Indonesian security forces have little time to relax after foiling female suicide plot

Anti-terrorism agents arrested domestic worker Dian Yulia Novi on December 10 as she prepared to blow herself up outside the presidential palace in central Jakarta the next day

Indonesian officers display seized bomb-making materials at the national police headquarters in Jakarta on November 25, 2016. Dasril Roszandi / NurPhoto
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JAKARTA // Indonesian are confronting the possibility of renewed attacks by followers of ISIL after a series of arrests of militant suspects this month, including a would-be female suicide bomber.

Anti-terrorism agents arrested domestic worker Dian Yulia Novi on December 10 as she prepared to blow herself up outside the presidential palace in central Jakarta the next day – on a Sunday morning when hundreds of pedestrians would have been out on the streets.

The 27-year-old maid is the second wife of internet salesman Nur Solihan, the leader of an ISIL-linked terrorist cell uncovered in the western Jakarta suburb of Bekasi on the same day. He was arrested with what police described as a three-kilogramme pressure-cooker bomb.

Anti-terrorism agents watched the plotters reconnoitering the path Novi would have taken, walking the short distance from the Istiqlal Mosque and timing her arrival just as the guard at the presidential palace was changing.

But the Dutch colonial-era building was only one of many potential targets for militants over the Christmas-New Year period, according to security sources. They included churches, police stations and other government buildings, as well as the Myanmar embassy, which has seen several recent demonstrations over its government’s treatment of the Rohingya Muslim minority in western Rakhine state.

Since the Bekasi arrests, police have detained another 18 suspects – including two women – and killed three militants, all of whom died in a gunfight on Wednesday in the western Jakarta suburb of Tangerang.

Ordnance experts detonated 14 bombs after the Tangerang raid, an indication of the advanced level of planning for what would have been a devastating Christmas-New Year bombing campaign.

Initial questioning showed that Novi decided to offer herself as a suicide bomber while she was working in a home for the elderly in Taiwan, where she appears to have been radicalised on the internet.

The pressure-cooker bomb was assembled in Solihan’s hometown of Ngawi in Central Java and then brought to his boarding house in Bekasi, where it was discovered during the raid by the elite Detachment 88 anti-terrorism unit on December 10.

Police have been ridiculed on social media for saying it was made from a pressure cooker, but such improvised explosive devices have been used with mounting frequency, including in the 2013 bombing of the Boston marathon.

In fact, there have been numerous documented cases where pressure-cooker bombs have been used in plots or actual attacks, ranging from Kabul and Mumbai to Stockholm, New York and north-west Pakistan, between 2004 to 2010.

The seven devices in the 2006 Mumbai train bombings, each packed with seven kilograms of high explosive RDX and ammonium nitrate, killed 209 people and wounded more than 700 others.

The Bekasi cell had reportedly been directed to attack the presidential palace by Bahrun Naim, one of the leaders of several hundred Indonesian extremists who have been fighting for ISIL in Syria and Iraq since 2013-2014.

Five-star hotels and office blocks have had metal detectors and X-ray machines for years, mostly because foreign companies demand it, but security around many government buildings is often slack or non-existent.

The director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, Sidney Jones, has long warned that female extremists in Indonesia wanted a greater role because of their admiration for women carrying out terrorist attacks in Iraq, Syria and Jordan.

Since police became the primary target of Indonesian militants, women wearing burqas have been banned from entering police headquarters or local precincts.

Although ISIL issued a directive at one point that women should not be used in actual operations, their involvement would be a worrying development in Indonesia because they will always attract less suspicion.

Women and children have made up about 60 per cent of the estimated 300 Indonesians who have been sent back to Indonesia by Turkish authorities since 2014 after being intercepted trying to join ISIL.

Many are thought to need assistance because their families sold everything to make the trip. The ministry of social affairs provides temporary shelter, but there is no structured programme to help them beyond that.

Eight women are among the 120 terrorist suspects, most of them ISIL supporters, who were arrested between January and November this year, including three female combatants captured during operations in the jungles of Central Sulawesi.

The smashing of the Bekasi cell leaves security personnel with little time to relax. National police chief Tito Karnavian, a former Detachment 88 commander, on Thursday said the force had mobilised 155,000 policemen to safeguard religious venues over the Christmas period.

Dubbed Operation Candle, it will focus on 560 churches across Jakarta and the neighbouring hill city of Bandung and also on Christian enclaves in other parts of Muslim-majority Indonesia where religious tolerance has been undergoing a severe test in recent months.

Most Indonesian Muslims profess not to believe in violence, but the blasphemy charge against ethnic-Chinese Jakarta governor Basuki Purnama – and the mass demonstrations it triggered – has reopened debate over whether Indonesians are as tolerant as they are made out to be.