Return of terror in Indonesia

The multiple terror attacks in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, which left at least seven dead, mark the return of organised Islamist violence to the country after a brief period. The Southeast Asian country witnessed several terror attacks during the last decade, including the 2002 Bali bombing that killed over 200 people. Most of such attacks were carried out by the home-grown terrorist group, Jemaah Islamiyah, which has links with al-Qaeda. An effective military campaign against the JI by the government, along with U.S.-model counter-terror strategies, helped Indonesia break up the extremist network and arrest the tide of terror strikes. But Thursday’s attack, the first major terror assault in the country in six years, has rekindled fears that extremists are regrouping themselves at a time when it is going through a tough economic phase. Indonesia has blamed Islamic State for the attack. The apparent target of the attackers was a downtown mall with outlets of Starbucks and Burger King, as well as a diplomatic quarter in Jakarta. It’s evident that the attackers wanted to inflict maximum damage, much the same way the Bali tourist hotspot was attacked. But the plan didn’t succeed, according to initial reports, as the gunmen were stopped at the mall and sent back to a police post, where they opened fire.

Though major attacks were halted after the Malaysian leader of the JI was killed in a shootout in rural Indonesia in 2009, Jakarta has stepped up security measures in recent times in the wake of growing Islamist challenges. If militants radicalised at home and trained in Afghanistan posed security challenges in 2000-09, now radicalised youth get military training in Syria and Iraq. Up to 700 Indonesians are estimated to have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join Islamic State. The government has expressed concern that their return would reinforce the broken extremist networks, bringing back another phase of organised violence. There was a massive crackdown on suspected Islamists on New Year's eve. For the Islamists, Indonesia has always been a high-stakes game. Though their influence among Indonesian society is negligible and their networks were broken up by the state, the latest attacks show they still possess the capability to hit life. It is bad news for the government of President Joko Widodo, which faces the challenge of rejuvenating an economy hit by a slowdown and falling commodity prices. Mr. Widodo, who came to power in 2014, has been trying to portray Indonesia as a peaceful, stable place to attract investments to fund growth. Terror attacks would certainly make his job harder. A bigger challenge is to prevent the return of attacks along the model of the last decade. To stop Islamists making inroads into the world’s largest Muslim society, the government has to take on both the extremist organisations and the extremists’ ideas. President Widodo should not let Islamists have their way.