ISIS Reaches Indonesia

The Terrorist Group's Prospects in Southeast Asia

People hold placards reading "We are not afraid" during a rally at the scene of Thursday's gun and bomb attack in central Jakarta, Indonesia, January 15, 2016.  Darren Whiteside / Reuters

On January 14, militants killed four civilians and wounded at least 20 in a terrorist attack in Jakarta, in the first successful operation that the self-proclaimed Islamic State (also known as ISIS) has launched in Southeast Asia. For several months, security officials from several Southeast Asian governments had been warning that ISIS supporters might mount an attack in the region. The signs were ominous: increased chatter on Malay and Indonesian language sites expressing support for ISIS, a steady stream of Southeast Asians departing for conflict zones in Syria and Iraq, and the arrest of ISIS sympathizers in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. Indonesian counterterrorism authorities had already received intelligence that militants were planning to mount attacks over the holiday period a couple of weeks earlier, which prompted the arrest of several militants and foiled a potential earlier attack. 

When it comes to terrorism, it never takes more than one successful attack to trigger panic in society and overreaction by anxious governments. But when the January 14 attack finally did come, the Indonesian people met it with a spirit of defiance, rallying round the hashtag “We Are Not Afraid.” Meanwhile, during a visit to the scene soon after the attacks, Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the acts of violence as terrorism but was also quick to portray that everything “has returned to normal” in Jakarta. This was in marked and welcome contrast to the response of French President François Hollande after the Paris attacks, when he declared that “France was at war.”

The threat that ISIS poses in Indonesia is serious, but it should also not be exaggerated. The Jakarta attack was an amateur operation. The attackers were poorly trained. As many terrorists died in the assault as civilians.

In Southeast Asia, ISIS has found sympathizers but few supporters who are willing to organize a real ISIS affiliate.

Analysts are still debating whether the leadership of the core ISIS group in Iraq and Syria had directed the attack. But the evidence thus far points to

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