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"The Explosion in Sibolga: Continuing Threats to Security?" by Deasy Simandjuntak

2019/29, 20 March 2019

An explosive device went off in Sibolga, North Sumatra, early on Wednesday, 13 March 2019, during a terror raid, injuring several, including a police officer. The perpetrator was the wife of a suspected militant who was apprehended by the “Densus 88” counterterrorism squad the day before. The police was engaged in a long negotiation with the woman following her husband’s arrest, intending to persuade her to surrender but to no avail. Eventually, she blew herself and her child up at the family’s residence.

The explosion took place just a few days prior to President Joko Widodo’s scheduled visit to Sibolga. The President was expected to inaugurate a newly expanded port on Sunday, 17 March 2019. The fact that it happened during the peak of the presidential election campaign period has drawn some speculation that the attack is linked to the election, to be held in April. Some terrorism observers saw similarities with the situation in Iraq last year, when ISIS threatened to target polling stations during the parliamentary elections to ensure that democracy did not prevail in Iraq. President Jokowi, however, has dismissed such speculation. The Coordinating Minister for Politics, Law and Human Rights, Wiranto, similarly assured the public that this terror incident would not weaken security in the lead up to the election.

The raid, which netted three suspected militants in Sibolga, is part of an operation to eradicate ISIS-linked cells in Sumatra. The perpetrator’s husband, Husein aka Abu Hamzah, was arrested after Rinto Sugiharto, another suspected terrorist who was apprehended in Lampung province on Saturday, revealed plans to attack the police in Jakarta. They are suspected of being affiliated with the homegrown ISIS-linked terror group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which was declared a “forbidden organization” by the government last year. JAD’s leader, Aman Abdurrahman, also allegedly linked to the grisly siege of a detention center in Depok, West Java in 2018, was sentenced to death for his role in inciting others to commit terrorism. JAD was allegedly responsible for multiple deadly bombings at churches in Surabaya, East Java, last year.

The Sibolga explosion was not the only such incident in North Sumatra in recent years. In 2017, JAD-linked militants attacked policemen at a checkpoint of the police headquarters in Medan. Last year, in the aftermath of the Surabaya bombings, the police shot two JAD-linked terror suspects in Tanjung Balai, a day before they plotted attacks on Buddhist temples and police stations in the racially and religiously diverse town. Sectarian tension had risen in Tanjung Balai following a 2016 incident in which a complaint about the noise levels of a local mosque by a Chinese-Buddhist woman triggered a rampage that led to the burning of several Buddhist temples. The woman, Meiliana, was convicted of blasphemy and sentenced to 18 months in prison in August 2018.

Although there is no evidence that the attack is linked to electoral politics, it indicates the prevalence of religious extremism in the heterogeneous province. The police need to anticipate possible attempts at disrupting stability and continuing threats to security in regions such as North Sumatra, Lampung, Riau and Java. As evident from past incidents, terror attacks will not undermine Indonesian solidarity and commitment to democracy.

Dr Deasy Simandjuntak is Associate Fellow at ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.