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Most-populous Muslim country rebuffs radical ideology, ‘not afraid’ after attack

An Indonesian Muslim woman holds a poster outside a Starbucks cafe where Thursday's attack took place, in Jakarta, Indonesia, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

I stepped out of the shower Wednesday night and my phone buzzed – it was an Associated Press alert. I often get these alerts, but I couldn’t just glance over this one: “Massive explosion rocks central Jakarta.”

My heart dropped. That’s my hometown. And here I am standing helplessly in Seattle.

I hopped on to Twitter, Facebook, and to Breaking News – where I work as an editor – trying to find information. Despite knowing that both of my parents were out of town, I also texted them frantically to see if they knew anything.

My dad sent me a notice he got from his office – World Bank Indonesia: “Notice to all WBOJ Staffs: A bomb exploded approximately at 10:57 am near a police post located at Jalan Thamrin. WBOJ staffs to avoid that area.” As the day went on, it became clear that the explosion hit multiple sites around the Sarinah shopping center, among the busiest parts of Jakarta, located nearby regional offices of the United Nations, shopping malls and five-star hotels.

I know that area. My parents’ offices are located nearby. Growing up, my family would go to a Chilli’s restaurant in Sarinah on weekends. Once after a late-night concert, my then-boyfriend and I went to the Starbucks cafe there – one of the locations attacked.

Following the initial report, I spent the next two-and-a-half hours scouring Twitter for verified information from local Indonesian media. Seven people died (four of them the attackers), and 26 others injured. I sat still as I saw live updates on my Twitter feed, seeing pictures of bodies on the street, of police storming a popular movie theater believed to be where one of the suspects fled.

When I set out to work in journalism, I didn’t think I would have to report on an attack on my country, let alone hometown, from thousands of miles away. I didn’t think I would have to write this story.

With more than 250 million people, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country, but it also has a tradition of tolerance toward other religions. Most people I know back in Indonesia, whether devout or secular Muslims, like I am, denounce the extremist ideologies and tactics.

Many analysts have said Indonesian Muslims’ muted response to the Islamic State’s Wahhabi-inspired ideology is due to the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), an Islamic organization that claims 50 million members, and preaches a practice of Islam based on compassion, tolerance and inclusivity.

“We are directly challenging the idea of ISIS, which wants Islam to be uniform, meaning that if there is any other idea of Islam that is not following their ideas, those people are infidels who must be killed,” Yahya Cholil Staquf, general secretary to the NU supreme council, told The New York Times. “We will show that is not the case with Islam.”

Sydney Jones, the director of the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, tells The Atlantic’s Edward Delman that another cause might also minimize the appeal of Islamic State to most Indonesian Muslims: The country’s relative stability.

“Indonesia is a country that doesn’t have a repressive government, is not under occupation, it’s politically stable, so there’s no social unrest or conflict, and the Muslims aren’t a persecuted minority,” Jones said. “So when you put all of those factors together, it’s not all that surprising that it’s actually only a tiny minority of even the activist population that’s leaving for Syria.”

Compared to other countries with large Muslim populations, these kinds of attacks fueled by religious ideologies are relatively few and far between in Indonesia. The most recent attack before the Jan. 14 incident happened on July 7, 2009, when suicide bombers walked into the Ritz-Carlton and J.W. Marriott hotels in Jakarta and blew themselves up, killing seven people and wounding more than 50.

Arguably the most notable incident, which killed more than 200 people, mostly foreigners, happened on Oct. 12, 2002. An Islamic militant set off a bomb after walking into a busy nightclub in Bali, a popular resort island for local and international tourists. The island was hit again in October 2005, killing at least 20 people.

Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), an Indonesia-based network of terrorists with suspected links to al-Qaida, were behind the Bali bombings and many other high-profile attacks in Indonesia. The U.S. National Counterterrorism Center says JI seeks to establish an Islamic State encompassing southern Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and the southern Philippines. The group has its roots in Darul Islam, a violent radical movement that advocated the establishment of Islamic law in Indonesia, the Council on Foreign Relations say.

Yet on Friday, the Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the central Jakarta bombings. Indonesian police have more specifically blamed a Southeast Asian affiliate of IS known as Katibah Nusantara.

Indonesian police say they have identified four of the five attackers, and late on Friday released the first name, a militant named Afif, Agence France-Presse reported. Afif was recruited to join IS by Indonesian extremist Bahrun Naim, who is believed to be a founding member of Katibah Nusantara and who police say orchestrated Thursday’s attacks from Syria.

If confirmed to be the work of Katibah Nusantara, which is made up primarily of Indonesians and Malaysians, it would mark the first violence in Southeast Asia by the group.

Despite the fear caused by attacks in the middle of a major Asian city, the limited casualties on Thursday raised questions about the suspects’ fighting capabilities, and subsequently, whether their terror efforts succeeded. The police said the attackers used small bombs or grenades, much less powerful than those used in previous attacks in the country, such as car bombs used in the 2002 Bali bombings.

Indonesian authorities were also not unaware of potential strikes. In December, Luhut Pandjaitan, a Cabinet minister in charge of security and political affairs, said the government had received intelligence about possible attacks by IS or its affiliates during end-of-year holidays, with national police chief Gen. Badrodin Haiti saying a similar warning.

“IS is undeniably active to some extent in Indonesia and Southeast Asia more broadly, and it is known to have recruited fighters from the region,” writes Scott Edwards, doctoral researcher in international relations from the University of Birmingham, in Australia’s The Conversation. Especially with large populations of Muslims and history of separatist or terrorist Islamist organizations like Jemaah Islamiyah or nearby Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf, “that makes the prospect of a domestic struggle with IS in Indonesia all the more alarming.”

Indonesia’s violent Islamists are made up of a few overlapping pro-IS groups, including Ansharut Daulah Islamiyah, an umbrella group that claims to be the main Islamic State structure in Indonesia; Mujahedeen of Eastern Indonesia, based in Sulawesi; and Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid, whose leader, Abu Bakar Ba’asyir, pledged allegiance to IS in July 2014 and instructed his followers to fight with the so-called calliphate.

Yohanes Sulaiman, a political analyst, tells The New York Times that Indonesia’s government had not done enough to contain Islamist radicals in recent years. He said the police had “done a good job in preventing such attacks, considering that Indonesia is kind of a messy place. What the government hasn’t been doing is to stop the radicalism.”

But Noor Huda Ismail, a counterterrorism analyst from Monash University, says Indonesia’s counterterrorism police have largely succeeded in destroying the local terrorist group networks that carried out bombings between 2000 and 2009, like those conducted by the JI, but some Indonesians have returned from fighting in Syria and created small terrorist cells back home.

“A lot of terrorist groups in Indonesia are fragmented and they want to show they exist,” Ismail says.

In trying to ease the people’s concerns, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo has called for more resources to help return Indonesian fighters abroad, agreed to regulation for passports to be revoked, pushed the military to be diligent against attacks, and notably, a “soft approach,” focusing on how cultural and religious approaches should be used, and poverty tackled, to reduce radicalization.

Despite the growing concerns, the reality is between 500 to 700 Indonesians were reported fighting in Iraq and Syria (out of some 200 million Muslims in the country), according to The Soufan Group’s report based on official data. In comparison, the official estimate for France is 1,700; for Russia, 2,400; for the United States, 150; and for Tunisia, 6,000.

In the hours following the attacks in Central Jakarta, the hyperactive social media spheres of Jakarta and the greater Indonesian population has denounced the violence and started a hashtag: #KamiTidakTakut (#WeAreNotAfraid). Images of nearby satay vendors going about their business near the crime scenes, people taking selfies and posts discussing attractive police forces emerged on social media as authorities continue processing the scenes. As the attacks were ongoing, my Twitter feed was filled with Jakartans using the hashtag #JakartaSafetyCheck (to similar effect of Facebook’s Safety Check, notably only activated during the Paris attacks) to indicate which parts of town are safe. In addition, private transportation services like Gojek and Uber offered free rides for evacuation from central Jakarta.

Translation for above: Ciracas is safe. A tofu vendor just passed by. #JakartaSafetyCheck

Translation for above tweet: #WeAreNotAfraid #WeHaveACrush #AngelsWithShortHair #AngelsWithGuns

Translation for above tweet: #WeAreNotAfraid because #handsomepolice ready to protect

As days followed the bombing and gunfire, it’s hard to not be proud (and maybe slightly amused) of the way my city and country responded to the attacks. It was squashed within hours by law enforcement forces, and the political response was to not put on some baseless macho rhetoric. Instead, the president decided to effectively stepped up not only law enforcement resources, but also find ways to handle the root causes of radicalization itself: poverty, unemployment, inequality and inequity.

Yes, Indonesia has a long way to go, and it remains to be seen whether these attacks will affect the number of radicalized Indonesians, whether at home or abroad. But at least in the face of such attacks, the citizens can honestly say: We are not afraid.


About Author

Imana Gunawan

Imana Gunawan is Humanosphere's social media manager and podcast producer. A University of Washington graduate in journalism and dance, Imana's interests include underrepresented communities, the intersection between politics and culture, global-local issues and the arts. She can be reached at @imanafg on Twitter or