Abstract: The January 14 attack in Jakarta shows the growing military capacity of Islamic State supporters in Indonesia. It also reveals the important role played by key Indonesians in Syria as a link to militant jihadis back home providing direction, possible finance and, above all, tapping into local grievances over the actions of the Indonesian state and police. Indonesia will continue to face a threat from the Islamic State in 2016 and beyond and may suffer from further attacks, but it is highly unlikely that the group will succeed in establishing a wilayat on Indonesian territory in any meaningful way.

On January 14, multiple explosions and gunfire rocked the Indonesian capital, Jakarta. The attack took place in the Thamrin district in the city center, targeting a Starbucks café near Sarinah Mall and the traffic police post in front of it. According to the Indonesian police, eight people were killed, including four of the attackers, three Indonesian civilians and one foreigner of Canadian nationality. Another 25 were wounded, including five police officers and one foreigner of Dutch nationality. The Islamic State claimed responsibility, stating that “soldiers of the Caliphate” had “targeted a gathering of the citizens of the Crusader alliance” and “those charged with protecting them” in order to let “them know that there is no safety for them in the lands of the Muslims.”[1] The four attackers who were killed have since been identified as Afif (alias Sunakim), Dian Joni Kurniadi, M. Ali, and Ahmad Muhazan bin Saron.[2] Sunakim had been in prison for involvement in the 2010 Aceh training camp.[3] As of January 18, Indonesian police counterterrorism Detachment 88 (Densus 88) had arrested 18 persons suspected of having aided the attackers in six cities across Indonesia.[4]

This attack, which emulated the marauding modus operandi of the Paris attacks in November 2015, was the first in Jakarta since the 2009 bombings of the JW Marriott and Ritz-Carlton hotels. It was not, however, wholly unexpected as it was preceded by heightened security since November following the combined impact of the Paris attacks, the release of a video on social media calling for attacks on Jakarta police headquarters and the presidential palace,[5 ]and a blog run by an Indonesian in Syria named Bahrun Naim had urged “his Indonesian audience to study the planning, targeting, timing, coordination, security, and courage of the Paris teams.”[6] Moreover, information obtained in late 2015 indicated that the Islamic State was planning “a concert” in Indonesia, which was interpreted as meaning an attack.[7] Indeed, Indonesian police foiled a planned suicide bomb attack on New Year’s celebrations in Jakarta, resulting in the arrest of six alleged members of the Islamic State and the discovery of bomb-making materials as well as a black Islamist flag.[8]

Since the outbreak of the Syria conflict in 2011, Densus 88 has been closely watching its impact on local jihadi circles, noting both the reignition of the jihadi fervor as well as the departure of a small but steady stream of Indonesians to join Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar Ash-Sham, and the Islamic State. The verified number of Indonesians in Syria according to Densus 88 was 166 in August 2015.[9] However, Indonesia’s national intelligence agency, BIN, estimates that the number is around 500 with most Indonesians having joined the Islamic State. Security Minister Luhut Panjaitan has even placed the number of Indonesians in Syria as high as 800.[10]

Like other foreign fighters, Indonesians have been motivated by the desire to defend Syrian Muslims from the brutality of the Assad regime, the belief that the Syria conflict signalled the countdown to the final battle between good and evil as prophesied in Islamic eschatology,[11] and the need to fulfill what many see as the obligation of jihad, which even takes precedence over the hajj pilgrimage.[12] Following the declaration of the so-called caliphate in June 2014, whole families started to go to Syria in order to live in what they viewed as the true Islamic state.[13]

The Syria conflict has provided an opportunity for Indonesian Islamist organizations to gain training and combat experience. This has been particularly important with the disappearance of local arenas of jihad with the end of the Ambon conflict in 2003 and the Poso conflict in 2007. After the latter, Jemaah Islamiyya, which was responsible for the 2002 Bali bombings and a string of other high profile attacks, decided to move away from militant jihad in Indonesia until the country’s Muslims were ready for an Islamic state. Jemaah Islamiyya consequently refocused its activities on dawa (outreach) and education activities as well as rebuilding its network, which had been severely damaged by Indonesian counterterrorism operations since 2002.[14] In this context hardliners from within the ranks of Jemaah Islamiyya regrouped alongside hardliners from other jihadi organizations to establish new groups and keep the jihad going.[15] These hardliners included the Noordin Top group responsible for the 2009 hotel bombings in Jakarta.[16] The most important new groups to emerge were Jamaah Ansharu Tauhid (JAT) under the leadership of former Jemaah Islamiyya emir Abu Bakar Ba’syir and Mujahedin East Indonesia (MIT) which, under the leadership of Santoso, has waged a jihad against the Indonesian police in the Poso area since 2011. 

The Syria conflict has allowed Jemaah Islamiyya to increase its military capacity outside Indonesia, similar to the experience it gained in Afghanistan between 1985 and 1993, as well as reestablishing its jihadi credentials after moving away from jihad in Indonesia. It is important to note, however, that the number of Jemaah Islamiyya volunteers going to Syria has been small, that the selection process has been highly secretive and limited to existing members only, and that they have joined al-Qa`ida-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra rather than the Islamic State whose ideology they contest and whose caliphate they do not recognize as valid.[17]

The number of Indonesian fighters joining the Islamic State has been considerably larger and more eclectic. They have come from a pro-Islamic State network composed of the Tawhid wal Jihad group led by Aman Abdurrahman, Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, and Mujahedin East Indonesia as well as Mujahedin West Indonesia (MIB), the Bima group, NII Banten also known as Ring Banten, Laskar Jundullah,[18] the Islamic Sharia Activists Forum or Forum Aktivis Syariat Islam (FAKSI),[19] and the Student Movement for Islamic Sharia or Gerakan Mahasiswa Untuk Syariat Islam (Gema Salam).[20]

At the heart of this network is Indonesian cleric Aman Abdurrahman, who subscribes to the highly sectarian takfiri-jihadi ideas of Islamic State founder Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his mentor Abu Muhamad al-Maqdisi.[21] It is one of Abdurrahman’s men in Syria, Bahrun Naim, who, according to Indonesian national police chief General Badrodin Haiti is believed to have “masterminded” the January 14 attack in Jakarta.[22] Previously convicted for illegal possession of ammunition and explosives, Bahrun Naim departed for Syria in late 2014 to join the Islamic State and has since functioned as the link between the Islamic State and Abdurrahman and Santoso

Power Struggle
According to Jakarta police chief General Tito Karnavian, Bahrun Naim is involved in a power struggle for the leadership of Katibat Nusantara, the Malay Islamic Archipelago Unit of the Islamic State in Syria.

Katibat Nusantara, which was established in September 2014 and is based in al-Shadadi, al-Hasakah province, Syria,[23] was until recently under the command of another of Aman Abdurrahman’s men, Bahrumsyah.[24] This command position is the highest position held by an Indonesian in the Islamic State. Katibat Nusantara’s size was estimated to be around 100 in 2014. This estimate was reduced to around several dozen in 2015 due to heavy losses in battles against Kurdish fighters.[25] Divided into distinct departments for combat fighters, snipers, heavy weapons, tactics and strategy, and military management,[26] Katibat Nusantara provides Southeast Asian volunteers with military, Arabic, and ideological training before “they join ISIS forces in roles ranging from front-line soldiers and suicide bombers to guards and administrators.”[27] It also assists the families of the fighters in Syria as well as Indonesia and Malaysia.[28]

According to Jakarta-based analyst Sidney Jones, a power struggle for the leadership of Katibat Nusantara started in the latter half of 2015 with Bahrun Naim and fellow Indonesian Abu Jandal challenging Bahrumsyah.[29] In early December, a tweet appeared announcing that Bahrumsyah had tried to defect from the Islamic State but was caught and executed. This development would have provided an opportunity for Naim to make a bid for the leadership. General Karnavian believes that there is also an additional regional dimension to this power struggle pitting Indonesian jihadis against Bangsamoro jihadis from the southern Philippines to win recognition as the standard bearers of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. Indeed, he has suggested that the Jakarta attacks should be seen as a response to pro-Islamic State Islamists in the southern Philippines associated with a range of groups, including the Abu Sayyaf Group, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, and Ansarul Khilafa, declaring a local fighting force of the Islamic State.[30]

This regional struggle pertains to the recent interest by the Islamic State in establishing a “distant caliphate” using a yet to be designated area in Southeast Asia as a disconnected wilayat along the lines of the Islamic State wilayat in Libya. The Indonesian area under consideration is Poso in the province of Central Sulawesi, placing it in direct competition with areas in the southern Philippines. Poso’s remoteness and mountainous terrain made it attractive to Jemaah Islamiyya last decade, which tried and failed to establish a secure base there from which it could establish an Islamic state. This is also the area where MIT operates and holds some territory, including jihadi training camps. MIT’s leader Santoso was one of the first Indonesians to pledge loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Santoso has since used his links with the Islamic State to reposition himself among Indonesian extremists and to elevate his jihad against the police in Poso initiated in 2011 beyond the parochial. Since 2015 Bahrun Naim has been the key interlocutor with the Islamic State not just for Aman Abdurrahman but also for Santoso.

Bahrun Naim’s role in the Jakarta attacks is no great surprise to Indonesian counterterrorism officers. In August 2015, Densus 88 intercepted directives and funding from Bahrun Naim in Syria for the intended bombing of a police station, a church, and a temple in Solo.[31] In this case, they were able to prevent the attack by arresting the operatives before they could strike. Evidence of attempted operations in Indonesia goes back even further. In February 2015, a chlorine bomb was discovered at ITC Mall Depok. It failed to explode as the chemicals did not mix properly. While this operation was not traced back to Bahrun Naim, Densus 88 officers believed it was the handiwork of pro-Islamic State returnees from Syria.[32]

The extent of Bahrun Naim’s role, however, remains subject to debate. According to Densus 88, he played a greater role in the planned New Year’s attack, which was directly controlled from Syria while those who carried out the January 14 Jakarta attack were only indirectly linked. Densus 88 believes they were from the loose network of local supporters of the Islamic State previously referred to as ISIS Indonesia and now calling itself Jamaah Ansharut Daulah.[33]

A similar view has been advanced by Surabaya-based analyst Harits Abu Ulya who asserted that Afif was the attack’s mastermind and that Bahrun Naim’s role was an inspirational one as his writings on terror techniques served as a reference point for many local jihadis.[34] He further asserted that Afif had already sworn revenge on the police while in Cipinang prison for the mistreatment he suffered at the hands of the police during his arrest.[35]

The Jakarta attack—both in terms of targets and modus operandi—fits into the broader strategy of the Islamic State to take the war to the enemy either directly or through inspiration and emulation. Jakarta must thus be seen alongside the recent attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Istanbul, as well as a foiled attack in Kuala Lumpur last July and again in January 2016.[36] The Jakarta attack also clearly shows that over the past year Indonesian jihadis have increased their bomb-making capacity, and have been able to acquire weapons, in the Jakarta case reportedly from the Philippines.[37] The motivation among Islamic State supporters to carry out such attacks and the direct and indirect links to Syria for possible directives and funding, which have now become a pattern, is of concern. As long as these links exist, there is a good chance that Islamic State supporters will try again to target foreigners and the police.

At this point it appears that the Jakarta attack drew largely upon locally acquired capacity. Syria returnees could boost the military capacity of pro-Islamic State Indonesian jihadis in 2016 and beyond. Further territorial losses by the Islamic State in its core areas of Syria and Iraq could also increase its desire to establish more distant wilaya. Both would increase the threat to Indonesia.

However, it is also important to consider both the capacity of Indonesia’s counterterrorism police in preventing and limiting militant jihadi activities as well as the strong resistance Indonesian Muslims have shown against the ideology of the Islamic State, including the opposition to the group from within Indonesian jihadi circles. Thus, while Indonesia will continue to face a threat from the Islamic State and may suffer from further attacks, it is highly unlikely that the Islamic State will succeed in establishing a wilayat on Indonesian territory in any meaningful way. 

Dr. Kirsten E. Schulze is an Associate Professor of International History at the London School of Economics. She works on Islamism in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, specializing in Islamism and conflict.


[1] Islamic State, “A security detachment from the soldiers of the Caliphate target a gathering of the charges of the Crusader alliance in Jakarta city,” posted on Twitter and Telegram channels, January 14, 2016 (dated 3rd Rabi Al-Thani 1437).

[2] “Jakarta attacks: wounded Indonesian dies in hospital,” BBC Asia, January 17, 2016.

[3] “Afif otak dibalik terror dan bom Sarinah,” okezone.com, January 18, 2016. For further information on the Aceh training camp see ICG, “Indonesia: Jihadi Surprise in Aceh,” Asia Report No 189, April 20, 2010.

[4] Author’s interview with a senior source in Densus 88, January 2016.

[5] “Indonesia Increases Security after Video Calls For Attack,” Irrawaddy, November 26, 2015.

[6] Sidney Jones, “Indonesia: No room for complacency as ISIS builds Jakarta network,” Interpreter, Lowry Institute of International Policy, November 23, 2015.

[7] Joe Cochrane and Thomas Fuller, “Jakarta attack raises fears of ISIS spread in Southeast Asia,” New York Times, January 15, 2015.

[8] “12 arrested after deadly Jakarta attack”, CNN, January 17, 2016.

[9] Author’s interview with a senior officer in Densus 88, August 2015.

[10] “Indonesian police hunt for more suspects over foiled terrorist attacks,” Australian Associated Press, December 21, 2015.

[11] Solahudin, “Syria as Armageddon,” Inside Indonesia, January 2014; “Indonesians and the Syrian Conflict,” IPAC Report 6:30, January 2014: pp. 2-3.

[12] “Abu Bakr Ba’asyir: Saat Ini Jihad Ke Suriah Lebih Afdhol Daripada Haji dan Umrah,” June 27, 2013.

[13] In December 2014, a group of 12 Indonesian adults and children on their way to Syria were intercepted in Malaysia and returned to Indonesia (“12 Indonesians Detained in Malaysia Over Syria Travel Plans,” Jakarta Globe, December 15, 2014.) In February 2015, three extended families separated from their travel group at Istanbul airport and, according to Turkish intelligence, were believed to have crossed into Syria to join the Islamic State. (“Fears for Missing Indonesians turn to Islamic State Speculation,” Jakarta Globe, March 9, 2015.) In August 2015, Densus 88 numbers indicated that there were 19 women and 43 Indonesian children with the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (author interview with a senior officer in Densus 88, August 2015).

[14] For a comprehensive history of Jemaah Islamiyya, see Solahudin, The Roots of Terrorism in Indonesia: From Darul Islam to Jema’h Islamiyah, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2013.

[15] See ICG, “How Indonesian Extremists Regroup,” Asia Report No 228, July 16, 2012.

[16] See, for example, Noor Huda Ismail, “The July 17th Jakarta Suicide Attacks and the Death of Noordin Top,” CTC Sentinel, (2:9), September 2009.

[17] Author’s interview with a source close to Jemaah Islamiyya, August 2015.

[18] Author’s interview with Indonesian police general Tito Karnavian, police headquarters, Jakarta, March 27, 2015.

[19] Navhat Nuraniyah, “How ISIS Charmed the New Generation of Indonesian Militants,” Middle East International, January 9, 2015. See also IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” September 2014.

[20] Greg Fealy and John Funston, “Indonesian and Malaysian support for the Islamic State,” USAID, September 18, 2015.

[21] Interview with police general Tito Karnavian, police headquarters, Jakarta, March 27, 2015.

[22] “12 arrested after deadly Jakarta attack,” CNN, January 17, 2016.

[23] “ISIS fighters from Malaysia, Indonesia form military unit,” Star, September 26, 2014.

[24] IPAC, “The Evolution of ISIS in Indonesia,” p. 4.

[25] Fealy and Funston, “Indonesian and Malaysian support for the Islamic State,” USAID, September 18, 2015.

[26] Jasminder Singh, “Katibah Nusantara: Islamic States Malay Archipelago Combat Unit,” RSIS Commentary, No. 126, May 26, 2015.

[27] Fealy and Funston, “Indonesian and Malaysian support for the Islamic State,” USAID, September 18, 2015.

[28] Singh, “Katibah Nusantara: Islamic States Malay Archipelago Combat Unit,” RSIS Commentary, No. 126, May 26, 2015.

[29] Sidney Jones, “Indonesia: No room for complacency as ISIS builds Jakarta network,” Interpreter, Lowry Institute of International Policy, November 23, 2015.

[30] “Kapolda: Bahrun Naim Diduga di Belakang Aksi Teror di Thamrin,” CNN Indonesia, January 14, 2016; “Pelaku Bom Sarinah Sasar Starbucks, Kenapa?” Tempo, January 15, 2016.

[31] Author’s interview with a senior Densus 88 officer, August 2015.

[32] Author’s interview with a senior Densus 88 officer, March 2015.

[33] Author’s interview with a senior source in Densus 88, January 2016.

[34] “Bahrun Naim, Aman Abdurrahman dan Pengaruh ISIS di Indonesia,” OKEZONE, January 18, 2016.

[35] “Afif otak dibalik terror dan bom Sarinah,” OKEZONE, January 18, 2016.

[36] “Malaysian detained was hours away from suicide attack,” Today, January 17, 2016.

[37] “Jakarta attacks: wounded Indonesian dies in hospital,” BBC Asia, January 17, 2016.

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