This was originally published on 15th January by ‘The Interpreter’, a blog run by the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank .
ISIS has issued a claim of responsibility for yesterday’s terrorist attack in Jakarta, which left at least seven dead, including five of the attackers.
While the specifics of the attack caught everyone by surprise, a series of anti-terror raids during 2015, and Julie Bishop’s statement this morning suggest that an attack has been coming for some time. But the broad nature of the official warnings in place over the Christmas and New Year period suggests that while authorities were aware of intent to launch an attack, they were blind to the specifics of a plot.
Authorities were quick to draw an understandable comparison with November’s attacks in Paris. But if yesterday’s attack was an ‘imitation’, an initial analysis suggests that it was a poor one.
Because where the Paris attacks were coordinated and largely succeeded in maximising destruction, the Jakarta team of at least seven attackers inflicted an initial death toll of two. To what extent this was due to incompetence, lack of access to heavy weaponry and high grade explosives, or the swift actions of Indonesian authorities, will be a key focus of the investigation.
Initial reports were also quick to point out the numbers of Indonesian foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq, which though proportionately small, are significant enough to suggest returnees may have been involved.
But if Paris demonstrated that returning foreign fighters with battlefield skills and experience often act as a force multiplier, then one conclusion from yesterday’s comparatively small number of casualties could be their absence from this attack.
In which case, we should think about what the claim of responsibility means. Were the attacks directed by ISIS members in Syria and Iraq, as the Indonesian police have suggested? And if so, what did that involve? Targeting advice? Tactical advice? Or a more general instruction to strike opportunistically?
While these questions may appear largely academic in the wake of an attack, they will be crucial in the coming weeks as authorities in Indonesia, Australia and elsewhere attempt to understand what their answers mean from an ongoing threat perspective.
Because ultimately, the extent of ISIS or al Qaeda involvement in any attack is a sliding scale, not a simple yes or no question. With attacks directed by ISIS senior leadership at one end, and attacks loosely inspired by ISIS ideology at the other.
Understanding the level of their involvement in the attack is important, particularly given the rumoured declaration of a Caliphate in Southeast Asia that may follow.
Elsewhere, including in Nigeria and Afghanistan, we have seen terrorist networks with existing capability transfer their allegiance to ISIS. And as we know, despite the excellent work that has degraded terrorist networks in Indonesia since the 2002 and 2005 attacks, a small number of individuals and groups with capability to carry out terrorist attacks remained.
But aside from an improved and unified media strategy, the impact of these transfers of allegiance on existing capabilities (outside of Libya), is still unclear. So while the ISIS claim is significant, it is worth asking, did the capability to conduct yesterday’s attack already exist prior to the ISIS resurgence in Iraq and declaration of a Caliphate? I would suggest that the answer is yes.
Where an affiliation with ISIS, formally or informally, is important is the impact it could have on the tactics and targets of terrorist networks in Indonesia, with a potentially increased focus on foreigners instead of security officials, and public demonstrations of brutality. And clearly, the impact it could have on recruitment and radicalisation within the region.
We should also be wary as terrorism analysts to focus too heavily on casualty numbers and statistics. Terrorism is designed to terrorise as well as kill. And yesterday’s attack, and the unconnected but simultaneous evacuation of the Sydney Opera House, certainly achieved that goal.
This type of attack, similarly to Paris or Mumbai, is particularly successful at achieving this aim, with the uncertainty around number of attackers, their targets, and its ongoing nature feeding a frenzy of speculation and worry.
The length of the attack also ensured that it dominated news headlines, with rolling news stories carried by media outlets across the world. And meant that many outside of the region woke up to news of ‘yet another’ ISIS attack.
It is this publicity that ISIS is so effective at generating, and that helps spread fear on a global scale. And yet again distracts us from the fact that in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is losing men and territory. As this pressure increases, we are likely to see further attacks outside of the region, as ISIS continues to attempt to project strength and progress.
With the Jakarta attack following on from the bombing of tourists in Istanbul, an attack on an Indian airbase, and continued violence in the Middle East, West Africa and Afghanistan, it appears that 2016 will follow 2015 as another year of terrorism, but perhaps on a larger scale. Because unfortunately, as military pressure on ISIS grows, and counter-measures prevent prospective foreign fighters reaching ‘the Caliphate’, we are more likely to see attacks outside of Iraq and Syria. Things might get worse before they get better.
David Wells worked for UK and Australian intelligence agencies between 2005 and 2014, specialising in counter-terrorism.