Isis supporters in Indonesia, Malaysia call for more violence after attack during holy period for Muslims and Christians

Armed police officers stand guard along a closed road following an explosion outside a Catholic church in Makassar, Indonesia.
PHOTO: Reuters

Indonesian supporters of Islamic State (Isis) are calling for more attacks after a newlywed couple carried out a suicide bombing at a cathedral in South Sulawesi on Sunday (March 28), during what is considered a holy period for Christians and Muslims – while counterterrorism police on Monday (March 29) discovered five home-made bombs during raids in Jakarta and West Java.

The Indonesian couple – who were married six months ago – were the only casualties in the Makassar city bombing that left 20 people wounded and was attributed to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), the largest Isis-linked group in the country.

Police said the couple, who were both members of the group, were killed instantly after they rode a motorcycle into the church compound and detonated a bomb packed with nails after being challenged by security.

The authorities added that the husband had left a suicide note to say he was ready to die a martyr, while local media on Tuesday (March 20) reported that the woman was four months pregnant.

The March 28 attack – which took place on Palm Sunday, a week before the Christian holiday of Easter , and during the Muslim holy month of Sya’aban that comes before the fasting month of Ramadan – has placed security forces and analysts on high alert for signs of more violence .

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, periodically suffers from terror attacks. There is a tradition of such attacks in the run-up to Ramadan, which begins in mid-April this year; these include several attacks in 2000, the Surabaya church bombings in 2018, and an attempted suicide bombing at a Jakarta police station in 2019.

JAD, which has thousands of sympathisers and supporters in the country, has been behind all major terror attacks in Indonesia over the past five years – with police personnel and non-Muslims as the main targets.

“Police are targeted as they are considered to be an obstacle [to the cause], while non-Muslims are targeted because militants are convinced that is an order from God,” said Nasir Abas, the former leader of al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asia branch, Jemaah Islamiah (JI).

These attacks are expected to continue, according to Nasir, as they are rooted in a 2015 call by late Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who urged his followers to carry out attacks wherever they were in the world.

Al-Baghdadi was killed in 2019 when he detonated a suicide vest during a raid by United States special forces in Northern Syria.

“As JAD has been affiliated with Isis since its early days, it is committed to carrying out [Baghdadi’s] call until today,” Nasir said. “[The militants] will not stop until a caliphate is established [in Indonesia].”

Nasir, who was once known as Southeast Asia’s most-wanted terrorist, said al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had made a similar call in 1998-99 when he urged his followers to kill civilians from the US and its allied countries.

“Some members of JI agreed to carry out that call while some did not, including myself,” said Nasir, who left the group in 2003 as he disagreed with its shift to violent jihad. He was arrested that year and released in 2004, and has since been helping the Indonesian government with deradicalisation efforts.

JI was behind Indonesia’s deadliest attack, the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, including 11 Hong Kong residents. Nasir was not involved in the attack.

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Isis supporters on Monday used social media to call for more attacks in Indonesia following the Makassar attack, according to analysts including Muh Taufiqurrohman, senior researcher at the Jakarta-based Centre for Radicalism and Deradicalisation Studies (PAKAR).

Based on PAKAR’s monitoring of closed groups on social media, Taufiqurrohman said, the calls came from online groups in Indonesia and one from Malaysia . “They also called for more powerful bombs to be used,” he said.

After the Sunday suicide bombing, Indonesian anti-terror police unit Densus88, or Detachment 88, raided several locations in West Java, Jakarta and the bombers’ home in Makassar.

Four men were arrested in Jakarta, though the authorities later confirmed they were not linked to the Sunday bombing.

The raid in the capital also turned up 5.5kg of powerful explosives – including triacetone triperoxide, which is often used by Isis – as well as five active pipe bombs, according to national police chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo.

“When police arrested the suspects, bombs were found in their homes that had already been assembled. This means they have plans to conduct further attacks,” said former JI leader Nasir.

Also seized during the Jakarta raids were uniforms with the initials “FPI”, which stands for the Islamic Defenders Front, an extremist group that was banned in January. 

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On Tuesday, the police arrested three women with links to the Makassar attack. One of the women had “motivated” the suicide bombers to carry out jihad, national police spokesman Ahmad Ramadhan told reporters, while another suspect was the sister-in-law of one of them.

Densus88 had arrested 94 terror suspects since the start of the year, Ahmad said, adding that this showed militants were still planning attacks in Indonesia.

Five other suspects believed to have links to the attackers were arrested on Sunday and Monday in Bima city, West Nusa Tenggara province.

With the latest arrests, PAKAR estimates there are currently 70 JAD members in Makassar, leading senior researcher Taufiqurrohman to say terror attacks are likely to continue in the city.

“Their preferred method of attacks is bombings, rather stabbing, as we can see with what happened in the past,” he said, adding that the group’s members were likely to choose bombs as they cause “more casualties and create headlines”.

National police spokesman Ahmad said police had been instructed to map out areas that were “vulnerable to violence and intolerance” so the authorities could strengthen the intelligence network in those areas and take appropriate security measures.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.