Is Indonesia’s Widodo soft on security?
Terror attacks at Surabaya, the most lethal seen in a decade, give president's political opponents ammunition to hit his supposedly 'weak' leadership
As answers slowly come to light about the families behind the terror attacks in Indonesia’s second city of Surabaya and nearby Sidoarjo, questions are already being raised about President Joko Widodo’s government’s ability to prevent and protect against a new burst of Islamic terrorism to a degree not seen since the 2000s.
Long-running negotiations to revise existing anti-terrorism laws and perceptions that the government is “soft” on matters of national security threaten to derail the widespread support Widodo has so far enjoyed ahead of next April’s presidential elections.
Women and children’s involvement in the weekend suicide bombings has set a startling new precedent in Indonesia, where the families of jihadists are typically confined to more traditional gender roles and are rarely involved in terror attacks.
Security analysts had previously warned the nature of Southeast Asia’s terror cells was changing through a rise in the involvement of women. The use of whole family units, meanwhile, guarantees a propaganda coup for terror outfits like Islamic State through wider, more sensational media coverage.
But the trend will also make it more difficult for intelligence agencies to identify potential sources of extremist violence, with reports emerging of the recently involved families being insular and unengaged in their local community.
Typically, Islamic State-aligned cells in Indonesia target police sites, as seen in last week’s Depok prison riot and earlier suicide bombings. But the targeting of churches on the weekend marks a throwback to the 2000s when terror groups were far more interested in targeting Western soft and hard targets, and stoking religious sectarianism.
The surprise departure in modus operandi and ambition brought the country to a stand-still on Sunday as the death toll climbed. As the smoke cleared the attacks were the most deadly in a decade, with at least 25 killed.
Widodo arrived in Surabaya on Sunday afternoon, heading immediately to the blast sites and then on to visit survivors at the Dr Soetomo Hospital. From there he called for all Indonesians to remain calm but vigilant and promised authorities would investigate extensively.
“This is a crime against humanity, irrelevant to any religion. The perpetrators even used a 10-year-old as a suicide bomber,” he said, underlining the country’s shock at the brutality of the family-oriented attack.
He pledged government support for medical costs, an issue survivor groups have long accused successive governments of ignoring.
Opposition forces are already circling, sensing an opportunity to capitalize on the incident. Deputy Speaker of the House of Representatives – and perpetual thorn in Widodo’s side – Fadli Zon blamed ‘weak leadership’ in a series of tweets offering support to victims and criticisms following the attacks.
The comments prompted heavy condemnation online, where netizens accused the Gerindra Party co-founder of exploiting tragedy for personal and political gain. In the lead-up to the 2019 elections, Fadli’s comments show few issues will be off-limits on the campaign trail.
“It is right to expect that there will certainly be some rough politics during the campaign, and partisans like Fadi Zon will be willing to go as low as it takes, including such attempts to politicize a tragedy like this,” Matthew Busch, an Indonesia-focused research fellow at the Lowy Institute think tank, told Asia Times.
But, Busch notes, linking governance to terrorism is a departure from what most expect from Fadli’s tactics, which focus largely on identity politics and dividing electorates along religious and ethnic lines. Whether the departure will work, however, is another question.
“Ultimately this oblique critique of leadership through a terrorist attack seems unlikely to resonate, as many Indonesians are likely to be shocked by the attacks and turned off by attempts to politicize them,” Busch said.
There are other avenues, however, to challenge Widodo on his security bona fides while not alienating the electorate – namely, revisions to the 2003 Anti-Terrorism law. In the immediate aftermath of the first attacks on Sunday, pro-government lawmakers revived discussions about the law, saying it should and would become a priority.
Revisions were tabled following the so-called Thamrin terror attack in Central Jakarta in January 2016, where Islamic State-linked militants, including two suicide bombers, set off multiple explosions and shot guns near the Sarinah shopping mall in central Jakarta.
Amendments aimed at stiffening the law’s security provisions, however, quickly bogged down at the committee stage over rights concerns, as lawmakers jousted over proposals to extend detention without charge periods from seven to 30 days and lengthen allowable prison terms for terror-related convictions.
Recommendations to establish a supervisory body to monitor counterterrorism agencies, including the elite police unit Detachment 88, drew the ire of police who argued the move would be costly and ineffective – an argument which threatened to put the police offside of the government.
Now, with investigators and intelligence agencies scrambling to resolve and understand the weekend’s terror attacks, some are questioning whether the proposed but not enacted revisions to the terror law would have helped to prevent the attacks.
The debate will inevitably be more political than academic, however. Judith Jacob, a security and terrorism analyst, for one, says it is always if not impossible difficult to measure the impact of counterterrorism laws in forestalling attacks.
“The academic consensus says there is no evidence to support that increasing severity of punishments decreases acts of terrorism, which is not to say these laws don’t serve other functions, such as signaling the government is doing something,” she says.
Widodo seems aware of the importance of such signaling, particularly in the aftermath of an attack. On Monday, he said that if the House of Representatives cannot agree on revisions to the law during this month’s session, then he will unilaterally issue a Perppu, a regulation in lieu of law issued in times of emergency.
While Widodo is seen as comparatively weak on issues of security vis-a-vis his more military-aligned opponents, including presidential challenger and former soldier Prabowo Subianto, it’s not clear yet the attacks and his response will significantly dent his re-election chances.
“[Widodo] is damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t,” says academic Jacob, noting that balancing the demands of the electorate and limitations of counterterrorism laws is a tough task all over the world.