On 28 March, 2021, a husband-wife duo, believed to be members of Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), conducted a suicide bomb attack at a church in Makassar, South Sulawesi. This attack not only signifies a continuation of suicide bombings targeted at churches in Indonesia, but also the exploitation of kinship linkages by Islamic State (IS) affiliated groups such as JAD in terror attacks. In 2016, there were two attacks on churches by lone perpetrators, a JAD member and a lone-wolf, respectively. In 2018, suicide bombings were simultaneously conducted on three churches in Surabaya by a family of six including the wife and children. JAD was again responsible for these bombings as well as attacks on the Surabaya Police Headquarters and an apartment complex in Sidoarjo that occurred shortly after. These attacks were the first time in Southeast Asia where entire family units, including women and young children were used in terror attacks.
More Brazen Attacks by Women in the Near Future?
While continuing to exploit familial ties, JAD appears to be advocating for women’s active participation in amaliyah (battlefield operations) as evidenced by the attacks in Makassar and Jakarta. Women were inspired to perpetrate attacks via social media exposure and interactions with other radicalized women. Though Bahrun Naim was the first Indonesian senior IS recruiter (now deceased) to advocate for women’s participation, there were already prior discussions among women to participate in terror attacks.
The adoption of this strategy may just be utilitarian in nature owing to a number of advantages in using female operatives (expanded below) that are being capitalized by some JAD cells. This may also be a continuation of Bahrun Naim’s legacy who advocated for women’s participation and increased willingness among women to take part in more active roles in JAD networks.
Since the Surabaya bombings, there were at least one plot and three attacks by married couples affiliated with JAD, namely: the pressure-cooker bomb attack on the Indramayu Police Headquarters in West Java (2018); the plot to attack several police stations in Sibolga (2019); the Jolo church bombing in the Philippines (2019); and the attack on Security Minister Wiranto in Serang, Banten (2019).
Attacks by women have also become more brazen as evident in the recent lone-wolf attack on the Jakarta police headquarters three days after the Makassar bombing. The perpertrator was a 25-year old woman, believed to be linked to JAD, who was supposedly armed with an airsoft rifle. This lone-wolf attack also suggests that Indonesian women can operate independently from men. Not only does this indicate an increase in autonomy for female operatives but also an increase in the terror threat in Indonesia.
Marriages of Convenience as ‘Enablers’ for Attacks?
Notably, the Makassar attack also suggests the reliance on marriages of convenience for Indonesian women to gain approval to be actively involved in operations. In this case, the perpetrators were a young couple in their mid-20s, who had been married for only six months. Previously, in 2016, Dian Yulia Novi married IS-member, Nur Sholihin, to fulfill an IS fatwa which demanded that a woman sought the approval of a male (husband or father) to engage in a suicide operation. Though her suicide bombing attempt was thwarted, her marriage to Nur Sholihin was a marriage of convenience that enabled her to actively participate in this plot. While marriages of convenience are not always a prerequisite, as seen in the Jakarta case where the attacker was a lone, unmarried woman, in some cases, it would act as an ‘enabler’ to facilitate attacks perpetrated by women.
The Makassar bombing also highlights the prevalence of kinship and close ties in terrorism in Indonesia. The young couple were connected with a cell affiliated to the JAD Makassar network. A member of this network, Rizaldy, had not only presided over the couple’s wedding but had familial ties with Andi Baso, a key recruiter and facilitator of the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombings. The perpetrators of the Jolo attack were another married couple who were related to Andi Baso and Rizaldy. The couple, Rullie Rian Zeke and Ulfah Handayani Saleh, were Andi Baso’s in-laws while Rizaldy and Ulfah were siblings. Therefore, it is highly likely that Rizaldy played a crucial role in the selection of churches as a target and was instrumental in radicalizing the couple for the Makassar attack. Interestingly, this JAD network which has been dismantled by the authorities also comprised of four siblings of another family.
Though not related by blood, the Makassar couple and Rizaldy shared close ties as they were part of a radical study group in Vila Mutiara that was led by a radical preacher, Ustaz Basri. Prior to his death in 2018, Ustaz Basri together with members of the study group including Rizaldy pledged allegiance to IS. Therefore, it is likely that the couple’s radicalization began with Ustaz Basri. This is similar to the Surabaya case where the perpetrators were students of pro-IS preacher Khalid Abu Bakar Besleme and were also part of a JAD study group.
Continued use of Women and Autonomous Cells in Future JAD Attacks
It is highly likely that JAD will continue to heed Bahrun Naim’s call of using women in terror attacks and exploit familial ties in future attacks. There are obvious advantages in doing so:
1) Women are still less likely to arouse suspicion as compared to men. This enables them to penetrate target locations with ease as evident in the recent Jakarta police headquarters attack. They are also able to conceal weapons and explosives effectively under their clothing as seen in the Surabaya case where the female attackers concealed the explosives under their abaya.
2) Attacks perpetrated by women tend to receive more public attention as women are not traditionally associated with violence. Common public and societal conceptions still tend to relate violent acts, including terrorism with masculinity as opposed to feminity.
Additionally, the exploitation of family networks will continue to hamper counterterrorism efforts. The atmosphere of secrecy, trust and loyalty within family networks will reduce the chances of defection and detection and decrease the likelihood of information being divulged. Defection becomes harder as withdrawal from a cell would be tantamount to an act of familial disloyalty. Recruitment within families would also be easier due to a sense of shared collective identity among members.
The Surabaya and Makassar cases highlight the continued reliance of JAD networks to recruit couples and families using closed-door study groups, and to facilitate marriages of convenience. These attacks also indicate JAD’s continued employment of localized autonomous cells for attacks. The reliance on such cells entails smaller-scale attacks as compared to larger-scale ones that are centrally directed. This is an inevitable consequence of the large number of arrests that have crippled JAD’s central leadership. JAD has, thus, adopted a more decentralised organizational structure involving numerous cells that are disconnected and operate independently of each other.
Due to such decentralization, the internet will be instrumental in facilitating attacks by these cells. This is noteworthy as 1) recruitment and coordination can be conducted online using encrypted platforms, 2) knowledge sharing such as bomb-making is made easier by the usage of online platforms which could also drive more lone-wolf attacks, and 3) the heavy reliance on the internet particularly by millennials provides the group with a vast pool of individuals to recruit from. Based on the Makassar and Jakarta attacks, JAD is likely to continue targeting youths in their mid-20s who have a significant online presence.