Suspected Islamic State-allied militants carried out a brazen attack in central Jakarta on Thursday, setting off explosions and engaging in a running gun battle in the heart of the Indonesian capital. According to local authorities, five of the attackers and two others were confirmed dead, while nearly two dozen people were injured.
The mayhem follows swiftly on the heels of Islamic State-linked attacks in Istanbul, Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. — a sign of the global reach of the extremist organization, even as a U.S.-led coalition keeps pounding away at the group's positions in Syria and Iraq.
The Jakarta police chief, Tito Karnavian, told reporters that the Islamic State was "definitely" behind the attack. The strike, which targeted a major business and shopping district, involved multiple suicide bombings, including at a Starbucks, and a 15-minute exchange of fire between gunmen and security forces. Officials say the tactics closely mirrored that of the coordinated bombings and shooting spree carried out in Paris in November.
"Islamic State fighters carried out an armed attack this morning targeting foreign nationals and the security forces charged with protecting them in the Indonesian capital," declared a news agency affiliated with the Islamic State, using the Telegram app. Another Islamic State-linked statement hailed the attack on "the crusader alliance."
Jeremy Douglas, an employee of the United Nations who happened to be near the scene, tweeted his shock at what he witnessed:
— Jeremy Douglas (@jdouglasSEA) January 14, 2016
Indonesia is home to the world's largest population of Muslims, and there have been increasing fears of Islamic State-style extremism taking root in the archipelago nation.
About 500 to 700 Indonesian nationals are thought to be among the ranks of the Islamic State's fighters in Syria and Iraq. Katibah Nusantara, a unit composed of jihadists from Southeast Asia, has even helped capture territory in Syria and broadcasts its victories to attract new recruits from back home.
Karnavian suggested that the mastermind of the attack was an Indonesian national, Bahrun Naim, who is believed to be in Raqqa, Syria.
This is the first attack launched by the Islamic State in Indonesia, and the worst such terror incident in the country since 2009, when Islamist suicide bombers targeted two ritzy hotels in Jakarta, killing seven. Indonesia's eclectic, diverse melding of religions and cultures makes it largely infertile ground for the Islamic State's brand of puritanical zeal.
Nevertheless, fundamentalist groups do have a long history in Indonesia. Most infamously, bombings in Bali in 2002 killed more than 200 people, including many Australian tourists. They were carried out by Jemaah Islamiah, a once-powerful militant faction allied with al-Qaeda.
Since then, Indonesian authorities have beefed up counterterrorism operations, broken up quite a few insurgent networks and sought to crack down on organizations and publications sympathetic to the jihadist cause. In recent months, security forces have aggressively pursued suspected Islamic State supporters, arresting 20 people allegedly connected to the group.
The country's relative success in combating extremism should not be grounds for complacency, however, Sidney Jones, a veteran security analyst based in Jakarta, argued in a prescient article after the Paris attacks last year.
"It’s true that a coordinated attack on the scale of Paris is not going to happen in Jakarta or Bali or anywhere else in Indonesia," Jones wrote. ". . . The jihadi groups still active in Indonesia are focused more on getting to Syria than on undertaking any action and anyway, they are poorly trained, poorly led and largely incompetent."
"We could, however, see a change in tactics on the part of pro-ISIS groups here, including a decision to target foreigners," she wrote, using an alternative name for the Islamic State.
That seems to be the clear strategy now linking Jakarta in a global web of terror operations.
“This act is clearly aimed at disturbing public order and spreading terror among people,” Indonesian President Joko Widodo said in a televised address. “The state, the nation and the people should not be afraid of, and be defeated by, such terror acts.”
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