Jihadi families in Indonesia are using their children as suicide bombers

A family of six carried out suicide attacks on three Christian churches, and other ISIS-inspired family attacks followed the same day

A string of ISIS-inspired suicide bombings in Indonesia have brought a gruesome first for the country: Families are carrying out jihadi attacks and using their children as bombers, police said Monday.

The attacks in the city of Surabaya mark the first time children have been used in suicide bombings in the world's most populous Muslim-majority nation, and they were the deadliest jihadi attacks there since 2005, when a string of car bombs killed 23 people on the island of Bali.

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The spate of attacks in Indonesia's second-largest city began Sunday when a family of six carried out suicide attacks on three Christian churches as worshipers arrived for morning services, killing 13 people and injuring 40.

The three church bombings were the work of a single family: One was carried out by the two eldest sons, aged 18 and 16, who detonated their suicide bombs by the entrance of a Catholic church. Their mother, with her 12- and 9-year old daughters, then entered another church and detonated a bomb, before the father of the family drove a car bomb into a Pentecostal church.

The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the “martyrdom attacks” through its media arm, Amaq.

Later Sunday, a woman and her 17-year-old daughter were killed in a Surabaya suburb when an explosive being handled by the woman’s husband detonated accidentally. Police found the man holding the detonator and shot him dead, a police spokesman said.

In a third incident, a militant family of five rode two motorbikes to a police checkpoint where they blew themselves up, police said. The explosions wounded four police officers and six civilians; one of the passengers on the bike, the 8-year-old daughter of one of the attackers, survived.

“We hope the child will recover. We believe she was thrown 3 meters or so up into the air by the impact of the explosion and then fell to the ground,” East Java police spokesman Frans Barung Mangera said.

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Indonesia’s national police chief, Tito Karnavian, said Monday that police suspected that the attacks had been ordered by ISIS’ central command, potentially in retribution for the jailing of leaders of an Indonesian affiliate, Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD).

The group, a jihadi umbrella organization named on a U.S. State Department terrorism blacklist, is estimated to command hundreds of ISIS sympathizers, and was responsible for a coordinated attack in the capital Jakarta in 2016 that left eight people dead.

Karnavian said the head of the family involved in the church attacks was the local leader of the JAD cell in Surabaya. Police say they have arrested six other people suspected of plotting attacks in Surabaya.

The attacks used the powerful homemade explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP), widely used in Islamic State-inspired attacks in the Middle East and Europe.

Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country, has seen a recent uptick in jihadi activity, as sympathizers who had joined the ranks of ISIS in Syria and Iraq have returned home to carry out attacks. Last week, jihadi inmates in a high-security jail near Jakarta took control of three prison blocks for 40 hours after taking five officers hostage and eventually killing them.

Karnavian told reporters that none of the families involved in the attacks had traveled to Syria recently, but that the father of the family behind the church attacks had close ties to a recently returned foreign fighter who may have encouraged him.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo labeled the bombings the “act of cowards” and has vowed to push through a new anti-terrorism bill to tackle jihadi networks. The country’s worst terror attack remains the 2002 Bali bombings, in which 202 people were killed.