More terror attacks loom as Indonesian trio in Syria vie for ISIL glory

A crackdown in the wake of January’s gun and suicide assault on Jakarta has uncovered a complex web of small militant cells working at the behest of competing ringleaders in Syria.

Indonesian police advance during last month's gun and suicide bomb assault in central Jakarta last month. Darren Whiteside/Reuters
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JAKARTA // A power struggle between three Indonesian-born ISIL militants in Syria could have a violent ripple effect in Southeast Asia, senior police warn, as a deadly game of one-upmanship threatens to cause more Jakarta-style attacks.

A crackdown in the wake of January’s gun and suicide assault on the Indonesian capital has uncovered a complex web of small militant cells working at the behest of competing ringleaders in Syria, shedding light on the nature of ISIL infiltration far from its Middle East heartland.

The trio in Syria, named Bahrumsyah, Abu Jandal and Bahrun Naim, were all suspected of plotting attacks throughout 2015.

Police initially believed that Naim, a high-profile extremist from Central Java known for his online radicalism, was the mastermind of last month’s outrage.

Each of these influential figureheads has been encouraging their Indonesian cells to independently wage attacks back home, providing cash and guidance in the hope of impressing ISIL with a spectacular operation.

“These three are competing to win praise from IS central command by undertaking attacks,” said Jakarta police chief Tito Karnavian, a seasoned frontline officer who helped dismantle Indonesian militant networks during the 2000s.

“Once they get it, they will be endorsed for the IS leadership for Indonesia, and with that comes money and power.”

Competition among the Syria-based trio has kept police very busy in Indonesia, with militant activity spiking dramatically in recent months.

Police attention has since shifted away from Naim to Aman Abdurrahman, a jailed ideologue linked to one of Naim’s competitors in Syria, and one of the first Indonesians to pledge allegiance to ISIL.

Abdurrahman’s success at home has increased pressure on his rivals to carry out attacks “as soon as possible”, the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (Ipac) said in a February report.

One of the trio in Syria even rang an associate in Indonesia shortly after the Jakarta assault demanding that a similar attack be carried out immediately.

“More terrorist attacks in Indonesia are likely as local ISIS leaders compete at home and abroad to establish their supremacy,” the Ipac report said.

Top policeman Karnavian said ISIL would “turn to Indonesia” as it sought to establish a Southeast Asia branch. The Jakarta attack was the first in the region claimed by the brutal militant group and proved there were fighters willing to unleash extremist attacks in the world’s fourth-most populous country.

The ensuing police sweep has seen about 20 suspected militants arrested, and exposed a tangled web of splinter cells, some operating alone but many with complex and at times competing allegiances to armed insurgent groups, jailed radicals and influential leaders in Syria.

Many of these groups had been actively plotting attacks for years, police said, with some committing robberies to bankroll operations and others identifying police targets as far back as 2010.

Others had deep links inside prisons, fertile ground for indoctrinating and recruiting new footsoldiers.

Prisons pose a unique challenge as jailed extremists are using their time inside to recruit hardened criminals and hatch new plans, Karnavian said.

Afif, one of the Jakarta attackers who, like many Indonesians goes by one name, had pledged allegiance to ISIL while behind bars, before launching the deadly assault that left him, three other militants and four civilians dead.

One cell busted south of Jakarta had recruited an inmate trusted by jail wardens to steal guns and ammunition from the police armoury behind bars. A police source said his girlfriend hid the weapons in an insulated lunch box and smuggled them to militants on the outside.

This group was on the brink of launching an attack before it was busted, a counterterror police source said, with targets identified in Jakarta and Bali, a popular resort island frequented by foreigners. Strikes against embassies of nations fighting against ISIL in Syria and Iraq were also being assessed.

Monitoring outside prison is tricky too. In 2014, before Bahrumsyah – one of the Indonesian ringleaders in Syria – left for the Middle East, he led 1,000 followers in a mass pledge of allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakar Al Baghdadi.

Counter-terror officials complain that the law is too weak and allows radicals returning home to slip through the cracks, something the government is seeking to amend with new legislation.

“History will be repeated when those militants return from Syria,” said Ansyaad Mbai, former head of the national terrorism mitigation agency.

* Agence France-Presse