Finian Cunningham | 15 Jan 2016
Indonesia joins a growing list of countries beyond the Middle East region reportedly hit by the Islamic State group or its affiliates. Is it a case of IS simply going global, or is there something else to the latest incident in Indonesia?
On the face of it, the attacks this week in downtown Jakarta – the Indonesian capital of 10 million people – are similar to those carried out in Paris last November, albeit with much less deadly results. Both involved a team of suicide bombers and gun attacks.
In the Paris attacks, some eight armed men killed 130 people when they struck at various public venues on November 13. This week in Jakarta up to 15 assailants armed with explosives and rifles managed to kill only two civilians; the other five reported dead were attackers who were shot by police or blew themselves up.
From the terrorists’ point of view, the Jakarta operation was a failure. That failure was partly due to the vigilance of Indonesian police, who had increased security across the capital in recent weeks due to what they said was the interception of terror communications.
Jakarta deputy police chief Budi Gunawan was quoted by The Wall Street Journal as saying that a homegrown Islamist network in the Java city of Solo had been plotting terror attacks with jihadists based in Syria.
“We detected communications between a Syria group and the Solo group,” said Gunawan. Following the Jakarta violence, the IS group reportedly claimed responsibility.
The question is: what’s behind the uptick in IS-affiliated activity in Indonesia? Police reportedly made several arrests against suspected IS operatives in recent weeks.
Indonesia is no stranger to terrorism carried out by Islamist groups. Between 2000 and 2009, there were six major terrorist atrocities. The biggest one was the bombings in the tourist resort of Bali in 2002 which killed over 200 people. But for the past five years, the country has enjoyed relative peace.
Author and expert on Indonesia Jeremy Menchik told France 24 in an interview Thursday night that the relative quiet in the world’s fourth largest nation has been achieved because of the country’s relatively democratic transition having been able to co-opt dissident Islamist groups.
With a population of over 240 million, Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim country. While the country suffered from a brutal dictatorship under Suharto from 1965 until the late 1990s, it has since managed to steer a more benign, inclusive and secular political path.
Under President Joko Widodo, elected in 2014, Indonesia has managed to contain its erstwhile radical Islamist problem.
One month ago, on December 17, Saudi Arabia launched a 34 Islamic nation “anti-terror” coalition, with an ostentatious announcement in the Saudi capital Riyadh. The surprise initiative was welcomed by Washington and London, although it was greeted with skepticism by many observers given the documented role that the Saudi rulers have had in funding and arming terror groups, including the Islamic State and other Al Qaeda-linked militants.
Skeptics noted that the Saudi-led coalition of 34 Islamic nations appeared to be hastily cobbled together, with some of the nominal member countries later saying that they had not been consulted by the Saudis in its formation. Not included in the Saudi initiative of the “anti-terror” Islamic bloc were Iraq and Iran, perhaps unsurprisingly given the Saudi antagonism with these mainly Shiite countries.
Even more pointedly, two major Islamic nations, Algeria and Indonesia, explicitly declined to participate in the Saudi-led alliance.
Given the prominence of Indonesia as the world’s biggest Muslim country, the Saudi initiative was thus dealt a severe public relations blow by Jakarta’s refusal to sign up.
It is believed that Saudi Arabia has been behind the funding of radical Islamist groups within Indonesia going back several years, according to the Financial Times.
With that in mind, the Indonesia authorities most likely snubbed the Saudi “anti-terror” coalition last month for precisely the same reasons that many analysts dismissed it. Seeing it as a cynical public-relations gimmick by the Saudis who are trying to burnish their badly tarnished international image over suspected links with terrorism, particularly in Syria’s five-year conflict.
That raises the plausible conjecture that the terror attacks this week in Jakarta by an IS-connected group may have been orchestrated as a form of retaliation against the Indonesian government for its embarrassing snub against the Saudis last month.
If the Saudis and Western intelligence are indeed in some murky way driving jihadist terrorism for their geopolitical agenda, then it stands to reason that such terror groups could be manipulated by these same protagonists in Indonesia – or anywhere else for that matter.
A terror attack in the heart of Jakarta apparently carried out by the IS group would serve as a sharp warning to Indonesia over its derisory putdown of the Western-backed Saudi “anti-terror” coalition.
The sudden uptick in Islamist terror activity in Indonesia and the failure of the attackers in Jakarta to inflict greater damage suggest that the assault was hurriedly planned. As in the orders to the operatives were hastily dispatched and acted on.
That would fit with the theory that the Saudi sponsors of terrorism were looking for a quick counter to Indonesia undermining their anti-terror charade last month.
Finian Cunningham (born 1963) has written extensively on international affairs, with articles published in several languages. Originally from Belfast, Northern Ireland, he is a Master’s graduate in Agricultural Chemistry and worked as a scientific editor for the Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, England, before pursuing a career in newspaper journalism. For over 20 years he worked as an editor and writer in major news media organizations, including The Mirror, Irish Times and Independent. Now a freelance journalist based in East Africa, his columns appear on RT, Sputnik, Strategic Culture Foundation and Press TV.