A series of coordinated suicide bomb attacks perpetrated by a single family struck churches in Surabaya, Indonesia on Sunday, May 13, killing at least 13 people and wounding dozens in the deadliest attack for years in the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.
The nation has been on high alert following attacks by homegrown militants as it grapples with rising intolerance towards religious minorities.
Via its Amaq outlet, Islamic State said three “martyrdom operations” had taken place in Surabaya, Indonesia’s second-largest city.
Indonesia’s national police chief Tito Karnavian said the mother – who had two children aged 12 and 9 with her – attacked one church, while the father exploded a car bomb at another, and two sons aged 18 and 16 used a motorbike in a third attack, the Associated Press reported.
Update May 14 The family were not returnees from Syria, police said Monday, correcting statements made on Sunday.
He said that they were linked to Indonesian extremist network Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, AFP reported.
“All were suicide attacks but the types of bombs are different,” he said.
The use of women in Islamic State attacks is very unusual, and children being involved is very rare, if not unique.
East Java police spokesperson Frans Barung Mangera said 11 people had died and 41 were injured after at least three churches were hit in apparently coordinated bomb attacks at around 7:30 a.m. By 4:15 p.m., police said the death toll had risen to 13 people, The Jakarta Post reported.
Update May 14 The bombings killed 18 people including the bombers and their children, a revised toll said on Monday.
Frans told The Jakarta Post the explosions took place at Santa Maria Tak Bercela Catholic Church, Gereja Pantekosta Pusat Surabaya Church and Kristen Indonesia Diponegoro Church.
The bombs exploded shortly before Sunday services began, the first at Santa Maria Tak Bercela and the others following within five minutes.
TV footage appeared to show a motorcycle driving into the church grounds followed by an explosion seconds later. Police said they found one bomber among the dead at the church.
A witness said a woman carrying two bags was responsible for the explosion at Kristen Indonesia Diponegoro Church. Police chief Tito Karnavian later said the attack was carried out by a woman – identified as Puji Kuswati – and her two daughters, who were wearing veils and had bombs strapped to their waists.
The police chief said the attack at Gereja Pantekosta Pusat Surabaya was carried out by a man – identified as Dita Priyanto – who drove a car bomb into the church. Earlier, police spokesperson Frans Barung Mangera told reporters the car was rammed “into the gate in front of that church.”
Explosive ordnance disposal teams dealt with two further unexploded bombs at Gereja Pantekosta Pusat Surabaya, AFP reported, while AP reported that local police chief, David Triyo Prasojo, said an EOD team detonated an unexploded bomb at the Diponegoro church.
According to The Jakarta Post, two other churches – Santo Jakobus Church and Gereja Hati Kudus Yesus Church – were also targeted in attempted attacks but the bombs failed to explode. This has not yet been confirmed.
Mako Brimob prison standoff
The church attacks came just days after five personnel and a prisoner were killed in clashes in a high-security prison at Mako Brimob on the outskirts of Jakarta.
A riot broke out on Tuesday, May 8 and was followed by a 36-hour standoff between detainees and police, after Islamist inmates took a guard hostage. The inmates eventually surrendered.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for that incident although police denied ISIS involvement.
Then, on Friday, police shot dead two people who were among four they said were travelling to Mako Brimob to “help the rioting prisoners.” The four had been arrested and were in handcuffs, but police said two attempted to strangle officers and were shot.
Wawan Purwanto, communication director at Indonesia’s intelligence agency said Jamaah Anshar Daulah is believed to have carried out the church bombings and they are likely linked to the prison incident, Reuters reported.
Police chief Karnavian said Sunday’s attacks may have been revenge for the arrest of some Jamaah Anshar Daulah’s leaders and for the prison incident.
“The incident angered them … and there were instructions from IS in Syria, so they waited for a moment to take revenge,” he added.
Jamaah Anshar Daulah, also transliterated as Jemaah Ansharut Daulah, is an umbrella organization designated as a terrorist group by the U.S. Department of State.
According to the January 2017 designation, it was formed in 2015 and comprises “almost two dozen Indonesian extremist groups that pledged allegiance to ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.”
The group, led by jailed radical Aman Abdurrahman, has been linked to several deadly incidents, including a gun and suicide attack in the capital Jakarta left four attackers and four civilians dead in 2016, and was the first assault claimed by ISIS in Southeast Asia.
Jamaah Anshar Daulah shootout kills four
Meanwhile, police on Sunday said four people suspected to be members of the radical group Jamaah Anshar Daulah were killed in a shootout with Indonesia’s elite Densus 88 police counter-terrorism squad in Cianjur, West Java.
“They were reportedly involved in paramilitary training to prepare for other operations during Ramadhan and Idul Fitri in multiple cities, including Jakarta, West Java’s Bandung, as well as at Mako Brimob,” National Police spokesman Inspector Geneneral Setyo Wasisto said on Sunday, The Jakarta Post reported.
Police would not comment on whether the group was connected to Sunday’s bombings, AFP reported.
Setyo said that, separately, police arrested two other people in West Java on Sunday. According to The Jakarta Post, they are suspected to be connected to the person killed in the prison through a recently activated sleeper cell.
Sectarian intolerance rising
Nearly 90 percent of Indonesia’s 260 million people are Muslim, but there are also significant numbers of Christians, Hindus and Buddhists.
The archipelago nation of around 17,000 islands has long struggled with Islamic militancy, and concerns about sectarian intolerance have been on the rise.
In February, police shot and wounded an ISIS-inspired radical who attacked a church congregation outside Indonesia’s cultural capital Yogyakarta with a sword during a Sunday mass. Four people were injured.
In 2000 bombs disguised as Christmas gifts delivered to churches and clergymen killed 19 people on Christmas Eve and injured scores more across the country.
The 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people – mostly foreign tourists on the majority Hindu island – was the country’s worst-ever terror attack.
Sunday’s bombings had the highest death toll since nine people were killed in attacks on two luxury hotels in Jakarta in 2009.
Security forces have arrested hundreds of militants during a sustained crackdown in recent years. Most recent attacks have been low-level and targeted domestic security forces.
But the coordinated nature of Sunday’s bombings suggested a higher level of planning, analysts said.
“Recent attacks have been far less ‘professional,'” Sidney Jones, an expert on Southeast Asian terrorism and director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, told AFP.
The emergence of ISIS has proved a potent new rallying cry for Indonesian radicals, sparking fears that homegrown extremist outfits could get a new lease of life.
With reporting from AFP