On the last Sunday before Easter, the city of Makassar, South Sulawesi, was rocked by a suicide bombing that took place at the gates of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Cathedral while the morning mass was held. Two suicide bombers detonated a homemade, improvised explosive device, wounding around 20 people and killing themselves. In a press conference following the attack, Police General Listyo Sigit Prabowo, Chief of the Indonesian National Police, stated the two suicide bombers were believed to be members of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD). In order to better understand the significance of the attacks in Makassar, this commentary will explore the background and recent trends prior to the attack, the timeline of the events, the Government’s immediate response, the aftermath of the attack, and, lastly, potential recommendations for the future.
Recent Trends in ISIS’ Inspired Terrorist Acts in Indonesia
The return of ISIS’ radical fighters from Iraq and Syria — as well as the increased use of the Internet to spread violent extremist news and ideology — brought a sudden surge in Indonesians condoning and/or supporting ISIS’ attacks, which subsequently helped rally sympathy for JAD since 2014. Then, the organisation’s leader, Aman Abdurrahman, successfully captured the interest of violent extremist sympathisers who wanted a radical group to supersede the local Al Qaeda affiliate, Jama’ah Islamiyah. He proceeded to use the advancement of technology to spread ISIS’ dogmatic belief through Indonesia’s internet regulation loophole by spreading the record of his call for a pledge of allegiance to ISIS and its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Although he has been imprisoned since 2016 and transferred to the Nusakambangan Island Prison, Central Java, his VPN-accessible online radical lectures and JAD network support continue to inspire recent bombings in Indonesia.
JAD is considered one of the most dangerous terror groups in contemporary Indonesia, responsible for the January 2016 gun and suicide attack in Thamrin, Central Jakarta; the November 2016 church Molotov bombing in Samarinda, East Kalimantan; the May 2017 bus shelter suicide bombing in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta; the September 2017 armed assault of policemen in Bima, West Nusa Tenggara; and the 2018 suicide bombings at three Surabaya churches in East Java. The latter killed 30 people and was the first incident wherein a family comprised of a husband, a wife, and their four children created a chain of terror attacks targeting three different churches, followed by another family attacking a police headquarter the following day.
The Unfolding of the Makassar Attack
Prior to the attack, the Indonesian Police Force’s Special Counter-Terrorism Detachment 88 (Densus 88) had made headway in combating JAD. In January 2021, the police arrested around 20 JAD members that were allegedly responsible for, or at the very least involved in, the 2019 Jolo Cathedral bombing in the Southern Philippines, which had a death toll of 23 people. Additionally, between January and March 2021, prior to the Makassar pre-Easter bombing, the Densus 88 arrested close to 100 suspects affiliated with terrorist groups in Indonesia.That number is relatively high for the first three months of the year, given that Indonesia arrested a total of 228 terrorist suspects for the whole of 2020. However, the high rate of police raids earlier this year has attracted retaliation from terrorist groups.
The Makassar bombing happened one week prior to Easter Sunday and was carried out by a husband and his wife, the latter being four-months pregnant. The Indonesian National Police press statement noted that on 28 March the perpetrators arrived at the Makassar cathedral on a motorbike right in the middle of morning mass. The couple had just married six months prior to the attack and was stopped by security guards while entering the cathedral’s courtyard, readily detonating the improvised, pressure cooker explosive device they carried. Further investigations found the male perpetrator of the Makassar attack was among a group that had been previously arrested in January 2021 for their involvement in the 2019 Jolo attack but was ultimately let go due to lack of evidence.
Following the attack, Indonesian President Joko Widodo condemned the act of terrorism on national broadcast, urging people to remain calm and reassuring them the government would work hard to ensure everyone can worship and practice their respective faith free from fear. It was a strategic statement as the time of the incident was close to Easter. Subsequently, a press statement by the Minister of Religious Affairs, Yaqut Cholil Quomas, stated that “Whatever the motive is, this act isn’t justified by any religion because it harms not just one person but others, too”. This was to dissuade Indonesia’s Muslim-majority population from agreeing and/or following the action of the suicide bombers. These public statements were followed by national activists’ support for anti-violence and religious tolerance.
Following the attack in Makassar, Densus 88 has increased its efforts and made a series of high-profile arrests. They have arrested 13 suspected terrorists with links to the attack and the wider JAD group. These arrests took place in various Indonesian cities including Jakarta, Makassar, and Bima, West Nusa Tenggara. In Makassar, where the pre-Easter bombing took place, four people were arrested for being directly involved in indoctrinating the two perpetrators, planning the attack, and purchasing the materials used in the creation of the pressure cooker detonator. The four people who got arrested were in the same Quran study group with the bombing perpetrators. With this series of arrests, Densus 88 found, in total, five homemade pipe bombs and five kilograms of chemicals necessary for the creation of explosives.
Unfortunately, the bombing in Makassar has inspired further terror acts. On 31 March 2021, a woman stormed the Indonesian National Police Headquarters in Jakarta and fired lethal shots at police officers. The 25-year-old woman was also inspired by the teachings of ISIS, as evidenced by a photo of ISIS’ flag uploaded onto her Instagram account hours before the shooting.
Recent terrorist attacks reflect the recent cycle of radicalisation in Indonesia. They also show the authorities’ effective role in cracking down and arresting terrorists, however, their lack of effectiveness in preventing radicalisation is still a concern. To counter this inefficacy, there is a need to limit the effects and scope of radicalisation. This can be done at three levels. First, at the international level, there must be greater efforts among nations to work together, allowing for a greater exchange of information, as well as actively conduct joint trainings and operations, as one of the perpetrators of the suicide bombing in Makassar was evidently affiliated with those involved in the 2019 suicide bombing in the Philippines.
Second, there may be a need for a more progressive law that holds social media platforms, including, but not limited to, Facebook and Twitter, accountable for posts published on their platforms. There are many studies which show that extremist groups, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, rely on social media platforms to spread their ideology, conduct recruitment, and, to a lesser degree, communicate internally and publicly, as evidenced by the recent attack at Jakarta’s Police Headquarters. Current Indonesian laws on Electronic Transaction and Information and Counter-Terrorism allow authorities to clamp down on online extremist behaviours, but they are also known for being misused. Additionally, authorities can by no means monitor the developments of every single extremist group and therefore major social media platforms need to step up.
Lastly, an improvement of the National Counter Terrorism Agency’s de-radicalisation programme may be needed. As it stands, the Agency’s de-radicalisation programme is not mandatory for those imprisoned on terrorism charges. This is highly dangerous as prisons are known as a breeding ground for potential terrorists, as evidenced by the fact that one of the perpetrators of the Makassar suicide bombings has been previously imprisoned. Therefore, reforms that make the programme mandatory and allow for meaningful interactions between individuals as opposed to one-way lectures and slide presentations are necessary.
 Al Jazeera, ‘Suicide Attack Rocks Indonesia Church, Several Wounded’, Al Jazeera, 28 March 2021.
 Yusuf Wahil and Niniek Karmini, ‘Newlywed Militant Suspects Blamed in Indonesia Church Attack’, AP News, 31 March 2021.
 Jakarta Globe, ‘Makassar Church Bombers Are Husband and Wife: Police’, Jakarta Globe, 29 March 2021.
 Augustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto, ‘Indonesian Church Bombed by Suspected Islamist Militants’, Reuters, 28 March 2021.
 Bayu Marhaenjati and Farouk Arnaz, ‘Police Suspect Links Between Makassar Bombing and FPI’, Jakarta Globe, 30 March 2021.
 Da Costa and Widianto, ‘Indonesian Church’
 Al Jazeera, ‘Suicide Attack’
 Ibid and Wahil and Karmini, ‘Newlywed Militant Suspects’
 Augustinus Beo Da Costa and Stanley Widianto, ‘Indonesian Police Shoot Dead Female Attacker in Gunfire Exchange at Police Headquarters’, Reuters, 31 March 2021.
 Sirwan Kajjo and Rio Tuasikal, ‘Former IS Member Combats Online Radicalization in Indonesia’, VOA News, 26 December 2019.