Questioning the Motive of Kampung Melayu Bombing

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Jakarta, 24 May 2017. A bomb was detonated in a public toilet in a Transjakarta (dedicated bus lane) stop in Kampung Melayu, East Jakarta, around 10 p.m. A second, smaller bomb was detonated minutes later in a parking lot nearby. The bomber was identified as a suicide bomber and shortly after the bombing, Indonesian National Police suggested connections with Manchester bombing in an Ariana Grande concert and Marawi bombing in Mindanao.

Prayers and thoughts are with those who lost their lives, were hurt, or otherwise traumatized by the bombing; as well as to their family and friends and to Jakarta.

That said, one can’t help but wonder: what could be the motive of the attack?

The bombing target was strange: an area far from center of commerce or gathering (not a marketplace or mall), in a weird time when Jakarta’s streets are relatively quiet (instead of rush hour which will increase damage), in a random location (without economic, political, or social importance). The explosion happened in the eve of a Christian holiday, where many gathered elsewhere in Jakarta (such as Kemang, Sudirman, or Kuningan) to hang out before a long weekend. If the bomb had wanted to target Christians going to Christ Ascension mass, they could’ve waited few more hours until the morning.

It becomes even more strange as the death toll (as of this writing) was only 5: 2 bombers and 3 police officers, as if intended to elude civilians entirely — completely antithetical to classic terrorism M.O. Were police officers the target of this attack? A previous big attack with connection to Daesh-funneled funnding, Sarinah bombing in January 2016, was intercepted quickly by a brave security officer (peace be upon his soul) and was resolved quickly by the police force in a swift wave of arrests of 12 following the attack, quashing both physical and psychological terror to minimal level hand in hand social media solidarity who fought back under the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (“we are not afraid”).

Indonesia’s police force (particularly the not-so-known Special Detachment or Densus 88 — my birth year, year of the Dragon) has long forged strong capacity building activities and joint training with various intel operations and international partnerships in order to improve their skills in being one step ahead of security threats, particularly the highly-organized kind. In 2016 alone, more than 15 terrorist attacks have been foiled and numerous arrests been made through infiltration into Islamic schools (pesantren) and study groups (pengajian) suspected as having been radicalized. Information has been made available in the form of trends to watch such as the use of radicalized women as well as identification of hot radicalization pockets (notably, Depok and Lamongan). Unfortunately, intel is a thankless job — success can only be shared to the society in a limited amount due to (a) not to disrupt any ongoing operations, (b) not to create a notion of threat that may destabilize the society, and most importantly (c) drowned in the cacophony of sexier issues such as identity politics, corruption, and celebrity gossips.

Regardless, for attackers, successful intel means a threat to their operation.

Prior to the bombing, the police were already scheduled to patrol Kampung Melayu due to the torch parade held by locals to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, the holiest month of fasting and purification for Muslims. Rumors have been circulating that the bombing’s strange targeting might be because it wasn’t meant to terrorize the mass. It could have been an attack targeting the police, in which case the police are victims of terrorism just as much as we can be. If such is the case, they have been successful in doing so, taking away three lives.

The bombing could have a more sinister motivation. Attacking the torch parade and rendering the attack as a retaliation to Muslims, perhaps due to increasing Islamization lately in Indonesia, may further intensify the rift between conservative Muslims and so-called non-Muslims (minority religions, discriminated groups such as women and LGBT, and liberals). If such is the case, the police officers used themselves (again, like in Sarinah case) as human shields to prevent further physical and horizontal chaos.

There has been visible reactions shared in social media regarding how Indonesian security force should’ve focused more in keeping safety of the people instead of policing morality, clearly in reference to Sunday’s raid of Atlantic, a gay strip club in North Jakarta, and the caning of gay men in Aceh.

In the case of Atlantic raid, after the initial naked arrest, I have heard secondhand account that those arrested were quickly given clothes to wear, and at the end of the 24-hour investigation period (many were released as the main suspect of the pornoaction law were only a number of go-go dancers performing striptease, the club manager, the receptionist, and the club accountant), many male police officers were friendly to, in good spirits, ask the gay men how to maintained six-pack and work out, whether the family knows, etc. Curiosity were shared and laughter passed around. It is clear there were bad apples and there were miscarriage of justices as photos of those arrested naked were circulated in social media and access to lawyers were made more difficult. However, the single brushstroke of “police brutality” suddenly wasn’t as unidimensional as initially thought.

Aceh’s caning were just as multifaceted. Various international reporting and gay “news” outlet (I use that term loosely, as loose as a double-fisted hole, as they share more fact snippets than responsible corroboration) did not mention that (a) Aceh is not the embodiment of Indonesian law as it operates under a different constitution (the strictly-Sharia Qanun Jinayat) and (b) higher number of heterosexual convicts have received lashings, sometimes in harsher amounts. Tuesday’s caning was case against sex before marriage than it is about homophobia.

Generalizing the law enforcement as inherently sucky or sided, particularly in the form of being excited that some persons with uniform died, is a scary schadenfreude: when the oppressed rise into being the oppressor. Indonesian police force is indeed a severely, systematically-corrupt institution, but (1) individuals within these are not superhuman with silver bullets, many of them are just normal people trying to get by; (2) the boxes within the police force should not be ignored (for instance, traffic police or Polantas are known to be far less paid and have much higher propensity to embezzle rather than the Special Detachments); and (3), as a whole, their excellent counter-terrorism work should not be left unsaid. In times of strife such as these, it is extremely important not to give into the seductive, ego-satisfying politics of revenge.

Politics of revenge is what fuels the circle of hate, distrust, and failure of communication due to insurmountable verbal landmines and animosity. A polarized society is very ripe to tear apart and capitalize during upcoming regional and presidential elections. Whatever was the motive of yesterday evening’s bombings, the situation has not escalated. What we should continually be wary about is to see what political motive fuels the bombing and make sure it is not perversely capitalized by partisan politics (in expense of public interest) in the recent future.

P.S. These are immediate thoughts that may partially or entirely change as more layers of this puzzling bombing case, are, like a stubborn onion, made to peel.

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