Sunday witnessed Indonesia’s worst church bombing for many years when three churches in Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya were bombed, killing at least 13 with more than 40 wounded.
Initial reports suggest that the main attack was carried out by a family of six including children aged 9, 12, 15 and 17 who split into three groups to attack different churches:
6.30am at the Santa Maria Church in the Ngagel Madya area of Surabaya, which was carried out by the two brothers, aged 17 and 15 who approached the church on a motorcycle carrying the bomb on their lap.
7.15am the second bombing, on the GKI Diponegoro Church, was carried out by the mother who had a belt bomb. She was accompanied by her two daughters, aged 9 and 12. It appears that because she was a woman she was able to push past security and explode her bomb inside the church. This was the first-ever suicide bombing by a woman in Indonesia.
7.53am their father, staged a car bombing at Surabaya Centre Pentecostal Church.
A planned attack on a fourth church, Cathedral Church, was foiled with the arrest of a suspected bomber.
Although a number of Indonesian churches have been burnt down in the last decade, these coordinated attacks on Churches in a major city represent a very disturbing development. The head of Indonesia’s police has stated that the family who bombed the three churches were associated with the Indonesian Islamist terrorist grouping Jamash Anshar Daulah (JAD) who in 2015 pledged allegiance to Islamic State.
There are reports the family may recently have returned from living in parts of Syria until recently controlled by Islamic State. We are unfortunately likely to see more of such attacks as jihadists who went to Syria to fight for IS quietly return to their home countries.
The attack was part of pattern of attacks linked to IS related groups in Indonesia. Earlier this month IS linked militants attempted to take over a prison in Depok, immediately south of Jakarta killing several policemen and within hours of Sunday’s church attacks police killed four other JAD terrorists who were attempting to attack security forces. This was followed a day later by a similar ‘family’ suicide bombing of the police headquarters in Surabaya.
In May 2017 as IS were rapidly losing territory in Syria and Iraq their online magazine Rumiyah featured a front page article calling for the targeting of churches, claiming that “targeting these churches with ruin and destruction is a matter that is permitted in the Shari’ah, and it is allowed to use this as a means of attaining closeness to Allah.”
This was at the same time as IS linked jihadists in the southern Philippines seized the city of Marawi, (immediately north of Indonesia) which was only retaken after a 5 month siege by security forces during which Christians were abducted, used as human shields, forced to make bombs, Christian women forced to become sex slaves and almost all of those murdered by the militants were Christians. Two months ago Philippines security forces warned that the militants appeared to be regrouping for another similar attack.
Sunday’s attack also illustrates how quickly tactics and ideology adopted by one jihadist group are taken up by other groups around the world:
i) The current spate of church bombings in the Middle East began with targeted bombings of Iraqi churches in 2004 by the group which later became Islamic State, spread to Syria a few years later and is now spreading more widely;
ii) In June 2014 Boko Haram started using female suicide bombers in Nigeria, having previously regarded it as “unIslamic” for women to be directly involved in fighting. This quickly became a major tactic with female suicide bombers less likely to attract suspicion than men and just before the fall of Mosul, Islamic State also began using female suicide bombers;
iii) However, in a further development in January 2017 a women carried out a suicide bombing in North East Nigeria with a baby strapped to her back.
So, whilst the fact that that a whole family appears to have taken part in bombing Indonesian churches on Sunday – including girls aged 9 and 12 is a disturbing new development, it may well be copied by other jihadist groups elsewhere in the world. Indeed, the very similar suicide bombing of the police headquarters a day later by a family, including a 9 year old girl, on motorcycles points tragically in this direction.
Indonesia has previously had a far more tolerant attitude towards Christians than many Muslim majority countries. It was founded on a set of principles known as pancasila (monotheism, nationalism, humanitarianism, democracy and social justice) which were supposed to unite the nation and so guarantee harmony between Muslims and Christians. However, in recent years it has become clear that many Islamists wish to see Indonesia become a Muslim only nation.
The jailing in May 2017 of ‘Ahok’ Tjahaja Purnama, Jakarta’s first Christian governor, for blasphemy after he disputed Islamist claims during his re-election campaign that the Qur’an forbade voting for a non-Muslim marked a significant turning point. Almost exactly a year later, on 7 May this year a Christian pastor was sentenced to four years in prison under the same law after sharing his faith with a Muslim taxi driver. Indonesia now hangs on the precipice. It can either slide towards further Islamisation and risk violence or seek to recover its previous toleration of non-Muslim minorities.