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Why We Still Know So Little About JAD, the Terrorist Group Behind the Surabaya Attacks

Everyone knows Jamaah Ansharut Daulah's name, but few know what is really going on in this shadowy new terrorist group.
riot police officer on guard
Photo by M Risyal Hidayat/Antara/via Reuters

It's been three years since the homegrown terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) burst on the scene and this week, after Sunday's tragic attacks in Surabaya, authorities and terrorism experts are still struggling to understand how the network operates.

"As of now, there are still too many riddles," said Solahudin, a terrorism expert at the University of Indonesia. "We still have a lot of work to do at the crime scene. There's a lot of homework to do."


Here at VICE's Indonesia office, we've written about this problem before. In the immediate aftermath of last year's suicide attacks on a bus station in Jakarta's Kampung Melayu, we asked whether JAD was a new kind of decentralized terrorist organization.

There weren't any clear answers then, and there aren't really any now either. JAD is either an ISIS-linked terrorist network, as some in the media and the police say it is, or it's a loosely affiliated group of small independent terrorist cells that share little more than a common ideology and a shared admiration for the kinds of high-profile attacks perpetuated by the Islamic State (ISIS) worldwide.

Take the string of suicide attacks in Surabaya earlier this week. Each of them was planned and carried out by individual families, including their children. The church bombings were carried out by two young girls, ages nine and 12, two teenage boys, ages 16 and 18, and both of their parents. The premature explosion of another suicide bomb in Sidoarjo, East Java, on the outskirts of the city, ended with the deaths of three members of the same family.

The next day, the suicide attack on the headquarters of the Surabaya Police involved five members of the same family. Only one of them, a young girl, survived, after being thrown clear of the carnage by the blast.

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The families were linked not by a hierarchical terrorist organization, but by a religious studies group. According to police, they met every Sunday night to discuss jihad and watch videos of terrorist attacks and ISIS brutality in Syria and Iraq.

These reports contradict earlier claims that the families had just returned from Syria, an allegedly erroneous allegation that set off much hand-wringing in Indonesia over the threat returning jihadists pose to the nation. This is, according to one expert, the first Ramadan since the ISIS families returned from Syria and Iraq, an ominous warning when you realize that a lot of ISIS attacks occur during the Muslim Holy Month.

One thing that's been consistent though is the role of JAD in the attacks. Both Dita Oepriarto, the father of the family behind the church attacks, and Anton Ferdiantono, the father who was killed by police after he was found holding a detonator in his apartment in Sidoarjo, were members of JAD. Dita's own father told CNN that "Anton was my son's buddy in high school. Anton is my son's junior within the JAD organization. My son, his wife and Anton were part of the same JAD membership."

But what does that really mean? The official ISIS news agency, Amaq, claimed responsibility for the attacks, but it's been wrong before. Experts told VICE that they think the Surabaya attacks were likely inspired by ISIS, but not coordinated by anyone in the terrorist group. The Indonesian and Malaysian militants who rose to prominence to run the ISIS Southeast Asia wing, Katibah Nusantara, are all either missing or dead. Bahrun Naim, Bahrumsyah, and Salim Mubarok, all ISIS members implicated in the 2016 attacks in Central Jakarta, were all killed last year.


“Maybe the attacks were inspired by ISIS, but we can’t say that it was done by them," Sidney Jones, an expert on regional terrorism at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), told VICE. "It’s the supporters who carried out the attack."

Photo by Beawiharta/Reuters.

And JAD itself is believed to have been destabilized by the arrest of its two most-prominent members, founder Aman Abdurrahman and fellow leader Zainal Anshori. Both men were arrested on a number of charges, including allegedly running terrorist training camps, weapons smuggling, and playing a role in the planning of the 2016 attacks in Central Jakarta—the first linked to ISIS in Indonesia.

This blow to the central leadership of JAD likely inspired its members to carry out their own independent attacks, Solahudin told VICE.

“JAD stopped running as an organization because its leaders are behind bars,” Solahudin explained. “So [the terrorists] operated independently, as individuals or as a family. It’s in accordance with the concept of jihad fardiyah in Islam. When jihad through an organization isn’t possible, one should carry out jihad independently.”

Still, terrorism experts believe that there's some semblance of a structure in place amongst the remaining members of JAD. The complexity of the Surabaya attacks, which occurred with a degree of coordination, some of them mere minutes apart, at three separate churches points to some kind of organization structure within JAD, Ridlwan Habib told VICE.


“After the riot at BriMob headquarters, militant Telegram channels were full of ideas of attacks,” he explained. “There’s been communication among them in regards to the bombings. This is coordinated and premeditated.”

The bombs themselves showed a degree of expertise as well. Previous bombs used by JAD terrorists followed a pressure cooker method, but in this attack the terrorists had outfitted themselves with high-powered suicide belts.

“The explosion power in Surabaya is quite high and all of the bombs successfully exploded," Ridlwan told VICE. "Not one of them failed. So it’s impossible that the attackers had only learned it from an online manual."

While the possible ISIS connections grabbed the biggest headlines, the real motivation behind the recent string of attacks, which continued today with another bloody incident in Riau province, is likely a lot closer to home. JAD founder Aman is currently facing trial this week. This looming trial was what sparked the prison riot at a detention center run by the National Police Mobile Brigade (BriMob) last week. ISIS claimed responsibility for that riot as well, and, in the end, it left five police officers, and one terrorist, dead.

For much of the last decade, Indonesia's domestic terrorists targeted the police in a series of tit-for-tat revenge attacks. With Aman behind bars and facing a trial, these attacks, which continued to target police as well as civilians, are likely a revenge plot put in place by JAD, experts told VICE.


Photo by Sigit Pamungkas/Reuters.

But then why target the churches as well? Nasir Abbas, a former mujahideen and leader in the regional terrorist group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), told VICE that terrorists would choose a soft target like a church because it has less security than somewhere like a police station or an international hotel—a previous favorite target of groups like JI.

"When the church bombing in 2000 occurred, the attack was conducted as a revenge for Ambon conflict," Nasir told VICE. "It was done to provoke issues about ethnicity, religion, and race (SARA). But now we attack churches because they have lack of security defenses."

JAD has so far been able to remain active despite the arrests of high-profile members. When Indonesian security forces targeted Nasir's old terrorist organization JI, a series of deadly raids and the arrests of much of JI's upper echelons caused the group to implode.

But JAD isn't that kind of organization. Much of JI was made up of battle-hardened mujahideen with experience fighting against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. These ex-mujahideen, many of them from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines, were able to use that battle training in attacks here in Indonesia.

JAD's founder, Aman, on the other hand, has never been in battle. He's more of a spiritual leader than a militant, a figure that local jihadists would seek out to ask for his blessing before carrying out an attack. The perpetrators behind both the Central Jakarta and Kampung Melayu attacks reportedly visited Aman behind bars to discuss their plans (he was arrested in 2010 for funding a terrorist training camp in Aceh, North Sumatra).


Still, other militants involved in those attacks denied Aman's involvement. Saiful Muhtohir, a known jihadists who also goes by the name Abu Gar, told a court at his trial that he never bothered to ask Aman for his input on either attack.

"I never contacted Ustaz Aman when I planned the attack," he said. "He is not good at jihad."

Saiful's claims add further confusion to what, exactly, JAD is—a terrorist organization or, as some experts believe, a catch-all term used to describe ISIS supporters. "Anshar Daulah" is Arabic for a daulah [Islamic state] supporter and a different known terrorist, this one from Jemaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT), told local media that there's no truth to allegations that JAD is a real organization.

"Jamaah Anshar Daulah is a term created by the media and the police," Nanang Ainur Rafiq, the caretaker of JAT, explained.

Others say it's this decentralized system that makes it so hard for the police to actually crack down on JAD. While JI was organized into a clear structure, from the lowest level (andfiah or soldiers) to the highest religious councils (majelis syura or markaziah), JAD is a collection of small independent cells that only communicate through secure messaging apps, when they talk at all. It's a purely modern take on a terrorist organization, and one that's hard to dismantle.

Nasir, who now works with Indonesian authorities in anti-terrorism actions, thinks it's going to take a lot of work to figure out who was behind the recent attacks. And without an idea of how this whole thing actually came together, there's few ways to head off future attacks in Indonesia.

“It’s difficult to form a group with organizational structure now," Nasir told VICE. "It took less than two years for the police to identify JI’s structure. But now, it won’t be easy for them to find out who is involved in bombings."