Specter: Assessing Indonesia's terrorism threat
April-July 2016
By: Judith Jacob

On the morning of Jan. 14, four Indonesian militants equipped with explosives and small arms launched a coordinated attack in Central Jakarta. It was the first major assault in the capital and the first to target foreigners since the bombings of the JW Marriott and the Ritz-Carlton hotels in 2009. It was also the first suicide bombing in Indonesia since 2013, and the first prominent attack perpetrated in Southeast Asia by supporters of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

The Jakarta attack’s significance thus stems largely from its rareness and potential to mark a rise in Indonesia’s terrorism threat level. While amateurish in its execution and less lethal than assaults carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the attack was far more brazen and ambitious than attempts in recent years. These factors suggest that terrorist groups in Indonesia are aiming higher, with an intent to carry out more complex plots and target high-profile sites, due to growing competition within the country’s fragmented jihadist network. Pro-ISIS factions vie among themselves and against other jihadist groups opposed to Abu Bakar Baghdadi’s organization for control over the movement in Indonesia, as well as funding, arms and supporters. In order to demonstrate their clout and garner publicity, groups are likely to encourage further operations, increasing the threat of attacks in the coming months.

Nevertheless, Indonesian jihadist groups remain constrained by limited capabilities and access to arms, and adept state security forces. This indicates that while terrorists may attempt more attacks, these will be limited in their scale. Additionally, terrorist groups will probably continue to target sites that are difficult to effectively secure, such as public transportation hubs, smaller police posts, crowded shopping centers, restaurants, cafes and bars. In the longer term, a reduction in the terrorist threat in Indonesia will depend on the government’s ability to reform its prison system to ensure that convicted jihadists are no longer able to communicate with their supporters with relative ease. While competent at monitoring and foiling plots, the government will need to improve the capabilities of its security forces in disrupting the radicalization process from its inception, and deter the outflow of Indonesian men and their families to conflict zones in the Middle East.

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