The bombings of three churches and a police headquarters in the Indonesian city of Surabaya and an attack on police in Sumatra has marked a dramatic escalation of the terror threats in our region.
Few Australians know much about Surabaya, a city of 6.5 million people, even though it is close to Bali where more than one million Australians holiday each year. To travel from Surabaya to the main tourist spots on Bali is similar to travelling from Perth to Merredin — chillingly close.
Surabaya has been relatively free from major terrorist attacks until now, though many small terrorist cells have been found in the province of East Java, of which Surabaya is the capital.
So why has terrorism suddenly taken such a dramatic and despicable turn, choosing suicide as the means of inflicting death and injury, and using children who were “sacrificed” for “the greater cause” by their own parents?
Authorities don’t yet have these answers, but we do know that in the years after the Bali bombings, the Indonesian police, supported by Australia’s Federal Police, made major inroads into the activities of well-known terrorist groups such as the Abu Bakar Bashir-led Jemaah Islamiyah. As a result of this process, many members of JI fled and formed small “terror cells” with the objective of seeking an Islamic State in Indonesia.
With the collapse of Islamic State in the Middle East last year, radical Indonesians were encouraged to stay home to support the creation of a caliphate or Islamic State within their own region, targeting not only Christians but Shi’ite Muslims and also Indonesia’s national police.
Fortunately, most of these would-be terrorists lacked the skills to build bombs, but also to execute a major terrorist attack. This incompetence — that often resulted in would-be terrorists blowing themselves up — combined with the intelligence services provided by countries such as Australia — allowed Indonesian police to thwart numerous plots to cause death and fear throughout the region.
For many months now, Australia’s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her counterpart in Indonesia, Retno Masudi, have warned that as IS disintegrated, Indonesian fighters would return home and bring with them not only entire families who had been radicalised, but also the skills to construct sophisticated bombs, and the knowledge of how to plan and implement an attack.
What this week’s attacks in Surabaya showed was just how devastating the actions of a radicalised family could be. What we don’t know is who was behind these families, planning and developing such assaults on three churches. One thing is clear: a simple family, despite being radicalised, would be highly unlikely to have the skills to plan an attack such as that in Surabaya.
Neither would they have the bomb-making skills. So who was behind this shocking event?
One hopes it was simply a local terror cell, but more likely this is the first time we have seen the impact that returning fighters can have when using a radicalised family combined with high-level bomb-making and execution skills.
So what does this mean for Australians heading off to Bali?
With 5.2 million foreign visitors holidaying in Bali each year, and 1.1 million of them being Australians, there is an enormous incentive for our respective nations to keep Bali safe.
The sad reality is that no city is now safe from a terrorist attack.
Australians in Bali can, however, do their bit by behaving themselves — particularly during the fasting month of Ramadan that started on Tuesday — and avoiding high-profile clubs and bars.
In Surabaya, just 300km away, their citizens are trying to come to terms with the brutal and senseless acts that have shattered their city. If any “good” can come of such monstrous acts, it is that all major Islamic associations in Indonesia, and their government, are now saying, “this is enough, Islam is not about indiscriminate killing and the destruction of children’s lives, and we will stop these evil murderers”.
Let’s hope they do.
Ross B. Taylor AM is the president of the Perth-based Indonesia Institute Inc.
(This article first appeared in The West Australian Newspaper in May 2018)