Hot Issue: The Islamic State’s Attack in Jakarta: Progeny, Profiles and Prospects for a Southeast Asia Province

Location of Sarinah-Starbucks terrorist attack in Central Jakarta on January 14 2016 (source: Gunawan Kartapranata via WikiMedia)

Executive Summary

This Hot Issue discusses the attack that the Islamic State commanded and claimed in Jakarta on January 14, 2016. It looks at the “progeny” of the attack, namely the mastermind, Barhun Naim, and the Katibah [Brigade] behind the attack, the “profiles” of the attackers and their past and present roles in jihadism in Southeast Asia, and the “prospects” for Islamic State to announce a Province in Southeast Asia, including factors that weigh both in favor of and against it. Finally, in the conclusion, this Hot Issue evaluates some of the effects of a growing Islamic State presence in Southeast Asia for rival jihadists in al-Qaeda, for regional actors and organizations, and for Indonesia’s counterterrorism strategy.

Progeny: Bahrun Naim’s Katibah Nusantara

On January 14, 2016, five militants carried out coordinated attacks in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. The targets included a shopping mall and a Starbucks located near UN and diplomatic facilities. The Islamic State claimed the attack on Twitter accounts, via its Al-Amaq news agency, and on its official Telegram channel.

Indonesian intelligence believes the mastermind was a Syria-based Bahrun Naim, a militant from Central Java, Indonesia. The international money transfer the attackers received from Syria came from the Bahasa Indonesian- and Malaysian-speaking faction of the Islamic State called Katibah Nusantara, led by Bahrun Naim and comprised of anywhere from 300 to 700 militants (smh.com.au, January 16). Nusantara is a historical name for maritime Southeast Asia encompassing parts of southern Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and southern Philippines.

Al-Qaeda under Osama Bin Laden had wanted to unite Nusantara under one jihadist banner. With the demise of Jemaa Islamiya, Bin Ladin’s death, and Bali-bombing mastermind Umar Patek’s arrest all occurring in 2011, in conjunction with the shift in allegiances of former pro-al-Qaeda jihadists in Southeast Asia to the Islamic State starting in 2014, the Islamic State has been able to do what al-Qaeda could not. With the Jakarta attack, Bahrun Naim made a case to lead the Islamic State’s prospective Nusantara Province, going by the name Wilayat Nusantara.

Profiles: Behind Bars, Abroad, and Bureaucracy

One of the four suicide bombers in the attack in Jakarta was Afif (alias Sunakim). Similar to Bahrun Naim, he was previously arrested for terrorism offenses; he had trained in an “Al-Qaeda in the Veranda of Mecca” camp in Aceh under Jemaa Islamiya founder Abubakar Baasyir in 2010. Both before and after Afif’s imprisonment, he was under the influence of the formerly Jakarta-based leader of Tauhid Wal Jihad (TWJ), Aman Abdurrahman. Aman Abdurrahman, who is now in prison in Central Java for funding the camp in Aceh, remains active on social media sending out pro-Islamic State messages to potential supporters, such as Afif (Reuters, January 19; Jakarta Post, June 14, 2014) [1].

Less than one month before the attack in Jakarta, Bahrun Naim appeared on the radar of Indonesian intelligence services. In December 2015, a would-be suicide bomber in West Java admitted to receiving $600 from his Hong Kong-based wife, who was also an immigrant worker and funder of Katibah Nusantara (Time.com, December 18, 2015). Clearly, the relatively high salaries for low-skilled labor in Hong Kong and the other three “Asian Tigers” (South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore) – as well as in Japan and the Gulf states – has provided a fundraising mechanism for pro-Islamic State supporters to finance their “unemployed” jihadist brethren in Southeast Asia (Metrotvnews.com [Seoul], November 20, 2015).

At the same time the failed suicide bomber was arrested in December 2015, a Chinese Uighur named Alli (alias Abu Muzan) was also arrested in West Java after entering the Indonesian island of Batam from Singapore (and Thailand and Malaysia before that). Alli was part of six-man cell including two other Uighurs. They were planning suicide attacks ordered by Bahrun Naim on Indonesian government officials, Shia mosques, and Christian churches. (Detik.com, December 25, 2015; Rappler.com, January 7).

In 2014, four other Uighurs with fake Turkish passports were also detained in Sulawesi after attempting to join Mujahidin Indonesia Timor (MIT), whose leader, Santoso, pledged baya (loyalty) to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2014. This suggests that Bahrun Naim may be among the driving forces behind the Islamic State’s outreach to Uighurs and Mandarin-speaking Muslims since 2015. It may also explain why Indonesian authorities consider Bahrun Naim a candidate not only for a leadership role in the Islamic State’s Southeast Asia operations, but also for Central Asia’s (Straits Times, September 16, 2014) Jakarta Post, January 18).

Thus, one of Bahrun Naim’s strengths is his unparalleled ability to connect Indonesian ideologues (Abubakar Baashyir, Aman Abdurrahman), militants (Santoso), jihad aspirants including in the online space (Afif), small-scale funders (immigrant workers) and regional networks (Uighur militants) to execute an attack like the one in Jakarta on January 14. Moreover, Naim seems to understand Islamic State “bureaucracy”: the Islamic State’s immediate and unequivocal claim of the attack in Jakarta suggests Naim informed, as well as received approval from, Islamic State leaders before ordering the attack. On a blog he resuscitated one week after the November 2015 Paris attacks, Naim also conducted an analysis of “lessons learned” from the coordinated acts of terror, suggesting he may have used Paris as a template — and inspiration — for his Jakarta plot.

However, Naim failed to reach the scale of Paris. Despite broad media coverage of the attack in Jakarta, “only” two foreigners (and five attackers, including four suicide bombers) were killed, compared to more than the 130 people killed in Paris (Malaysiainsider.com, January 16). However, had Alli’s cell not been disrupted in West Java, the attack in Jakarta may have incorporated his cell and their targets, and therefore could have brought about a greater number of fatalities.

Prospects: Regional Aspirations Shift to Southeast Asia

Considerable evidence exists in 2016 that the Islamic State is preparing for an “expansion” in Southeast Asia following its 2015 extension into Africa. However, there appears to be significant stumbling blocks in the way the Islamic State accepts Southeast Asian pledges of loyalty.

The first explicit sign of the Islamic State’s interest in expansion to Southeast Asia was in Dabiq 5 in November 2014. On page 24, the Islamic State wrote that members in groups in Khurasan (Afghanistan), the Caucasus, Nigeria [Boko Haram], the Philippines and Indonesia pledged allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but the Islamic State would only accept pledges from groups that satisfied two conditions:

  • Members and factions are united in making the pledge; and
  • A single leader is recognizable

The groups in Khurasan, the Caucasus and Nigeria all publicly pledged to al-Baghdadi between March 2015 and June 2015, and were accepted as the provinces of their respective namesakes. The public pledges from the groups in Indonesia and Philippines, however, are still unrecognized by the Islamic State. From the Philippines, such pledges include:

  • Imprisoned members of “Harakatul al-Islamiyah” (an alternate name for Abu Sayyaf) on July 2, 2014, who were able to smuggle the video out of the prison with a prisoner’s wife;
  • Isnon Hapilon’s faction of Abu Sayyaf on August 2, 2014 (Rappler.com, August 2, 2014); and
  • The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM) in August 2014 (Inquirer.net, August 22, 2014)

From Indonesia, as many as 30 jihadist factions and leaders have pledged baya to al-Baghdadi, including Bahrun Naim, Santoso, Abubakar Baasyir (although he may have recanted his support before the attack in Jakarta in early 2016), and Aman Abdurrahman.

Yet, it is possible that neither the jihadists in the Philippines nor Indonesia fulfill the two conditions to become a province as delineated in Dabiq 5, due to the lack of unity among Indonesian and Philippine jihadists. For the Islamic State to continue the narrative of “expansion” and that it is “always winning,” it would need prominent attacks in the wake of a creation of a Southeast Asian province or provinces; neither Philippine nor Indonesian jihadists group — at least until the attack in Jakarta — have consistently shown.

Another factor constraining the announcement of a Southeast Asian Province is the lack of a consistent and unified media effort between the Islamic State and Abu Sayyaf, MIT, or any other group based in the region, similar to how the Islamic State fully harmonized and upgraded Boko Haram’s media in advance of its pledge in March 2015 [2]. Since 2014, Abu Sayyaf has adopted some trademarks of Islamic State media, including videos with group pledges to al-Baghdadi, the black-and-white rayat al-uqab flag of the Islamic State with the inscription of “Soldiers of the Caliphate” on it, and a training video that was promoted online by Islamic State supporters. However, these productions lack the “official” branding of Islamic State media as well as other Islamic State markers, namely nasheed soundtracks and Hollywood-style special effects, suggesting that any media harmonization is presently incomplete for Abu Sayyaf, let alone MIT, whose media is still less advanced than that of the aforementioned group.

Nonetheless, a turning point for the Philippine jihadists can be seen in a video disseminated on January 14, 2016, likely coordinated with the Jakarta attack. In the video, Isnilon Hapilon appears once again in a loyalty pledge as leader of the Basilan-branch of Abu Sayyaf, along with Abu Anas Al-Muhajir of the Ansar al-Shariah Battalion and Abu Harith al-Filipini of the Marakat al-Ansar Battalion in Sulu. They promised to make the Philippines “a graveyard” for American soldiers (Straits Times, January 20). The three leaders featured together could suggest that Abu Sayyaf is now unified under the leadership of Hapilon, and that Abu Sayyaf is closer to meeting the Islamic State’s condition for baya as outlined in Dabiq 5.

Nonetheless, whether Abu Sayyaf can evolve into the Nusantara Province (or a “Mindanao Province”) may hinge on Bahrun Naim. Naim’s advantage over Hapilon is that he has now carried out an internationally high-profile attack in the name of the Islamic State, and apparently has the ear of Islamic State leaders in Syria. However, Hapilon, like all other Provincial leaders, is based in the territory that he represents, Mindanao, as opposed to residing in Syria like Naim. Hapilon has deeper roots in jihadism than Naim, fostered by his leadership role in Abu Sayyaf since at least 2010 when it maintained close ties with al-Qaeda. He has also overseen the shift in loyalty of Abu Sayyaf from al-Qaeda to the Islamic State, which further supplements his leadership credentials.

Ultimately, the Islamic State’s leadership in Syria will decide if and when to announce its expansion into Southeast Asia. The attack in Jakarta serves to confirm and legitimize the Islamic State’s potential announcement. Evidenced by the messaging coming from Southeast Asian groups like Abu Sayyaf and MIT and Southeast Asians in Syria like Naim, but also by the December 26, 2015 audio release of al-Baghdadi in which he urged support for mujahidin “brothers” in the Philippines and Indonesia (as well as Bangladesh), Southeast Asia certainly remains on the Islamic State’s radar.

Conclusion

As 2016 unfolds, further information on the Islamic State’s narrative and military strategy for Southeast Asia will emerge. The Islamic State does not need another attack in the region imminently, as the Jakarta attack already has heralded its entrance into Southeast Asia. The Islamic State will need to further embed itself in the region, however, via a media assault to capitalize on the attack in its wake; otherwise, it will appear as a sporadic threat and thus, a sign of inconsistency and weakness.

The Islamic State is facing struggles in Africa amid the resurgence of AQIM and al-Shabaab as countervailing forces – including the groups’ killing of former Islamic State militants and religiously challenging al-Baghdadi’s Caliphate. The Islamic State, as a result, may attempt further advances in Southeast Asia through the establishment of a province, notably setting up a province in a region where Al-Qaeda is now relatively weak due in part to neglect of the region by Bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri. In addition, the continuation of setbacks in Syria and Iraq could propel the Islamic State to shift to Southeast Asia and offset reports of its “losing” elsewhere. Nonetheless, the relationships between the Islamic State and either Abu Sayyaf or MIT (or possibly a unified front of the two) are too unclear at this point for either to take on the mantle of a Southeast Asia Province. If such is the case, the Islamic State — perhaps under Bahrun Naim — will need to carry out further “diplomacy” with these two groups to coordinate where their narratives and attacks can more consistently promote the objectives of the Islamic State “core.”

The Islamic State’s expansion into Southeast Asia will not be without reaction and repercussions. Ayman al-Zawahiri coincidentally issued a statement in his “Islamic Spring” series on the same day as the attack in Jakarta, suggesting that after several years of “ignoring” Southeast Asia, al-Qaeda may try to rejuvenate its own networks in the region. Similarly, the opening up of an Islamic State front in Southeast Asia could compel ASEAN — and certainly China — to become more active in counterterrorism in the region, especially considering the role of Uighurs in Indonesian militancy.

The nations of the “Nusantara” region will also likely have to reform their counterterrorism strategies in light of the holes that the Islamic State’s attack in Jakarta exposed: namely, ineffective de-radicalization programs as evidenced by recidivism in terrorism, the use of social media for recruitment including by leading ideologues in prison such as Aman Abdurrahman, and the inability of the intelligence services to uncover the Syria-masterminded attack on Indonesian soil.

Jacob Zenn is a Fellow of Eurasian and African Affairs for The Jamestown Foundation. Mr. Zenn is an alumnus of the US State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs Critical Language Scholarship for advanced Indonesian language in Malang, East Java, Indonesia. He has written on militancy and extremism in Indonesia and southern Philippines for The Jamestown Foundation since 2010.

Notes:

[1] Navhat Nuraniyah, “Aman Abdurrahman: Indonesia’s Most Influential Extremist,” Militant Leadership Monitor, The Jamestown Foundation, http://mlm.jamestown.org/feature-single/article_id=44935&tx_ttnews%5BbackPid%5D=539&cHash=d11a7a8bc67836c57add380ebc73730f

[2] The Islamic State did not harmonize the media of “Khurasan” or “Caucausus” Provinces before their pledges, so this is not necessarily a pre-condition for a pledge.

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Interested in reading what else Jamestown has written on terrorism in Southeast Asia?

The Maldives: Losing a Tourist Paradise to Terrorism

Indonesia’s New Counter-Terrorism Challenges

Islamic State’s Sri Lankan Outreach

From Jemaah Islamiya to Islamic State: Marwan’s Mission Ends in Mindanao (pay wall)

This month’s issue of Militant Leadership Monitor (to be released February 1, 2016) will include profiles of Santoso and Mujahideen Indonesia Timur, also known as East Indonesian Mujahideen.