Rappler Talk: What do the Indonesia terror attacks mean for Southeast Asia?

MANILA, Philippines – Over the course of 24 hours, Surabaya, Indonesia suffered a series of terror attacks – 5 in total.

Perhaps what was most shocking, however, was that all 5 suicide bombings were perpetrated by two families, including young children.

The attacks have since been claimed by the Islamic State (ISIS) group.

Zachary Abuza, a leading scholar on terrorism in Southeast Asia, speaks to Rappler about the significance of the attacks on the region.

He discusses what the family-staged bombings means, how they compare to past attacks, and their impact on the region's counterterrorism efforts.

Watch his interview above or read the full transcript below:

What surprised you the most about the attacks? 

The first would obviously be the use of entire families. There were 5 separate bombings involving 3 families, 16 people. But 8 of those 16 were children and 5 of them died, 3 were wounded. This is absolutely unprecedented. It really is a level of violence and callousness we’ve never seen before. There’s been a steady drumbeat of terrorism in Indonesia. This is not new but to use children in a way perhaps to disguise their movements or to not draw attention is really so shocking to many of us.

Is this shocking even if this sort of thing is used in Syria and Iraq?

Yes it has been used elsewhere also in Africa but there’s a difference between using children and actually sacrificing the entire family. They’re both depraved and morally repugnant. But we’ve never seen a family go off, you know, a family of 6 simultaneously blowing themselves up. A family of 5, 3 of whom died. Then a family with their 8 year old daughter. This is really shocking.

We don’t know if this is the start of a trend or whether this is just something an individual cell out in Eastern Java has done. Perhaps they’re doing it to show their fervor, their commitment to the movement. Or perhaps it’s to galvanize others within the movement that they feel are not doing enough for the cause. They’re saying, “Look. We’re willing to make this incredible sacrifice in our own children.” But this is a real shocking trend.

Does it shock you that it happened in Indonesia in particular?

No. Indonesia has obviously received the brunt of the terrorist attacks perpetrated first by Al-Qaeda affiliated groups, which kind of morphed into the pro-Islamic state groupings. There’s never been a suicide attack in the Philippines for example, even thought there’s a fair bit of insurgency and terrorism concentrated mostly in Mindanao.

The real shock for Malaysia has been that since 2014, there have been about 9 different plots and during Jamaah Islamiyah (JI)’s reign of terror, the 2000s, there were never any terrorist acts in that country so Malaysians are very concerned. In Iraq and Syria we know there were 9 Malaysian suicide bombers. So the genie is out of the bottle for them and Malaysian authorities are very concerned about this. But the ongoing attacks in Indonesia do not surprise me.

EXPLOSION. Screenshot of explosion from CCTV courtesy of Surabaya police office

EXPLOSION.

Screenshot of explosion from CCTV courtesy of Surabaya police office

Is there particular significance of the attacks happening right before the start of Ramadan? 

No. In fact, there has been studies by scholars of the Islamic state and previously of Al-Qaeda that have shown that radical Salafi jihadists actually will increase the number of attacks during the Ramadan period. And while most Muslims will say this is unIslamic and really horrific in the Holy month to do so, the rationale or the theological justification for increasing attacks then is you actually get more points on the way to Heaven if you perpetrate them. So this is actually not uncommon and war zones like Iraq and Syria and elsewhere have seen increases in Ramadan attacks.

Aside from the use of entire families, how do these attacks compare to past attacks across the region?

If I could take a second to go back. JI during the 2000s was able to launch one major attack a year from 2000 to 2009. By 2010 with the capture of a very large training camp in Aceh and the neutralization of around 120 members, including some of the top leaders, JI was no longer able to perpetrate terrorist attacks or engage in militancy. And they largely went underground. By 2014, with the spread of the Islamic state, there was renewed vigor in the Salafi jihadist community in Southeast Asia. A lot of people traveled to Iraq and Syria and then some stayed in SEA and radicalized to perpetrate attacks.

What we saw in Indonesia starting in 2016 were attacks by local cells inspired by the Islamic State that the Islamic State obviously took credit for. But they tended to be very amateurish. Low body counts, not very successful, there was a suicide bomber who attacked a police station in Eastern Java but a police car stopped him as he was coming in, he detonated and only killed 3 people rather than walking into a crowded police station. There were attacks on Christian clergy wherein the attacker did more damage to themselves. The attacks we’ve seen in Indonesia since 2016 have been pretty low quality.

That said, these 24 hours in Surabaya really demonstrates much greater technical sophistication, much greater planning, larger, more sophisticated bombs. One of the reasons we think right now the bomb in the apartment went off prematurely was it was made of TATP, an acetone-based explosive but very volatile. Hard to make but very volatile. Last week in Bogor, Indonesian counterterrorism arrested a 3-man cell again with TATP. So the technical sophistication is really starting to improve in Indonesia.

Will it only continue to get better technically from here? 

If we could go back to the Jakarta attacks, I understand that 4 or 5 of the 8 people killed were the attackers themselves. That was supposed to be a barricade style attack in which they held large numbers of people hostage, you know, they burst into a crowded Starbucks in a busy neighborhood. So that was meant to be a different style attack. I think we got really lucky. They had low grade, small arms EIDS that didn’t all go off. The police responded, considering Jakarta traffic, very quickly. So luckily the death toll there was low. But they’re definitely trying to increase their capabilities. One of the 3 attacks on the churches was a small car bomb. We have not seen that in Indonesia in many years. They’re definitely working on their bomb making.

What does this mean about the role of women and children in terrorist attacks in the region?

I think this is going to be a trend to watch in the coming years. Women played a very passive role in the years of JI in Indonesia and Malaysia. They played key roles in terms of solidifying relationships, marriages, and keeping the JI community tightly woven. But they were really in the background. You’re seeing women play a much more active role under the Islamic State. We see women in key roles as recruiters, indoctrinators, logisticians, financiers of different cells around the region. But now we’re seeing them take on the role of suicide bombers. Indonesia arrested their first female being trained to be a suicide bomber in December of last year. So they knew this was coming down the pipe. This has been sanctioned by the Islamic State in their own magazine Dabiq. It’s taken a while for it to filter down in Southeast Asia but we’ve now seen 3 women suicide bombers in 24 hours. 

With these attacks happening after Marawi, are the Indonesian radicals competing with the Filipino terrorists and trying to show IS their abilities to claim a caliphate in Indonesia?

I don’t think that would necessarily be a factor. The goal is obviously to destabilize regimes. The Indonesian jihadist has always seen their country, in particular Java and central Sulawesi around Solo as the places where the caliphate would first be established and emanate outwards. In much the same as many in Mindanao think no, that’s where it should start and that stone in the pond would ripple out from there. There are relationships between members of the JAT (Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid), the ISIS umbrella group in Indonesia, and some Southern Philippine militants and we know there were around 40 Indonesians and Malysians who fought in Marawi.

So there are those connections. And one thing that will always be a source of concern is the fact that you can have terrorist cells in Indonesia or Malaysia, but they will never be able to control space. And unfortunately there’s a bit too much space governed, poorly governed, in the Southern Philippines right now.

ATTACK. Police and soldiers examine a site following attacks outside the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church (Surabaya Gereja Pantekosta Pusat) in Surabaya, East Java on May 13, 2018. Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP

ATTACK. Police and soldiers examine a site following attacks outside the Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church (Surabaya Gereja Pantekosta Pusat) in Surabaya, East Java on May 13, 2018.

Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP

Regionally, what does this mean for us?

It’s really important that we look at this as a regional problem. We cannot stovepipe this. The militants themselves don’t stovepipe this. They see those dots on maps as artificial creations. Their goal is to create a regional caliphate. Their goal is to become a province of the caliphate. And so they do work across borders. There are some things that are easier to do in some countries. The Southern Philippines unfortunately has always been a source of weapons for militants in Indonesia, and Southern Thai provinces have been a source for militants in Malaysia. So they do operate across borders. We know theres a very steady group through Eastern Borneo and Kalimantan province into Sabah, then across the Sulu archipelago into Mindanao. So there really needs to be regional cooperation or militants will be able to move back and forth.

I do worry about the IS cells in Malaysia. They’ve come much closer to being able to execute attacks more than they’ve seen before. As I’ve said, there have been 9 Malaysian suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria. This has never happened before. And there have been a number of plots in the country. I believe Indonesia has enormous cultural resiliency. When you had the Starbucks attacks in 2016, they were serving lattes the next morning. They didn’t miss a beat. I don’t think Malaysia would respond as well to such attacks. I think it would be a very traumatic incident and I think the government will probably overreact which is exactly what terrorists want.

The Philippines obviously has their own problems with security. The AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) is spread very thin right now. It’s not just the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu. There’s still remnants of the Maute group. There are enough of them that they can regroup. You have the BIFF (Bangsomoro Islamic Freedom Fighters), Ansar Khalifa Philippines. I’m always very concerned about the peace process with the MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front) being stalled. I think it’s very clear they’re unable to prevent defections from their ranks or even compete in the marketplace for new recruits or supporters among groups that are really trying to take the fight to the PH military. So the number of challenges for the AFP is really quite large considering their resources.

What sort of regional cooperation or counterterrorism efforts of the region should change or adjust given the recent attacks, if at all? 

The countries have done, by and large, a good job. Certainly Indonesian security forces really deserve a lot of credit for what they’ve been able to accomplish over the years. There have been more than a thousand arrests and what really strikes me about Indonesia is they put almost all of them on trial. And this is very important because it’s gone a long way to help this new, fragile democracy to implement the rule of law. And by putting these people on trial, it’s done much to discredit their movement and ideology.

Malaysia has obviously relied a bit too much on colonial era laws that have allowed them to take people without trial. That always concerns me. And the PH has obviously has a more military led campaign rather than a police or intelligence led which creates its own problems.

There is much more cooperation between governments than you saw in 2002 when you had the Bali bombing. There was very little cooperation, deep suspicion among the security services of one another. Most countries in Southeast Asia had territorial disputes with other members of ASEAN. They would often see other countries as harboring political fugitives or dissidents which kind of heightened suspicion among the ranks. So much cooperation at that time really required high-level political interference to make it happen.  

By the time the Islamic State emerged in 2014, the government by and large were very proactive about the threat. Much more willing to share intelligence and cooperate. The sharing of even things like flight manifests made travel for IS members much harder. The downside is that it was so hard to get to Iraq and Syria that they were encouraged to go to Mindanao instead – which is not good for the Philippines, but it does show regional security cooperation was working.

I guess the most important thing we’ve seen in terms of regional cooperation, is the trilateral maritime patrols in the Sulu Sea. That began roughly a year ago. It took a while, the leaders of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines got together in 2016, they signed a trilateral agreement, but it took about half a year to implement this. This has been very successful. I’m the first to admit I was very cynical about this and how well it would work. I had very low expectations just because certainly the Philippines has very weak maritime policing and naval capability. Indonesians are better but they have a huge expanse to cover like the Philippines does. Malaysians had concentrated a lot of their maritime resources in Sabah. There were many other problems about those maritime patrols that I didn’t think would have a quick impact.

But the reality is they did. The maritime shipjackings, kidnappings have really declined precipitously. Raids into Sabah have dropped off. So this is really a success story. Doesn’t mean it can’t be improved. Theres no fusion center where officers from the 3 countries are sitting in the same room, which is what happened in Singapore with the Strait of Malacca patrol. But we have a very good start to build on.

APARTMENT BLAST. This picture taken on May 13, 2018 shows Indonesian police and soldiers working at the site of a blast at a low-cost apartment complex in Sidoarjo, East Java just hours after a series of blasts targetting churches in the neighbouring city of Surabaya. Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP

APARTMENT BLAST. This picture taken on May 13, 2018 shows Indonesian police and soldiers working at the site of a blast at a low-cost apartment complex in Sidoarjo, East Java just hours after a series of blasts targetting churches in the neighbouring city of Surabaya.

Photo by Juni Kriswanto/AFP

Are there any learnings regarding prevention after seeing what happened last weekend? 

The most important prevention has to come from the Muslim community itself. That’s where the dialogue really has to begin. And that’s ultimately why I have confidence in Indonesia is because Islam there, even if there radical Salafis are growing, and they are, the resiliency and the fact that Islam in Indonesia is so syncretic and builds on rich Javanese culture is a real moderating factor. That you have large civil society organizations like the Nahdatul Ulama (Indonesian Ulema Council) that denounce these attacks and actually run the majority of the madrasas and pondoks throughout the region is really important. That’s the cultural resiliency.

Obviously there’s things to do in terms of CVE (countering violent extremism) with detainees. Malaysia and Singapore very quickly adopted theological dialogue models to deal with prisoners. But those are countries that are fairly wealthy and since they rely on internal security acts, people had to go through these dialogue processes to ever see the light of day again and be released from prison. Indonesia took a very different track. They allowed senior members of JI and now ISIS to work in the prisons to deradicalize the followers. 

The problem is this has been very poorly resourced and after a period of time, many of the people we think might be high ranking and influential – someone like Nasir Binabas who actually ran JI training camps in Mindanao for many years – someone like him to a new detainee from ISIL, in their lifetime has been nothing but turncoats for the government. These people do have limited shelf lives. Prisons certainly in Indonesia remain to be a major problem for radicalization. 

We’ve been calling for the separation of terrorist suspects or detainees or convicts from the general prison population for years. Ironically, last week, there was a prison uprising outside Jakarta in which IS detainees killed 5 policemen. The problem there wasn’t that they weren’t concentrating or keeping them away from the general population. They were. They were just doing it in a facility which wasn’t secure enough. So that was a tragic incident that should not have happened. The Indonesian government should really work on their prison system. 

The Philippines has their own prison problem. The prisons are woefully overcrowded. Down in Mindanao there are prison breaks on an appallingly regular basis. That’s what the Maute group did several times before the Marawi siege to help build up rank and file. So prisons are a very important place that governments need to spend more time dealing with in countering terrorism and dealing with these radical detainees.

Speaking of deradicalization, should governments also think oh shifting away from programs just targeted towards men? 

Yes. As women have that extra role not just working in society but as caregivers nurturing their children, ensuring their socialization, working with the men, and so we really have to think of the role women are playing. It’s no longer a passive role. With the movement, they’re not simply wives and mothers. They’re playing key roles in recruitment and indoctrination, especially as that has shifted online into social media or Telegram or Whatsapp channels. That has really empowered women. So we do have to think about this.

One of the things that are very striking about ISIS propaganda is it’s really all channeled. They do have their own platforms and channels for women and governments are going to have to match that.

What are your concerns and worries for the future, following these attacks? 

At the end of the day, I have confidence that the Indonesian security forces are going to be able to continue to do their job and crack down on the militants there. We cannot expect perfect security. There will be attacks. It’s whether they can keep it at a level that minimizes casualties and doesn’t have a major impact on the economy and society. It’s very important not to overreact. I think I am often more concerned with the overreaction of governments than not.

If I can bring it back to the Philippines though, I think the rebuilding or reconstruction of Marawi going so slowly is very problematic. I think that really is going to alienate a large sector of the population that already has mistrust and misgivings towards the government. If that continues to be drawn out and mishandled, that’s a very large and willing pool of people who could be radicalized. I’m very concerned about the implementation of the peace process with the MILF. Obviously the peace process has been revived in the past few months with the BBL starting to make its way through the Philippine Congress but we’re a long way from where we were in January 2015 when the Mamasapano incident happened. They were so close in implementing an agreement. And the reality is the MILF has been unable to manage expectations among the rank and file. And those people have gone off and joined the Mautes. They have taken their guns and experience and they have joined groups that just want to increase their visibility through high profile attacks. 

The last point I want to leave you with is we’re focusing a lot on Southeast Asia and the Islamic State. We don’t really know what happened with the loss of IS territory in Iraq and Syria. But that will have some sort of impact with them.

I’m actually more concerned about the return of Al-Qaeda in the region. Certainly in Indonesia, those members of Al-Qaeda or JI that did not join or pledge allegiance with the IS has been given significant space to continue to run their schools, mosques, indoctrinate and train a new generation. They’ve been left alone. The reason they’re not engaging in militancy is it’s a bad time to do so. They got pummelled. And they’re sitting there, watching their rivals the IS, take the hit from the security forces. But one day they’ll be back. They have not denounced violence and I think you could see them revive their networks across the region. – Rappler.com