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'If We Feel Afraid, We Will Lose': Indonesia Reacts to Terror Attacks with Defiant Protest

On Thursday, Jakarta was rocked by an attack by Islamic State-related militants. On Friday, the capital of the world's largest Muslim nation told terrorists that it was not afraid.
Photo by Jonathan Vit

Hundreds of Indonesians gathered at the site of Thursday's deadly attacks by Islamic State-linked militants in downtown Jakarta today, chanting "we are not afraid," in an act of resilience in the face of the worst terrorist attack in the city in more than six years.

"This demonstration is about our anger, about us showing no fear to the terrorists," Suci Mayang Sari, 42, one of the rally's organizers, told VICE News.


"They committed an act of violence, of savagery, they were inhumane and they took people's lives. We have to fight it, we have to be brave. If we feel afraid, we will lose."

This protest encapsulated much of the sentiment shared on social media and in the city's streets in the wake of the attacks. Militants launched a brazen midday assault on a busy commercial center in the heart of the Indonesian capital on Thursday, shooting civilians and police officers and detonating explosives in sporadic acts of violence that left seven dead and at least 23 injured.

(Photo by Jonathan Vit)

Indonesian police were quick to respond, swarming the area in a show of force and engaging in shootouts with multiple gunmen before declaring the area safe in around three hours. In the end, five of those killed were the terrorists themselves. At least three others were arrested at the scene.

In the immediate aftermath of Thursday's attack, the hashtag #kamitidaktakut, or we are not afraid, was trending on Twitter. Today, the phrase hangs from an overpass near the scene of the attacks and was heard in a singsong chant repeated by protesters as they gathered outside the Starbucks on the ground floor of the Skyline office building — the location of an explosion and shootings at the start of Thursday's violence.

Related: Islamic State Linked to Deadly Attack on Indonesian Capital of Jakarta

The demonstration was, in many regards, a microcosm of Indonesia itself — pluralistic, multi-generational, and moderate in its approach to Islam. Young women in hijabs held signs in the air reading "terrorism is the enemy," as they broke into spirited chants. People handed out flowers and posed for selfies with signs denouncing the terrorists. It was scenes like this that left experts and analysts to remark that the individuals behind Thursday's attack failed to instill a sense of fear in Indonesia.


(Photo by Jonathan Vit)

"The fundamental thing about terrorism is to create fear," Oskar Adityo, a consultant who works with the Indonesian police on counterterrorism issues, told VICE News. "From what I see today, the response of the public and of the media, I don't think they were successful."

But the attacks highlighted the growing threat of the Islamic State (IS) in this Muslim-majority nation. IS claimed responsibility for the attack in a press release sent out through the encrypted messaging app Telegram. The same app may have been used by the attackers to communicate with Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian man who police believe planned the attacks from Raqqa, IS' capital in Syria.

Naim, the leader of the group's Southeast Asia military division Katibah Nusantara, was born in the small city of Solo in Central Java, where he reportedly contributed to a jihadist news site before being arrested for weapons possession and serving a short jail sentence. The Indonesian police and intelligence community were aware of Naim's actions in Syria and were tracking his attempts to work with local terrorist organizations some time before yesterday's attack, according to Adityo.

"He is trying to win favor from [IS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi," Adityo said. "Most [Indonesians in IS] are people that just want to go there to live in an Islamic caliphate. He is more idealistic, more militant than that."

Naim praised the killings in Paris in November in a blog post titled "Lessons from the Paris Attacks," where he urged his Indonesian audience to study the terrorists' methods and their ability to cause significant casualties, according to an article by Sidney Jones, an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia and the head of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict.


"What we have seen is an uptick in activity over the last six months," Jones told VICE News. "It really started with Naim sending money and instructions to people in Solo last August in an effort to get three separate attacks in Solo, it wasn't about Jakarta but then when that failed he decided he would try for something bigger."

(Photo by Jonathan Vit)

Indonesian police arrested 16 alleged terrorists from multiple groups in December over plots to stage attacks on Christmas and New Year's Eve. These individuals appear to be from separate, unaffiliated organizations, but one group was allegedly "responding to Naim's instructions and at that time he was focused on police, on Shia institutions and on foreigners," according to Jones. The instructions signaled a shift in the tactics of Indonesia's homegrown terrorist organizations, which have concentrated their efforts on attacks that target police institutions in recent years.

While it remains too early in the investigation to determine whether the Starbucks was a deliberate target in Thursday's attacks, Jones explained that such a development would indicate a shift among pro-IS leaders in Indonesia from attacking domestic police to foreigners and symbols of the West.

But if the Jakarta attack took inspiration from the Paris attacks, it fell far short of achieving the level of violence often associated with IS. Jones pointed out that this was likely an attack planned by an Indonesian citizen in IS, not the terrorist organization's top brass.

"I think this is still, in some ways, the gang that can't shoot straight but they shot a little bit straighter than they have in the last five years," Jones said.

Still, the attacks illustrated the reach of IS in Indonesia, and are a sign of a growing focus on Southeast Asia among IS militants, said Jones. "I think that we will see more efforts at trying to organize things from Syria," she added.

Follow Jonathan Vit on Twitter:@JonathanGVit