JAKARTA, Indonesia – The churchgoers did not notice the woman who left a bag in one of the pews as they began filing into the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel in Jolo for Sunday morning Mass in January 2019.
A few minutes before 9 am, a bomb exploded inside the church. As churchgoers scrambled to get out of the cathedral, a second bomb blew up in the nearby parking lot.
In a series of Telegram messages, the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attacks.
It was the second suicide bomb attack in the Philippines since the Basilan bomb attack on a military outpost in 2018 in the town of Lamitan, and the first to involve a woman.
In July, Indonesian National Police Spokesperson Brigadier General Dedi Prasetyo confirmed that an Indonesian couple, 35-year-old Rullie Rian Zeke and his 32-year-old wife, Ulfah Handayani Saleh, were behind the attack. The two were members of the Indonesian ISIS-linked terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).
Philippine police sources said the couple met with Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan when they arrived in Zamboanga in December 2018. Sawadjaan is alleged to have taken over as the ISIS Philippine wilayah leader after slain Abu Sayyaf leader and ISIS-affiliated Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the 2017 Marawi siege.
The same sources said the couple could have been encouraged to come to the Philippines by spiritual advisor and JAD member Khalid Abu Bakar, who, according to terrorism expert, once said: "If you can’t go to Syria to fight jihad, go to the Philippines.”
The defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq by US-led forces shrank the organization’s occupied territories but it did not extinguish the zeal that fires its violent ideology.
According to a recent report of the Institute of Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), the defeat of ISIS in the Middle East did not discourage jihadist networks in Indonesia. Rather, it emboldened them to expand the radius of terror at home.
The use of children in the 2018 chain of suicide bomb attacks that killed 28 people in Surabaya, for example, was unprecedented in Indonesia and shocked the world. Like Zeke and Saleh, one of the families involved in that attack had also traveled to Turkey with the intention of entering Syria.
The couple’s journey from Indonesia to the Philippines was a long circuitous one that could be traced back to Turkey.
According to Jakarta-based terrorism expert and director of IPAC Sidney Jones, the couple and 4 of their children traveled to Turkey in March 2016 where they waited for a chance to enter Syria and live in The Caliphate.
Their two older children, Cici and Yusuf, had arrived there ahead of them.
Numbers vary and are hard to ascertain, but former Indonesian police chief experts estimate that about 1,000 Indonesians traveled to Turkey, hoping to make their way to Syria or Iraq to answer the ISIS leader Abu Bakr Baghdadi’s call to hijrah (migration) after he declared the caliphate in June 2014.
An IPAC report estimated that most of the deportees (the term used for Indonesians who overstayed at the Turkish border and were sent back to Indonesia) they interviewed as they underwent their rehabilitation program were mostly middle class, with about 30% having received tertiary education. While almost half were men between the ages of 30-39, there were also women, children, and elderly people.
Many sold their properties and disposed of all their belongings to fund the trip, which, according to estimates by IPAC, would run up to at least IDR 50 million or $3,550 per person over 6 months.
The amount is substantial considering that the average Indonesian monthly salary is about $320, but the cost is immaterial compared to what they believed awaited them in The Caliphate: a chance to die a martyr fighting the Coalition Forces alongside other foreign terrorist fighters or life in an Islamic utopia that slick propaganda videos and radical blogs and websites painted as the pure Islamic State.
In that state is supposedly free housing and medical services plus “a supply of food such as spaghetti, pasta, canned food, rice, eggs...and a monthly allowance not just of the husband and wife or wives, but also for each child.”
According to Jones, Zeke and Rullie were deported to Indonesia in January 2017 with only 4 of their children. Their teenage son, Yusuf, reportedly made it into Syria and fought with the Islamic State. He is believed to either be detained in prison or dead. The whereabouts of another daughter also remain unknown.
Failure of deradicalization
When Turkish authorities began expelling foreigners who were camped out at their border, Indonesia was faced with a wave of deportations that peaked in 2017. Authorities found themselves overwhelmed and undermanned to deal with the surge of deportees that were sent back home.
The Indonesian Ministry of Social Affairs set up a rehabilitation program that ran for two weeks to one month, depending on the level of risk and indoctrination. After the program, the deportees were made to sign a pledge of allegiance to Indonesia and sent back home to resume normal life.
In an interview with Rappler last November, chief of the Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) Suhardi Alius confirmed that the couple had undergone a one-month rehabilitation program before they were sent back to South Sulawesi where Zeke worked as a food vendor.
Zeke had a long history of criminality and terrorist links.
According to IPAC's Jones, his first known connection to terror networks goes back to 1999 with the Mujahideen Indonesia Timor (MIT), a coalition of ISIS-affiliated groups. He was also linked with local gangs that use an Islamic organization as a front to extort money.
Considering that radicalization is a gradual process, terrorism expert Adhe Bhakti described the state-run rehabilitation program as insufficient and rudimentary. “It’s a hit-and-miss rehabilitation program,” he said.
BNPT's Alius acknowledged that a one-month deradicalization program is insufficient.
The Jolo bombing prompted the BNPT and the social ministry to work on extending future deradicalization programs to 6 months up to one year. Government is also working on strengthening post-rehabilitation monitoring to ensure that former terrorists and sympathizers do not fall back into the path of violent extremism.
“What we are dealing with is an ideology, a mindset. The bigger challenge is when they go back to society and they go back to the same marginalized situation that led them to become radicalized,” said Alius.
“For radicalized people, every single conflict area in the world is like a target. They want to express their solidarity with other Muslims they see as being oppressed. We have to pay attention to their motivations. We cannot make them feel marginalized again,” he added.
From Indonesia to Jolo
The couple triggered surveillance alarms in August 2018 when photos of Zeke in a terrorist lair in Jolo surfaced.
According to Al Chaidar, a terrorism expert and professor at the Malikussaleh University in Indonesia, Zeke may have come to the Philippines as early as May 2018.
Saleh, 32, followed him to Mindanao with two of their young children, Ahmad and Aisha, sometime in December 2018 via Sabah in Malaysia. She was accompanied by an older daughter, Cici, and Indonesian Andi Baso, an alleged bomb maker for the Abu Sayaff, who is reportedly married to Cici.
It is unclear how the family made it to Sabah as they used illegal travel channels, that backdoor part of Southeast Asia being the most porous.
Malaysian intelligence documents indicate that their link is the suspected bomb maker Baso, who knew Mohammad Alif Bin, a radical Malaysian who went by the name “Yoga.”
In his confession to the Malaysian police, Yoga said he had helped Saleh, her children, and Baso travel to Zamboanga and that he had witnessed the wedding of Baso and Cici on November 20, 2018 in Sabah.
From his confession and the accounts of other suspects arrested in the Philippines, the Indonesian authorities were able to trace Zeke and Saleh as being behind the Jolo bombing.
Their children, Ahmad and Aisha, are said to still be in Jolo under the care of Baso and Cici. – with reports from Jet Damazo Santos/Rappler.com
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center.