Islamic State Staking Its Claims on Southeast Asia?

Commentary by Rohan Gunaratna
160114-ID-jakarta-street-620 Police (left) hide behind vehicles while exchanging gunfire with suspected militants near a Starbucks café in downtown Jakarta, Jan. 14, 2016.

Updated at 10:40 a.m. ET on 2016-01-19

Densus 88, the elite Indonesian counter-terrorist police wing, last month foiled plans by two Islamic State (IS) cells to carry out Paris-style attacks in Indonesia. But they could not detect and stop a third IS cell that mounted Thursday’s deadly strike in downtown Jakarta.

An Indonesian IS network directed by Bahrun Naim planned, prepared and mounted the attack. While Bahrun Shah is the leader of the Katibah Nusantara (Peninsula Battalion), which mounts attacks both in Syria and Iraq, Bahrun Naim heads an IS external operations wing in Southeast Asia.

IS will strike again unless its capabilities in Southeast Asia are dismantled.

‘There is no safety’

IS portrayed the Jakarta attack as a success in an official communique released a few hours later.

According to a translation by the SITE Intelligence Group, the communique read:

"In a unique security operation, a detachment from the soldiers of the Caliphate in Indonesia targeted a gathering of the citizens of the Crusader alliance (which is fighting the Islamic State) in the city of Jakarta, and this was done by planting several timed canisters whose detonation was coordinated an attack by four of the soldiers of the Caliphate – may Allah accept them – with light weaponry and explosive belts, and the operation led to the killing of nearly 15 Crusader foreigners along with those tasked with protecting them from the apostates, and injuring several of them, and let the civilians of the Crusader alliance and those who protect them know that there is no safety for them in the lands of the Muslims after today Allah permitting, and Allah will win but most people do not know."

As in Paris, IS operatives in Indonesia did not select high-profile targets. Because high-profile targets were protected, they selected community and tourist targets, and the police.

Although their more ambitious plans were foiled, the terrorists are likely to study and learn from their failures. By integrating a suicide capability, the IS network in Indonesia gradually will seek to mount complex attacks, including attacks against hard and hardened targets.

Not understood

IS hopes to declare a satellite state of the Caliphate in Southeast Asia. But Indonesia has disrupted its plans to declare in province on Sulawesi island.

By deploying in strength in a series of security operations last year, the Indonesian military and Densus 88 degraded the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), the Indonesian group closest to IS, which is based in Sulawesi.

But MIT still presents a challenge, and a series of new groups have emerged. Working with these groups and cells, IS seeks to hit Indonesia again and hit other Southeast Asian capitals too.

Compared with al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah, IS presents a much greater threat. By the end of 2016, the number of Southeast Asians that have traveled to Syria to join IS, al-Nusra, Ajnad al-Sham and other threat groups will have increased by more than 1,000.

Few governments grasp the level of the threat posed by IS. They cannot fight the current wave of IS-inspired and directed attacks without expanding their counter-terrorism intelligence, investigative and tactical units.

They also cannot ward off the IS threat without political support at the highest level of government. To succeed in the fight, it is paramount for heads of state and government to allocate and invest resources and manpower to meet the rapidly growing IS challenge.

Although Densus 88 is a highly capable force, their numbers are too small in light of the threat. Densus 88 needs to double its strength and operate throughout Indonesia.

Attempts by IS Indonesia to procure weapons from the Philippines and Thailand were frustrated in 2015. The terrorists are likely to reopen these routes in 2016.

Preventing the next attack

The Jakarta attack will mobilize IS supporters in Indonesia and in neighboring countries. But every terrorist attack is an opportunity for governments to learn and to prevent the next attack.

There are 22 Indonesian groups that have pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the IS leader. They are an incubator for IS in Indonesia.

At this point, it is perfectly legal under Indonesia law for IS groups to disseminate propaganda, raise funds, recruit, procure supplies, and even conduct training. It is acceptable for Indonesians to hold IS meetings and demonstrations wearing IS insignia and carrying IS flags.

Unless Indonesia’s IS groups are dismantled, they too will strike. Indonesia must criminalize its IS groups to send a strong signal to the community that IS is a proscribed entity.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.

An earlier version incorrectly identified Bahrun Naim  as Bahrum Naim.


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