Sidney Jones on terrorist attacks in Indonesia

A police box shows damage caused by a suicide bomb attack in Jakarta on Jan. 14, 2016. Four civilians were killed and many more were wounded.

Sidney Jones is founder and director of Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a Jakarta-based NGO. From 2002 to 2013 she was based in Jakarta with the International Crisis Group, first as Southeast Asia director, then as senior adviser to the Asia program. She is a recognized authority on terrorism in Southeast Asia and authored or co-authored all the Crisis Group reports on terrorist groups and radical Islam in Indonesia. She has also written extensively on ethnic, communal and separatist conflicts elsewhere in the region, including in Aceh and Papua. She previously was a Ford Foundation program officer in Jakarta and New York (1977-84); Amnesty International researcher on Indonesia, the Philippines and the Pacific (1985-1988) and Asia director of Human Rights Watch (1989-2002). She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania in Oriental Studies and International Relations with a focus on the Middle East and studied for a year at Pahlavi University in Shiraz, Iran in 1971-72. In 2006 Ms. Jones received an honorary doctorate from the New School in New York. She was interviewed by Glenys Kirana '16 on Feb. 3, 2016.

On Jan. 14, 2016, in central Jakarta, three Indonesian and one Canadian civilians were killed in terrorist attacks and many more were wounded. Given that Indonesia’s security apparatus had been aware of potential terrorist activity in the period leading up to the attacks, why was this plot not detected?

There has been so much activity it's just impossible for the police to monitor everything. The police have a very good handle on who the different players in the network are, but not about every individual. They managed to foil several potential attacks, but this one got through.

Is there a focus on foreigners with terrorist attacks in Indonesia?

No, that's wrong. We had foreigners as targets from 2002 to 2009, with the attacks first in Bali, by a group led by Noordin Top. We also had a huge number of attacks that were aimed at Indonesian Christians because of conflicts in Ambon and Poso primarily. Then everything changed in 2010, when the police became the number one target. After 2009 and the hotel bombings, foreigners were no longer targeted, until the Jakarta attacks. The reason that the police suddenly became the targets of attacks in 2010 had to do with a training camp in Aceh, which was established by an alliance of various groups. In fact, every militant group except Jemaah Islamiyah, tried to get involved in that training camp in Jantho, Aceh Besar. When the police raided that camp, and killed a number of people in subsequent operations and arrested more than 100, revenge became the major motive and the police became the number one target.

Given the timing, location and scope of the recent attack, what lessons can we draw about the intent of terrorists in designing this attack?

In terms of why they did the attack, I think they were obeying generic ISIS instructions to attack enemies of the Islamic state, whenever and wherever possible. That includes citizens of countries fighting the coalition, which in Indonesia is interpreted as any foreigner. That is why foreigners are back on the agenda. It is also worth noting that we have more and more Indonesians being killed by airstrikes in Syria and Iraq. It's still a small number in absolute terms, but as a percentage of the fighters, it is fairly high. So revenge against the coalition is the reason that foreigners are back on the agenda.

Is disunity or unity more dangerous?

In terms of whether it is more dangerous to have one united group or lots of little groups, I think it is much more dangerous to have lots of little cells working independently, and sometimes at cross purposes, with each other. As these groups know, it is easier for the authorities to get wind of attacks if there is only one group operating.

Is there anything that the Indonesian government could have done/could do to prevent future attacks by these domestic groups linked to ISIS?

Sure, there is a huge amount they could do. One of the things that is interesting about Indonesia is that the police, especially Detachment 88, have been pretty good in following radical networks. They are very quick when violence occurs to go after and hunt down the perpetrators. They are not responsible for prevention and counter-radicalization efforts, or deradicalization efforts. These efforts are reserved for the BNPT (The Indonesian National Counterterrorism Agency). I am not sure why BNPT is so ineffective on these issues, but one reason is that from 2010, when that agency was set up, prevention was basically given to military officers. Many in the military view the root cause of radicalism in Indonesia to be insufficient nationalism. It is the wrong premise. Thus, it means that all of the programs set up to bring people back into the fold are not going to have any impact.

The prisons are also a huge problem. There are problems with corruption and insufficient checks on visitors. There is insufficient information being provided to prisons by prosecutors and police about who these individuals are when they come to prison. There is not enough monitoring due to the lack of resources and training. We have had a number of different governments and donor governments, including the U.S. and Australia, who actively try to assist the prisons, yet it has not improved the situation. The prison officials themselves sometimes see this assistance as foreigners imposing their own models, rather than as a way to give them any kind of ownership. There is also a big turnover of personnel. There can be good, serious people trained in a 3-month program and then they return to the corrections facilities, and two weeks or six months later, they could be transferred to another post.

The other solution that you alluded to in the report is for the government to develop activities for deportees from Turkey. What kind of activities are you referring to?

The deportees are people who wanted to cross into Syria to join ISIS but were stopped before they could do so and sent back to Indonesia. Sixty percent of them are women and children under the age of 15. For children, the government needs to create programs in schools that give special attention to deportee children to ensure that they are given guidance, bring them back into social networks, and discourage them from joining certain kinds of radical study clubs. For women, the government should consider creating economic assistance programs in settings where they can work on a cooperative basis with women outside of these radical circles. What you do not want to do is give economic assistance that would facilitate a return into their former pro-ISIS networks. For example, many women are involved in small-scale trading of busana Muslim (Muslim garments) or obat herbal (herbal medicine). If unsupervised, women involved in this kind of enterprise are likely to return to selling to former customers — which can bring them right back into their old circles. What you do not want to do is treat these people as automatic criminals. One of the things that the police want to do is to be able to arrest anybody who has even thought of going to Syria. However, that is not the way to encourage “reintegration.”

In 2011, World Bank published a report on "Conflict, Security and Development" and one of the findings says that one of the biggest reasons that people join rebel groups is unemployment/idleness.

In Indonesia extremism varies from place to place. Idleness/unemployment was a huge factor in why extremist network revived in Poso. After the breakup of the Aceh training camp, the idea came up about establishing a new camp in Poso, where there were a high number of people who had been involved in the combat in 2000-2001 and were then unemployed or underemployed. This is one area where the economic factor became important but it has been less important in Java. You have to look at these cases individually.

Moving away from Indonesia, do you think that these terrorist attacks and the recent attacks have any implications regionally for other Southeast Asian countries? Are other Muslim-majority states like Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam better prepared? How are they responding to this situation in their own respective countries?

All Southeast Asian countries are really worried about spillover from ISIS. All of them are worried about what happens when we begin to get foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia coming back if the political situation changes. All of the countries are worried about the use of social media to recruit people for lone wolf attacks, especially in Malaysia, but also for more organized attacks. I think the concern varies from place to place. In the Philippines, there are few, if any, fighters in Syria that anybody knows about, but there are hundreds of people that have sworn allegiance on the ground. Most of them are people from existing organizations like the Abu Sayyaf Group, which is actually not doing anything differently than they have done before. However, the concern is that they might be willing to provide safe haven to anybody fleeing Syria and Iraq from Southeast Asia or anywhere else who needs a place to stay, because there is little government control in large swathes of the southern Philippines. Furthermore, the Philippines government is worried that there could be an uptick in attacks planned for the Manila area (If attacks happen in Cotabato, or parts of Mindanao, nobody pays attention.) An Indonesian named Bahrun Naim, who was originally but wrongly accused of being the mastermind of the Jakarta attacks on 14 January, has been in contact with people in Malaysia and Singapore, urging attacks. There is real concern that he has the ability to supply funds and instructions via encrypted messaging like Telegram.

Australia has called for a coordinated effort between the region to come together to fight terrorism. What are the main challenges for Southeast Asian countries to come together to coordinate their national security efforts?

There are a lot more meetings taking place now, so there is a lot more information sharing, joint discussions about what to do about the potential return of foreign fighters and more interaction, especially among police in the region. One of the challenging things is the mismatch in lead agencies in each respective country. For example, in the Philippines, the lead agency is the military and not the police. However, the police are in charge of counter-terrorism in both Malaysia and Indonesia. Ideally, you would want the Philippines military to be in contact with the Indonesian and Malaysian police, but it does not work that way. The military talks to the military, police talk to police.

How do you see this trend going forward? Do you see more attacks in the future in SEA?

One of the things about terrorism is that it is unpredictable. You cannot automatically base predictions on what has happened in the past. For a long time, we have seen very low-tech kinds of terrorist operations in Indonesia. That may not change in the immediate future. What could change with somebody coming back from Syria is the planning and organizational capacity. That is what we have to be worried about. Whether that will happen or not, I do not know because there was news today that there's been a call up for all able-bodied ISIS fighters to go to the Aleppo area. So it may be that the exigencies of the battle now in the Middle East are such that they are not going to spare anybody to come back to Indonesia. We may continue to see efforts by individual Indonesians in Syria to direct and fund violent attacks but unless there is some rise in capacity then I do not think we are going to see a game changer. I do think we are going to see a lot more attempts. Right now, it does not look likely that there is the capacity to pull off a real mass casualty attack in Indonesia or anywhere else in the region, but you still have to be prepared. One of the biggest deterrents in some ways against a mass casualty attack is that the Indonesian jihadists generally do not want to kill other Muslims. It is actually difficult to think of blowing up a mall or a hotel or some other place where most of the casualties would not be Indonesian Muslims.

For more information, visit IPAC's report on the issue.

Glenys Kirana CMC '16Student Journalist
Featured image credit: Gunawan Kartapranata, under Creative Commons.
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