Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 03:01 | SYDNEY
Saturday 23 Feb 2019 | 03:01 | SYDNEY

As Indonesia remains defiant, terrorists may be changing their tactics



15 January 2016 15:00

Jakarta on Thursday suffered its first major attack since the hotel bombings of 2009. At the busy Sarinah intersection in central Jakarta, six explosions were heard early in the day, followed by gunshots as police secured the area. Seven people were killed, including five of the attackers, one local resident and one foreigner. More than a dozen people were injured.

The attack was a tragic loss of human life and a huge shock to the people of Jakarta. But as a major terrorist attack, it could be considered a flop. The attackers lost more of their own lives than they took of their targets'. The explosions were weak, appearing to shatter only the windows of the targeted police post and nearby Starbucks cafe, without causing any real structural damage. By late afternoon, police had secured the intersection and were allowing traffic to pass through, with all indications that life in Jakarta would continue as normal the following day.

On social media, initial panic soon turned to defiance, as Jakartans spread messages of support with the hashtags #KamiTidakTakut, 'we are not afraid', and #JakartaBerani, 'Jakarta is brave'. The mostly Muslim, 10 million-strong population of Indonesia's capital overwhelmingly condemned the violence. President Jokowi called the blasts 'acts of terror', and urged the public to remain calm.

At the time of writing, no local groups had claimed responsibility for the attack, though police strongly suspected they were conducted by a group connected to ISIS. The ISIS-affiliated Aamaaq news agency reported that ISIS fighters were behind the attack, which it said targeted foreigners and police. 

If the claims from Aamaaq are true, the Sarinah intersection was not a well-chosen target to impact foreigners. The busy crossroads is home to international fast-food joints, and is close to the UN headquarters and several embassies, but these are considerably spread out along the main street of Jalan Thamrin. The majority of people who frequent the Sarinah area are probably local office workers, shoppers, street food vendors and commuters.

Any attack in this area would inevitably affect more locals than foreigners.

Foreign tourists are also unlikely to be gathered there in large numbers. While Jakartans see the intersection as iconic, most tourists would likely pass by on their way to the National Monument without giving it a second thought. The Sarinah department store, where police searched for attackers floor by floor before declaring the area safe on Thursday, was the first modern shopping centre to open in Jakarta. It holds a special place in the hearts of Jakartans, not only for its pioneering role in the city's contemporary mall culture, but because it was opened by the first president, Sukarno, who in a humble gesture named it after his childhood nanny. The ageing store is rarely crowded these days, but still holds a sense of nostalgia for many Jakartans. 

Aamaaq's claim of the attackers targeting police is easier to believe. As Sidney Jones wrote for The Interpreter back in November, police have been the main target of terrorist activities in Indonesia since 2010. But as she warned in the same piece, there is a growing risk of pro-ISIS groups changing tactics to target foreigners and soft targets instead. The Sarinah intersection is a soft target, meaning this attack could signal a shift in tactics for ISIS in Indonesia.

Police suspect the attack was carried out by an ISIS-related group whose plans for a suicide attack in Jakarta on New Year's Eve had been shut down by authorities. The new year was welcomed safely in the capital, with residents celebrating openly on the streets. Fireworks exploded in all directions for most of the night – something I'm told was a rare sight in the years following the Bali bombings, when police conducted a crackdown on explosives.

Thursday's attack was poorly organised, poorly executed and poorly received by the people of Jakarta. The President and social media users are right to refuse to be terrorised. But if anything, the attack does indicate that terrorist activities are changing tack in Indonesia, and the public and police will have to remain vigilant.

Photo by Oscar Siagian/Getty Images

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