Indonesia’s most dangerous terrorist group—the rise of JAD
16 May 2018|

The shocking involvement of three families in a wave of bombings across the port city of Surabaya has announced the arrival of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a loosely organised Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate that may well become a more dangerous version of the Jemaah Islamiyah network that terrorised Indonesia in the early 2000s.

Certainly, given the fact that one of the three families involved only returned from Syria last year, it has provided proof that with many of their Indonesian fighters dead or missing, radicalised dependents are willing to sacrifice their lives in small-scale terrorist attacks.

Formed from among nearly two dozen jihadist splinter groups in 2015, JAD may not be targeting hotels and embassies. But in sustaining a campaign of violence over the past week that began with a bloody prison riot in Jakarta, JAD’s followers have taken the government unawares and left counterterrorism authorities scrambling to respond.

Terrorism experts say if last year’s siege of the Mindanao city of Marawi wasn’t sufficient evidence, the latest violence demonstrates ISIS’s ability to mount operations as far afield as Southeast Asia despite the destruction of the Syria–Iraq caliphate. As one former investigator put it, ‘That is the big issue coming out of this.’

The involvement of returning mothers and children, whom authorities initially paid little attention to, has added an insidious new dimension to a threat that will only get bigger as hundreds more returnees from Syria melt back into JAD’s network of independent cells across 18 of the country’s 34 provinces.

The Surabaya death toll now stands at 28—some 13 bombers and 15 civilians, together with more than 50 wounded. The most casualties were around the three churches that were struck within minutes of each other in the deadliest terrorist incident since the 2005 Bali bombings and the worst since the JAD-inspired gun-and-bomb attack in Jakarta in early 2016.

The Surabaya attackers assembled 25 pipe bombs—two of which are still missing—using the highly explosive chemical TATP, or acetone peroxide, which has been employed before in pressure-cooker devices, including one that was found on Indonesia’s first would-be female suicide bomber last year.

Indonesia’s elite Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit, which has just doubled in size, continues to do a sterling job in tracking down militants. But the government doesn’t have the manpower or the capability to monitor the estimated 500 returnees, let alone the 600 who are thought to remain in the war zone.

On top of that, efforts at rehabilitating the homegrown militants are failing. Look no further than the 9–10 May siege at the Police Mobile Brigade’s headquarters in Depok, where 156 inmates—who were detained in temporary quarters there as part of a deradicalisation program—shot and stabbed to death five Detachment 88 officers, most of whom had their throats cut.

The rioters also seized 88 weapons, including assault rifles and light machine guns, and a staggering 28,400 rounds of ammunition stored in an unsecured evidence room. The only reason the siege didn’t turn into a bloodbath was that the rioters couldn’t contact three coordinators on the outside.

The uprising leader, Wawan Kurniawan, head of the Pekanbaru, Riau, chapter of JAD, is a close associate of the organisation’s founder, Aman Abdurrahman, who was already incarcerated in a different part of the prison. Abdurrahman is currently on trial for his role in masterminding the 2016 Jakarta attack from behind bars.

Counterterrorism experts say no effort was made to classify the inmates into those who were possible candidates for deradicalisation and those who weren’t. In that sense, the program was doomed before it started. All prisoners have now been moved to the Nusakambangan island prison off the south coast of Java.

With national elections less than a year away, President Joko Widodo is now demanding a revision of the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law to allow police to detain terrorist suspects longer in the pursuit of further evidence, and to prevent citizens from travelling overseas to overthrow a legitimate government.

Alarming for human rights activists, however, have been moves to legislate the involvement of the armed forces in the anti-terrorism effort. For those with a memory, even using military intelligence—which the police chief, Tito Karnavian, says he wants to do in the Surabaya investigation—is seen as the thin edge of the wedge.

Although there have been few large-scale attacks on the scale of the now-disbanded Jemaah Islamiyah’s protracted bombing campaign in 2000–2009, the National Counter-Terrorism Agency (BNPT) recorded 172 terrorist cases last year, continuing a steady rise from 163 in 2016 and only 73 in 2015.

Former BNPT chief Ansyad Mbai has criticised politicians for tying the hands of police, claiming that jihadists who have returned from Turkey, Syria and Iraq have been using social media to renew networks while counterterrorism authorities have failed to monitor their activities.

Spurred on by the deputy House Speaker, Fadli Zon, a key associate of presidential aspirant Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s social media has been alive with criticism of Karnavian for failing to prevent the prison uprising or the latest wave of bombings in Indonesia’s second largest city.

Karnavian’s appointment in March 2016 over the heads of several more-senior officers led to a rift with his deputy, General Syafruddin, who is close to the National Intelligence Agency (BIN) director, Budi Gunawan, a confidant of Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle leader Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Widodo’s failure to promote Gunawan, then deputy police chief, to the top job in early 2015 owing to corruption allegations brought the fledgling president into conflict with Megawati, which finally appeared to have been resolved when Gunawan was made head of BIN in September 2016.

While Gunawan is also copping a lot of heat for not anticipating the bombings, the president is unlikely to remove either him or Karnavian less than a year out from the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for April next year, where he’s the clear frontrunner in the polls.

Struggling with a lagging economy and a failure so far to attract foreign investment, the sudden rise of JAD was the last thing Indonesia’s president needed.