The threats to Indonesia after the Jakarta attack

Let us not overstate the significance of ISIL in Indonesia.

Indonesian policemen check motorcyclists during a road block to thwart an anticipate terrorism threat in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia [EPA]
Indonesian policemen check motorcyclists during a roadblock to thwart an anticipate terrorism threat in Bali, Indonesia [EPA]

Last Thursday, Jakarta was rocked by its first major attack by religiously inspired Islamic militants since the Ritz Carlton bombings of 2009. Lasting more than three hours, the grim attacks – in which seven people, including five assailants, died – may not have been as devastating as the previous bombings that hit the capital in the 2000s, but they point to a grim new reality: the growth of a new form of violence inspired by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) ideology.

Yet, as horrific as these events were, we should not overemphasise their significance, nor the effect of ISIL ideology, within Indonesia. Those who carried out the attack remain a marginal group whose reasoning is linked to global ideas of the ISIL caliphate rather than the policies of the Indonesian government.

Indonesians rally to denounce attacks in Jakarta

More so, the attackers lack meaningful support within the wider Islamic community – including more experienced Islamic militants. If the government wishes to bring those behind the attacks to justice it is vital that this remains the case.

Does ISIL really threaten Indonesia?

Those who carried out Thursday’s attacks were loyal to ISIL, with no links to previous militant networks of either the Darul Islam rebellions of the 1950-60s or the Jemaah Islamiyah who were behind the wave of bombings in the 2000s.

One former internet cafe manager currently residing in ISIL-controlled Syria, Bahrun Naim, stands out in particular as the “link” between ISIL and this violence. A member of ISIL’s Malaysian-Indonesian Katibah Nusantara military unit, Bahrun has become an online source for ISIL information in Indonesian and active recruiter for a domestic ISIL front.

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According to the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, in mid-2015 he managed to recruit and train a cell of five potential followers in Central Java. The cell intended to attack a church, Buddhist temple and police in August but were discovered and arrested beforehand.

All may pledge loyalty to ISIL, but they continue to maintain their own separate agendas.


Not deterred, Bahrun continued to recruit potential cells throughout Java and, in December, his name surfaced again as the police conducted several raids in West and Central Java in relation to a series of attacks that were planned for Christmas and New Year. 

Last Thursday’s attacks are therefore premeditated and planned, but also part of a prolonged attempt by one man to create an ISIL network in Indonesia.

Yet, we should not overstate Bahrun’s apparent “success”. His support remains limited to several hundred followers who communicate with him via social media, and at present there is no real united ISIL front to speak of in Indonesia.

This does imply pro-ISIL online forums do not exist. Several influential preachers, such as Abu Bakar Ba’asyir and Aman Abdurrahman, have pledged support to ISIL – although they remain in prison and limited to telephone communication. 

Further, a pro-ISIL umbrella, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, was formed March 2015. However, this includes a range of disparate groups such as the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia and Mujahidin of Western Indonesia as well as segments of Abu Bakar Ba’asyir’s Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid.

A man is seen holding a gun as people run away in central Jakarta, Indonesia [Reuters]
A man is seen holding a gun as people run away in central Jakarta, Indonesia [Reuters]

All may pledge loyalty to ISIL but they continue to maintain their own separate agendas. With the exception of the Mujahidin of Eastern Indonesia – a force of 30 individuals currently evading security forces in Central Sulawesi – there is no explicit open rebellion against the state to talk about.   

Lack of support from ‘traditional’ militants

Although vigilance is necessary, this implies that ISIL continues to have limited reach, and the way religious leaders reacted to last Thursday’s attack implies that there is little space for it to gain popularity.

Even among experienced militant circles such as Jemaah Islamiyah and the Indonesian Council of Mujahideen, ISIL sympathy remains low (as they support al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri).

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A crucial factor limiting the dissemination of the pro-ISIL message continues to be an inability to tie its “global” message to the domestic socio-political situation of Indonesia. Certainly Bahrun and his supporters have tried to do so by encouraging sectarian violence against Shia – whom have been targets of previous planned attacks. Yet for the most part militants remain unable to frame their ideology in terms that resonate among the wider population.


President Joko Widodo has done well not to exaggerate the ISIL threat and, in this light, he must ensure that any security operations against ISIL supporters are not viewed as part of an international “war” but domestic law and order policy.

Indeed, he must take measure not to arbitrarily target the Islamic community or use excessive force as this would provide ISIL supporters with the ability to frame domestic state policy as an extension of any global “war against Muslims”.

Not only would this create potential sympathy for further violence but it may also push more experienced militants into the ISIL camp.

Chris Chaplin is a researcher at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) examining contemporary citizenship and identity within Indonesian Islamic communities. He has spent more than six years in Indonesia working on social development, human rights and politics across the country.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.