Dangerous Amateurs: Indonesia’s New Generation of Jihadists

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 11

Members of Indonesian security forces (Source: Reuters)

Shortly after 7 AM, on Sunday May 13, a woman on a motorcycle, Puji Kuswait, with two young girls also riding on the vehicle, approached Santa Maria Catholic Church, a prominent building in Surabaya, in eastern Java. A church volunteer tried to prevent the trio from entering the church compound, at which point Kuswait detonated a suicide bomb belt. The explosion killed her, the church volunteer and her two daughters, aged 9 and 12. The latter were also reportedly wearing bomb belts (Jakarta Post, May 15).

Shortly afterwards, the woman’s husband, Dita Oepriyanto, drove a car filled with explosives into the city’s Surabaya Center Pentecostal Church. Almost simultaneously, the family’s two teenage sons conducted a third attempt against another church in the city. Later that day, three others from a separate family—a husband, his wife and their teenage son—who were preparing a follow-up bombing, were killed when their homemade bombs exploded prematurely in an apartment in a low-income area on the city’s outskirts (Tempo, May 14). The combined attacks, which actively involved (excluding young children) seven adults and teenagers, killed 13 people in total.

The following day, shortly before 9 AM, five members of another family riding two motorbikes approached the police headquarters in Surabaya. When they were stopped at the gate, they detonated their explosives. Four of the attackers were killed, but one of their daughters survived. No-one else was killed, although several police officers were injured (Tempo, May 14). A day later, on May 16, five jihadists in an SUV vehicle attempted to drive into a police station in Pekanbaru, in Riau province in Sumatra, effectively on the opposite side of the country. When police blocked them from entering the facility, they exited the vehicle and attacked the officers with swords (Jakarta Post, May 16). One police officer was killed before four of the attackers were shot dead—the fifth attacker fled, but was later arrested, along with a co-conspirator.

The wave of attacks, which killed a total of 14 people (excluding the attackers), are the most fatal jihadist incidents in the country since 20 people were killed in an attack in Bali in 2005—a follow-on attack on the larger and better known 2002 Bali bombings, which killed more than 200. The operations, which as discussed below, were almost certainly inspired by Islamic State (IS) and are significantly larger in scale and fatalities than the previous largest IS attack in the country. This was the January 2016 attack in Jakarta, in which four attackers killed three Indonesians and one Algerian-Canadian in the center of the capital.

The latest events also directly follow a brief uprising by around 150 jihadist prisoners, all largely pro-IS, who were being held in a police compound in Depok, outside Jakarta, between May 8-9. The inmates killed five guards before specialist counter-terrorism forces restored order a day later (Tempo, May 10). The police meanwhile shot dead two suspected jihadists on 10 May in Western Java who were reportedly traveling to the scene of the prison rising to “help” the rioters.

In the days after the Surabaya and Pekanbaru attacks, the security forces launched widespread raids against suspected militants, including shooting dead a suspected Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) fundraiser near Surabaya on May 15, and killing a further suspect in Tanjung Balai in North Sumatra the following day (Tempo, May 15, Jakarta Post, May 17). The head of the National Police, Tito Karnavian, later said that 74 suspected terrorists had been arrested in days following the Surabaya suicide attacks (Kompas, May 22).

The government has also sought to accelerate its attempts to toughen the country’s comparatively weak counter-terrorism laws, which make it difficult to prosecute returning fighters for abuses committed abroad. In particular, President Jokowi after the initial attack issued an ultimatum to the House of Representatives to complete their debates on proposed revisions to anti-terrorism laws by June, or else he would pass the law using his executive powers (Tempo, May 22). Parliament subsequently passed the law on May 25 (Jakarta Post, May 25). He also said that the country needs to use more “soft power” to fight terrorism, including through challenging radical ideologies spread through schools, colleges and universities (Tempo, May 22).

Domestic and International Links 

The initial church attacks were quickly claimed online by IS, via its Amaq news agency. However, the group provided no evidence of its involvement in the attack, and such claims over the past year have become increasingly unreliable, as indicated by the group’s false claims for an attack on a Manila casino by an gambling addict in June 2017, and for the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, whose perpetrator appears to have had no links to jihadism.

However, although IS’ claim has little value, the police have credibly said that Dita Oepriyanto, the father who led the initial church attacks, was a JAD member (Surya, May 20). The group, a loose network of IS supporters in Indonesia, were responsible for the 2016 Jakarta attack, and some of its members have had direct links to IS leaders in Iraq and Syria.

Oepriyanto is reported to have been a friend of the individual whose bombs detonated prematurely on the evening of the attacks. Unusually, however, given that the attacks involved significant preparation and the involvement of more than a dozen conspirators, they do not appear to have produced a statement or video that could be circulated after their deaths. By contrast, there were clearer links between the 2016 Jakarta attack and IS leaders, with Bahrum Naum—the most senior Indonesian in IS in Syria—using WhatsApp to communicate with the plotters, as well as PayPal to make payments to enable the operation (Straits Times, January 17, 2017).

It therefore seems highly likely that the Surabaya attackers were to some extent inspired by IS. However, there is at present nothing to suggest a closer link between the Surabaya plotters and IS’ leadership, or indeed to directly connect them with Aman Abdurrahman, JAD’s imprisoned founder and leader. For instance, the Surabaya attackers’ explosives all used TATP (acetone peroxide), which is widely favored by jihadist groups as it be can be created with easily available ingredients and equipment (Jakarta Post, May 14). Instructions for creating TATP are also widely available online, including on pro-jihadist websites, and therefore the attackers’ use of it does not necessarily indicate a direct link to more experienced militants or to IS leaders abroad.

Indeed, the fact the second family’s bombs exploded at home while being prepared arguably suggests they did not benefit from any specialist assistance. That said, it seems highly likely that the two Surabaya family groups coordinated their attacks jointly, with one intentionally planned for the day following the first wave of attacks, with the presumed intention of causing a greater psychological shock through conducting attacks on consecutive days. This level of planning and sophistication arguably shows some engagement with jihadist thinking, even if direct communication cannot be proven.

Similarly, the attackers’ decision to target Christians and the security forces is comparable to similar targeting choices by more structured and centralized IS branches, for instance in Egypt’s Sinai. However, again, this is less indicative of a solid link between the Surabaya attackers and IS central leadership. More likely, it merely reflects that the attackers were familiar with IS attacks in other parts of the world. They may also have thought that such attacks would appeal to Islamist hardliners in Indonesia, who periodically indulge in strong anti-Christian rhetoric and see the security forces as suppressing Islamists in order to uphold Indonesia’s non-sectarian founding state ideology of Pancasila (which they typically regard as un-Islamic).

Although the attackers’ direct links to senior IS members is unclear, there is increasing evidence that the families were part of radical networks that had deliberately isolated themselves from society. For instance, the families were reported to have withdrawn their children from mainstream schools and to have indoctrinated them with online radical material (Jakarta Post, May 15). This further suggests that the group had largely self-radicalized, albeit within broader radical circles, and had planned and conducted their own attacks with likely only minimal assistance from IS leaders elsewhere.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Pekanbaru attackers, who launched a sword attack on a police station in Sumatra, were directly linked to those in Surabaya. Indeed, a week earlier, this group had launched their seemingly independent own journey toward jihad, travelling from Sumatra to the police compound in Depok, scene of the brief jihadist prison uprising (Tribun Pekanbaru, May 16). Their trip reflects that the incident had gained considerable publicity for IS as jihadists inside the prison sent exclusive footage to IS followers outside. IS’ central media team then released this footage via its media channels, claiming the incident for the “East Asia Division” of IS.

However, by the time the Pekanbaru attackers arrived at Depok, the security forces had restored order at the prison. Consequently, the thwarted militants returned to Pekanbaru, where they attacked the police station. It therefore seems likely that this operation was intended partly as an act of sympathy with the imprisoned jihadists and partly to take revenge on the security services for putting down the riot. The attack also likely aimed to contribute to the IS cause, both in Indonesia and globally, while the perpetrators also undoubtedly hoped to gain spiritual benefits from their attack.

Limited Returns Over Time

One repeated and striking aspect of jihadist attacks in Indonesia during the last two years is the sheer inefficiency of the attackers, on both a tactical and strategic level. The first significant IS attack in Jakarta, involved one suicide bomber and three others armed with explosives and guns. Assaulting a busy central shopping area during a weekday daytime, the suicide bomber detonated himself in a café and the other attackers then fired on those fleeing the premises, as well as throwing explosives (Jakarta Post, January 14, 2016). The surviving militant then attacked a police post, killing one Indonesian on duty. This assault killed only four people; a grisly but unimpressive 1:1 ratio of attackers to victims.

Further poorly-executed attacks followed in the coming months. In August 2016, a man inspired by IS attempted to set off a bomb during a mass in a church in the city of Medan. The explosives failed to detonate and the attacker instead unsuccessfully assaulted the priest with an axe (Jakarta Post, August 28, 2016). The assailant and four accomplices were later given long prison sentences. In November 2016, a militant threw a Molotov cocktail into a church, killing a toddler—he attempted to flee the scene but was detained by local residents (Jakarta Post, November 17, 2016). He was later identified as having been previously convicted of a 2011 plot to attack police, a science and technology center and churches (Media Indonesia, November 14, 2016).

Further attacks in 2017 have shown minimal technological advances. One of the most notable attempted strikes was a double-suicide bombing near a Jakarta bus terminal in May 2017 that targeted police and a Sufi procession marking the start of Ramadan. Despite taking place in a crowded and largely unsecured area, the two attackers succeeded only in killing three police officers, and wounding several civilians. In another attack, in June 2017, two jihadists attacked a police post in North Sumatra, killing a policeman before both being shot dead (Tempo, June 25, 2017).


The latest attacks therefore do not suggest a growing direct link between IS’ Middle East-based leadership and jihadists in Indonesia. However, they do likely affirm that the developments relating to IS continue to galvanize local jihadists. This includes IS’ targeting of Christians and the security forces in Iraq, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere inspiring radicals elsewhere to conduct similar attacks—just as IS had hoped would take place.

In addition, however, whereas IS’ physical control of territory in the Middle East had inspired jihadists in Indonesia, this self-proclaimed caliphate also acted as magnet for Indonesian jihadists in 2015-6, drawing them away from Indonesia and toward Iraq and Syria. With the IS caliphate now collapsed, these individuals are no longer drawn to the Middle East and may therefore be more likely to act locally. This could also explain the involvement of entire families in the recent attacks. A previous trend had been for Indonesian families—often tied together not only by kinship, but by a shared hardline ideology—to relocate together to the IS caliphate. With the physical caliphate no longer available, such families may now be re-directing their energies against local targets.

That said, another result of the dislocation of IS’ central leadership in Iraq and Syria is that local jihadists may be even less able to contact experienced militants prior to attacks. This could explain the largely ineffective nature of many recent jihadist operations in Indonesia, where the attackers have often suffered almost as many fatalities as their targets. Although there remains the potential for more experienced militants—returning for instance from the Middle East or from jihadist conflicts in the Philippines—to boost local jihadists’ capabilities, this amateurishness may yet remain a persistent feature of Indonesian attacks.

Meanwhile, however, another aspect of these attacks is the severe government crackdown that they trigger, including detentions and the extra-judicial killings of suspected militants. While this may inflame jihadist and radical feeling, and swell the population of radicals in prison, it will also have the effect of disrupting many networks and plots. On balance, while the recent surge in attacks in Indonesia is significant and illustrates how jihadist groups in the country are evolving, it does not necessarily indicate that a substantially larger or bloodier jihadist campaign in the country is imminent.