barrels handmade weapons complete with bullets, and equipment to prepare important terrorist attacks. To echo one of our previous publication, the fact that Zulfikar and some members of the cell involved in his terror plan were deported from Turkey after their attempts to join IS in Syria gives us cause to wonder how their rehabilitation was done.

The sentiment against Chinese citizens and Chinese-Indonesian communities is quite worrying due to the amalgam made in JAD’s new narrative. The ideas and sentiments spreading during the pandemic might not stop during the recovery phase — more likely, they will continue to grow. Many Chinese workers, Chinese companies, and even Chinese-Indonesian communities are vulnerable as they might be considered as targets for radical group like JAD, which believes terrorist acts have maximum impact during Ramadan.

Indeed, Ramadan is indeed very crucial for Indonesia’s security agencies, especially for Detachment 88, which is mobilized to take down terrorist cells and to stop terrorist plots. Counterterrorism efforts should be expanded, as this new narrative might not stop at the end of Ramadan or during the post-COVID-19 phase. It is widely acknowledged within the counterterrorist practitioner community that this anti-China propaganda and new narrative will be used to spread wrath and threats even after COVID-19 has passed.

Ulta Levenia is the lead researcher on terrorism at Galatea and a consultant for Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd.

Alban Sciascia is the director of Semar Sentinel Pte Ltd. He is also an author for Galatea.