Two young men travelling on a motorbike were stopped by national counterterrorism police in a busy residential area of Jakarta on Thursday, May 2. A search revealed they were carrying five assembled pipe bombs, and an interrogation led police to a rented house in the city where more explosive material was found.
According to Indonesia’s national police spokesman Brig-Gen. Boy Rafli Amar, the men confessed that they were planning to attack the Myanmar Embassy in the city in protest against the anti-Muslim violence in that country.
The men, Sefa Riano, 28, and Achmad Taufiq, 21, planned to launch the attack the following day, said a senior source at the country's counterterrorism police unit, known as Densus 88, speaking on condition of anonymity to AFP.
“This was an operation to stop a terrorist action,” said the head of Indonesia's anti-terrorist agency, Ansyaad Mbai. “We are very certain that the attack would have been launched if we did not stop them.”
Though it was reported that the police were acting on a tip-off, subsequent Indonesian media reports accredited the arrests to the counterterrorism agency’s tailing of a third man, Sigit Indrajit, or “SI”.
On Friday, police raided a house which was rented by Sigit Indrajit. Although he was not to be found, the police found books on jihad and the politics of jihad in the house, reported the Jakarta Post.
Densus 88 announced that the hunt is on for the 23-year-old whom they believe was the bomb-maker. “He allegedly helped assemble bombs for the attack,” said Brig-Gen. Boy on Monday.
However, despite their relative success in thwarting a terrorist attack, Jakarta’s security forces found themselves embroiled in another situation just hours after the announcement on Friday.
Hundreds of hard-line Muslims gathered outside the Myanmar Embassy—the intended target of an attack that same day—to denounce Myanmar Buddhists’ treatment of Muslims, and in particular, the Rohingya community, and to call for a holy war—a jihad—against what they claimed was the persecution of their Islamic brothers.
Up to 2,000 police were deployed to secure the Embassy and its ambassador's house. The demonstrators, reportedly led by a group called the Islamic Defenders Front, chanted slogans such as "We want jihad!" and "Stop the genocide in Myanmar!" while tearing up a picture of President Thein Sein, as well as ripping apart a Myanmar flag.
Similar protests were also reported in the central Javanese town of Solo and at a Buddhist temple in Medan, the capital of north Sumatra.
The following day, Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said that the failed attack on the Myanmar Embassy is “proof that terrorism remains a threat in the country.”
By Tuesday, May 7, Sigit Indrajit was still in hiding, but Densus 88 released four of his family members from custody as well as the wife of Sefa Riano, saying they were no longer considered suspects in the case.
Indonesian media, meanwhile, lamented that such young men could have been recruited or turned toward committing such a murderous act.
A Jakarta Post editorial on Monday titled “Terror and democracy” quoted National Counterterrorism Agency head Ansyad Mbai saying that solidarity with Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar was the motive behind the plan to bomb up the embassy.
“If true, it indicates a shift in the targets of home-grown terrorist groups,” the editorial said. “In the wake of the 9/11 bombings, terrorist targets included Western interests, as happened when Jamaah Islamiyah masterminded carnage twice in Bali and three times in Jakarta. Then “the allies of the West” were added to the list, as was evident in several attempts to assassinate President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and numerous attacks targeting the police.”
Yet despite the overt threat to the country, many of Myanmar’s media chose to either downplay or ignore the incident. State-run The New Light of Myanmar did not even mention it.
On Monday, Eleven News quoted Lt-Col. Min Aung of the Police Force as saying that Myanmar has beefed up security measures and tightened control over visas after reports of possible terrorist attacks in the country.
He said that they had been notified that “terrorists are trying to enter the country and attempt bombing,” and said units around the country had stepped up security measures, as well as border controls.
But last week’s foiled attack in Jakarta is just one in a long list of incidents in Indonesia that have threatened to boil over and which jeopardize the security of Myanmar nationals. Most, if not all incidents, were violent acts conducted by hard-line Muslim Indonesians who identified themselves as Rohingya sympathizers.
Last year, jailed radical Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir sent a letter to Myanmar's president threatening to attack the country over the perceived persecution. And just last month, he renewed a call for Indonesian Muslims to go to Myanmar to fight.
Bashir is the spiritual leader of al-Qaida-linked militant group blamed for a string of deadly attacks in Indonesia, including the 2002 bombings that killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, on the resort island of Bali.
In July last year, hundreds of Muslim hardliners protested outside Myanmar's Embassy in Jakarta over the issue. And in September, a man turned himself in to police, admitting to have planned a suicide bomb attack against Buddhists in Jakarta in response to Myanmar's treatment of Muslim minorities, particularly the Rohingya.
Then last month on April 5, Rohingya detainees at an immigration detention centre on Sumatra allegedly beat to death fellow Myanmar Buddhist immigrants.
The Indonesian government has been a vocal supporter of Muslim minorities in Myanmar, in January pledging US$1 million in aid to Rohingyas in Rakhine State.
Nonetheless, the heightened antipathy between Indonesia’s Muslim hardliners and Myanmar’s Buddhist extremists in Myanmar does threaten to derail what has fast become a consolidated business relationship between the two governments.
As recently as April 23, Thein Sein hosted Yudhoyono in Naypyitaw, concluding a series of diplomatic meetings between the two countries which have culminated in several business MoUs being signed and agreements to increase bilateral trade.
In a national speech on Monday, the Myanmar President promised his government would uphold the fundamental rights of the Rohingya community in Rakhine State, following polarized reports on last year’s communal violence between his government and international organizations such as Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and UNOCHA.
His speech was most likely aimed at the international community and Indonesia in particular, for few Buddhist Myanmar politicians venture to show any semblance of public support for the Muslim community these days.
On Tuesday, May 7, defense ministers from all 10 member states of ASEAN sat down in Brunei to discuss measures to further cement defense and security cooperation among the bloc.
It was not disclosed whether the Jakarta incident would be addressed nor whether either Indonesia or Myanmar felt that specific security issues needed to be flagged.
However, both countries have been dogged by the actions of hard-line religious groups recently, and both governments would be well advised not to underestimate the potential for communal tensions boiling over into a bilateral arena.