Recent Indonesian counter-terrorism efforts have increasingly focused on the resurgent threat from Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which at one point was the deadliest terror group in Southeast Asia. However, JI is not necessarily the most threatening terrorist group in Indonesia. JI, like Al-Qaeda (AQ), with whom JI is affiliated, has played the long game. JI may be a long-term threat, but, currently, the threat posed by the Islamic State (IS) linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) is higher than that from JI.
JAD is likely to be responsible for the next terror attack in Indonesia. JAD, linked to the Islamic State (IS), has been responsible for nearly all the attacks in Indonesia in the last five years. JI had splintered in the early 2010s and the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) was formed. More radicalized members of this group left JAT and formed JAD, which pledged allegiance to IS. JAD is responsible for the 2016 Jakarta attacks, the 2018 Surabaya attacks, the 2019 stabbing of then-Security Minister Wiranto, and the 2021 Makassar attack. The Mujahideen Indonesia Timur (MIT), another IS-affiliate, is responsible for the rest. MIT’s leader Ali Kalora was recently killed.
Since the 2018 Surabaya attacks, Indonesian authorities cracked down hard on JAD. The terror law was amended and strengthened. Hundreds of JAD members were arrested, as the new terror law allowed the detention of suspects for longer, and arrests became more preventative in nature. Indonesia’s most effective counter-terror force, Densus 88, under the National Police, dismantled numerous JAD cells across the country. It foiled several JAD plots. The government has also become more active in clamping down on Islamist groups and narratives; for example, it banned the radical Front Pembala Islam (FPI) in December 2020.
Since the crackdown, JAD’s capabilities have been seemingly diminished to some degree. JAD members arrested over the last two years have rarely been found with explosives, which was common before. Densus 88 has apparently not had to foil many large-scale attacks or ongoing plots. This may speak to JAD’s overall lack of capability, at the present moment.
There have been exceptions of course. The 2021 Makassar Cathedral bombing was the largest attack since the 2018 Surabaya church attacks. The attacks are, however, outliers, given the scale of destruction. Not every JAD attack should be judged against these higher-end operations. It remains to be seen whether JAD could conduct a Surabaya or even Makassar-type attack in the near future. JAD has been responsible for some of the largest terror attacks in the last few years. The norm, however, has been small-scale attacks. Security forces are the traditional targets, in addition to religious minorities too.
The threat from JAD lies in the fact that it is so unpredictable, and cells have varying capabilities. In October 2019, then-Defense Minister Wiranto was stabbed and injured by a JAD member. The attack was not planned in advance and was improvised. The JAD terrorist apparently heard that a high-level government official was visiting Pandeglang, Banten early in the day. He went to the event allegedly without knowing exactly who was present and stabbed Wiranto.
In May 2019, Densus 88 foiled a major plot in Jakarta. JAD sought to take advantage of the political unrest following the April 2019 elections. At this time, the then-presidential candidate, and current Defense Minister, Prabowo Subianto, had not conceded the elections to President Joko Widodo. His supporters, especially the FPI-led Islamist base, organized large-scale protests in Jakarta in May 2019. A member of a JAD cell that had an apparent presence in Jakarta, Bekasi, and was connected to a JAD cell in Lampung, had developed a WIFI-triggering mechanism for explosives made with triacetone triperoxide (TATP). Indonesian authorities were using cell phone signal jammers to disrupt the protests; the WIFI mechanism was developed to circumvent the use of phone networks that could be blocked by jammers. In March 2019, authorities recovered over 300 kg of explosives and 15 bombs assembled by JAD terrorists in Sibolga, North Sumatra, and, in October 2019, Densus 88 arrested a father and son, and recovered airsoft guns and arrows.
JAD’s networks span the archipelago but are mainly concentrated in Java and Sumatra. The cells themselves are decentralized and operate somewhat autonomously. JAD introduced ‘family units’ to perpetrate attacks, using children; this is something looked down upon by traditional jihadists in Indonesia. JAD members are also highly radicalized. In the 2019 Sibolga raid, the wife of the terrorist who surrendered to authorities blew herself up with her child after refusing to listen to her husband’s pleas to surrender. There were security concerns about the children of the Indonesian JAD Jolo bombers in the Philippines. It remains unclear whether JI would support women and children perpetrating terrorist attacks. These types of cells also highlight the level of JAD’s decentralization, as well as the challenges authorities face in trying to suppress groups organized like this.
There is a lot of talk about how the risk of terrorism globally, and in Southeast Asia, has increased following the Afghan Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan. The importance of Afghanistan to the Indonesian and Southeast Asian terror narrative should not be understated. The 2002 Bali bombers used the US’s War on Terror and invasion of Afghanistan as one of the justifications for the attack, and JI had deep connections to AQ. However, the impact of the Afghan Taliban’s takeover on Southeast Asian terrorism should not be overstated either. As Munira Mustaffa put it, “Organizing for violence is hard - logistics and alliances still matter. Expressing extremist thinking and acting them out are two different things.” Maybe in time, the threat paradigm will increase, but so far, it has not. Indonesian and Southeast Asian authorities are also well aware of this and are taking measures to prevent any movement to and from Afghanistan.
It is in alliances that JAD, and not JI, has a current advantage. It remains unclear whether this iteration of JI still maintains the deep connections to AQ in Afghanistan that it once had. Moreover, AQ will take strengthen its position in Afghanistan, and that will not have a knock-on effect in Southeast Asia in the near future. JAD however, has established links in the country and regionally. For instance, an Indonesian JAD couple perpetrated the 2019 Jolo suicide bombing in the Philippines, working with the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG). The ASG’s subgroups are mostly affiliated with the IS, and not AQ, as was the case historically. JAD also has links to MIT and sought to support the group logistically. JI apparently has some links too, but seemingly lesser than JAD. This also shows the fluid nature of terrorism in Indonesia, where terrorists are opportunistic and may join outfits that are more active at a certain point.
Another aspect where JAD may have an advantage over JI is over the latter’s apparent attempt to enter the political sphere. In the past, JI was vehemently opposed to this. IS and JAD’s supporters in Indonesia have been extremely critical of Indonesia’s democracy; threats against prominent officials on social media are common. The Afghan Taliban’s takeover was not welcomed by some Indonesian IS supporters. Thus, JI’s attempts to infiltrate the political sphere may be viewed derisively by some Indonesian jihadists. It may weaken perceptions of JI’s resolve to establish an Islamic State in the archipelago. This mirrors the Islamic State Khorasan Province’s (ISKP) criticism of the Afghan Taliban. JAD was responsible for the attack on then-Defense Minister Wiranto, the highest-level Indonesian official targeted in a terror attack in the country.
JAD’s flexibility was shown earlier this year, not only through the 2021 Makassar attack but also through a cell’s plans to conduct attacks in Merauke, Papua. In the past, JAD members have been found in Papua, where they have tried to avoid being detected by Densus 88 and evade crackdowns in Java and Sumatra. This cell, however, which had some members who were based in Papua for a long time, wanted to conduct attacks and not just hide out. The cell’s members, apparently connected to the 2021 Makassar attacks cell, wanted to use the suicide bombing modus operandi; a couple was even arrested. This was not unexpected. The fact remains that JAD had an active plot to conduct attacks, despite the crackdown on it over the last few years.
Terrorists in Southeast Asia are on the back foot at the moment. Security forces in Indonesia and the Philippines, the hotspots, have taken more active approaches to prevent attacks. The COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have hampered movement, pushing terrorists to be more active in online spaces, where various narratives have been intertwining and circulating. However, terror attacks are still going to happen. Success stories of Indonesia’s deradicalization programs, for instance, have been exceptions and not the general story. Authorities’ hard-line approaches, justified by some arguments, only increase polarization. Densus 88 is one of Southeast Asia’s most capable anti-terror forces (maintaining security across an archipelago of 17,000 islands is extremely difficult), and it has had a lot of success curbing the potential for terror attacks in Indonesia. However, given the history of terrorism in Indonesia, the current dynamics, and overall challenges to security, it is again not a question of if, but when, the next terror attack occurs.
There is a small possibility that JI members conduct an attack in the future, but that is more so a reflection of how today’s JI is not the same organization it was. It could signal possible contention between JI’s old and new guard. It is also a reflection of the aspirations of jihad amongst some very radicalized elements. The 2002 Bali bombings were not supported by all of JI; there were several disagreements and holdouts. However, JI is still much more organized and centrally controlled than JAD. JAD is not as deadly as it was. It also remains to be seen whether JI will reach its former status, especially as Densus 88 is actively targeting them now. Nevertheless, the threat from JAD is asymmetric, more so compared to JI. JI is a more traditional terror outfit; JAD mirrors IS. JAD is random, unpredictable, and flexible. The next terror attack in Indonesia, whether it is large-scale or small-scale, is likely to be perpetrated by JAD. Last week, Densus 88 arrested JAD terrorists in Central and South Kalimantan. The terrorists were conducting training and sought to procure weapons.