Unconventional Weapons Plot in Indonesia: Motivation for Agents Selection and Potential Impact of Alarmist Police Statements

Police disposing remnants of a supposed chlorine bomb in Jakarta in 2015. Credit: Antara Photo/Prasetyo Utomo


In August 2017, Indonesian authorities uncovered a plot to use chemical and radioactive explosive devices by a pro-IS cell in Bandung, Indonesia. This is the second known attempt by terrorists in three years using unconventional weapons. In 2015, an explosive device containing chlorine was detonated in a shopping mall in Jakarta, Indonesia. The detonation, attributed to IS returnees from Syria, did not cause any casualties. Both incidents highlight the continued interest by Indonesian terrorist groups for unconventional weapons. This could be due to the potency and fear-generating potential of such weapons.

However, could this signal a preference by Indonesian terrorist groups to use unconventional weapons other than biological agents, namely chemical and radioactive agents? Additionally, despite their similarity in employing unconventional weapons, police issued contradictory statements for both cases; one assuring while the other potentially alarmist. What is the potential impact on the Indonesian police’s image due to such contradiction?

Why Chemical and Radiological Weapons?

One reason behind using chemical and radioactive agents could be their slightly easier production process over biological agents. Two cases in point are the botched attempts by the Japanese cult-terrorist group Aum Shinrikyo and the transnational Islamist militant group Al Qaeda to produce biological agents. These were despite their vast finances, employment of scientists and presence of laboratories. Aum Shinrikyo eventually gained notoriety for releasing a chemical agent (sarin gas) in Tokyo subway in 1995, killing 12 people.

Despite their ambitious plot, the recent Indonesian cell did not succeed because it lacked the capabilities to produce such weapons. Firstly, it is likely that the cell did not have any technical knowledge in natural sciences. The reliance of the cell operatives on a manual to produce radiological dispersal device exposes their lack of expertise.  This manual was written by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian militant based in Syria. Possessing only a degree in Informatics Engineering, his inexperience in unconventional weapons was evident. He mislabelled radiological dispersal devices as nuclear bombs and his guidelines for producing radioactive materials were flawed.

Another possible reason behind using chemical and radioactive agents by the Indonesian terrorist cell could be the fairly localized impact of such weapons. In other words, the spread of these agents is limited; restricted by factors such as wind and susceptibility to heat. This is ideal for Indonesian terrorist groups who have mainly targeted foreigners or foreign-owned businesses and the police, regarded as infidels. This suggests that Indonesian terrorists shy away from being perceived as directly attacking the general Muslim population. One deviation was the 2016 church bombing in East Kalimantan, Indonesia.

As opposed to chemical and radioactive agents, biological agents could be perceived as not only having the potential to target indiscriminately but would also have far reaching effects. In reality, only some biological agents have the potential to cause epidemics. The impact of using such infectious biological agents would be detrimental to these groups. Firstly, due to their inexperience, terrorist groups risk prematurely releasing the biological agent during its manufacture. This would put their members and the communities they seek to influence and recruit from at risk of infection. Secondly, it would be a challenge to convince Indonesians that their targets were the police or foreigners when there is no control over who would be infected. Again, this would affect their recruitment potential due to public backlash. Therefore, any plots involving biological agents have a low possibility of going past the planning phase and was likely considered only for its potential for eliciting fear.

Differing Police Media Statements in Both Incidents

In the 2015-botched chemical attack, the Indonesian police adopted a reassuring stance. The police stated that “there was no need for alarm as the explosion had an extremely low impact.” They even likened the explosion to “the bursting of a balloon.” While in the recent incident, the police took a contrary stance. They described the potential of the dirty bomb to “have more destructive impact” than an explosive called Tri-cyclic Acetone Peroxide (TATP). The police added that such bombs “could burn anything and make it hard for people to breathe.”

There are merits in issuing alarmist statements. Such statements would signal the need for the general population’s involvement in mitigating the threat of terrorism. It would highlight the need for heightened vigilance by citizens. However, such statements should also be calibrated to highlight that the authorities can adequately respond to any threats by terrorist groups. This is where the Indonesian police’s statement in the recent incident could be improved.

Disregarding a reassuring tone could be detrimental to the police’s image. First, people look to the police to ensure their safety. Therefore, the public’s trust in the Indonesian police’s capabilities should not be compromised. By presenting a bleak situation without any assurances could also motivate the public to be vigilant but for the wrong reasons. They would be motivated by fear and the perceived lack of safety provided by the police. Vigilance due to such motivations could breed suspicion and distrust amongst communities.

Another potential negative fallout of such statements will be equipping the police critics with more ammunition for criticism. The police could be falsely accused of attempting to manipulate the population’s opinion for their own benefit such as the need for a higher police budget. In July 2017, the Indonesian National Police chief announced that the annual police budget has doubled since 2014.

Such statements, if issued regularly, would also undo the years of good police work in maintaining security. The lack of assurances of safety would only bolster the argument that the police alone is not sufficient in managing the terrorist threat in Indonesia. Currently, the military has been pushing for a larger role in counter-terrorism in Indonesia. It would be useful to not contribute to this momentum as such initiatives require measured considerations. One consideration is that police and army in Indonesia have different training cultures. For instance, the police inculcate a culture of apprehending suspects for prosecution by the legal system, while the military is geared towards combat.

At the international level, it could lead to two possible outcomes. The first would be the perception of growing sense of insecurity in Indonesia. This in turn could lead to a decline in foreign investments and tourism; potentially affecting resources for national development and security. The other outcome would be for neighbouring countries with vested interest in Indonesia, such as Australia, to increase foreign intervention such as funding. However, such interventions have setbacks. One would be that it could send the message that terrorism could be used as a bargaining chip to gain concessions. Such conduct would not aid in building mutual trust in mitigating terrorism.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

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