Family becomes new picture of militancy in Indonesia

Indonesia is reeling from militant suicide attacks using children in recent days, as experts say more than 1,000 people are returning to the country after going abroad to help ISIS.

Surabaya police say they shot a suspected militant Tuesday, arrested 13 others

People hold candles during a vigil for the victims of the church attacks in Surabaya, Indonesia, on Sunday night. (Trisnadi/Associated Press)

In the photo, the mother rests one hand on her youngest son's arm. Two little sisters in the front hold flowers against matching red head scarves. Dad stands in the back next to the oldest son who has already outgrown him. The six are dressed in happy prints and colours — a purple batik shirt, a pink flowered dress — and mom's flowing headscarf is the colour of sky.

It appears to be a picture of a happy middle-class Indonesian family. But it has shocked the world's most populous Muslim nation this week by becoming its new face of militant violence.

Friends and neighbours describe the Muslim parents as normal and nice, associating regularly with Christians who lived nearby and letting their home-schooled children play with others in the neighbourhood.

But on Sunday, they fanned out with suicide bombs attached to themselves and their children, attacking three churches. The entire family was killed in Indonesia's second largest city of Surabaya.

Firefighters try to extinguish a blaze following a blast at the Pentecost Church Central Surabaya on Sunday. (Antara Foto. Antara Foto/Surabaya government via Reuters)

At least seven more people died in the churches and more than 40 others were injured. The youngest human bomb, the little girl staring directly at the camera with big brown eyes, was just eight years old. Her big sister was 12.

Before people had time to fully process that children had been used for the first time to carry out a suicide attack in Indonesia, it happened again. Another family — including a seven-year-old child who survived — participated in a similar suicide mission at police headquarters in the same city on Monday.

Three members of a third family also died when homemade bombs exploded in their apartment Sunday night, and three children survived.

Police say the attackers all knew each other, and the father who carried out the church bombings, Dita Oepriarto, headed the Surabaya cell of Jemaah Anshorut Daulah, an Indonesian network of extremist groups affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

In all, 26 people — including 13 militants and their children — have died since Sunday. Authorities say the surviving children are being treated for physical and mental issues and will eventually be placed with safe family members.

"For the kids, I think this is craziness," said Taufik Andrie, who runs an Indonesian institute that helps rehabilitate former militants ready to rejoin society. "It's the first time in Indonesia. I'm afraid this will be a new trend."

A Muslim woman weeps during the wake for Sri Pudji Astutik, one of the victims of Sunday's church attacks, at a funeral home in Surabaya on Monday. (Achmad Ibrahim/Associated Press)

On Tuesday, Indonesian police searched the home of the family that bombed the police headquarters. Later, they fatally shot a suspected militant and arrested 13 others suspected of links to the suicide bombings carried out by the two families. 

Surabaya police spokesperson Frans Barung Mangera said the arrests were made in raids in Surabaya and the neighbouring cities of Malang and Pasuruan.

He said the suspected militant who died was killed in a shootout with counterterrorism police who had tried to arrest him. 

Indonesia suffered its worst attack in 2002 on the resort island of Bali when 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed in nightclub bombings. Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaeda-affiliated network, was responsible. The country has been relatively quiet in recent years after major cells connected to larger organized groups were stamped out.

The new spate of bombings comes just ahead of the holy Islamic month of Ramadan, and follows a melee at a detention centre near Jakarta last week during which jailed Muslim extremists killed six officers. Andrie said much information leaked out after the incident, likely inciting others to act.

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the recent violence in both cities.

"I think the message is simply that they can create momentum," he said. "And they don't want to lose it."

Indonesian men look at the house where the man lived who, along with his family, carried out Sunday's suicide bomb attacks on churches in Surabaya. (Fadlan Syam/Associated Press)

Using women and children in militant attacks has long been a tactic deployed in other countries — Nigerian insurgent group Boko Haram often uses children as suicide bombers.

Experts say more than 1,000 Indonesians have gone abroad to help ISIS, and their return raises new worries.

"We've got hundreds of fighters coming back. Probably the Indonesians don't even know how many are coming back," said Bilveer Singh, a political science professor at the National University of Singapore. "If you don't get this thing right, then you are going to get more and more terrorist attacks in the coming months and years."

He said the buildup to Indonesia's presidential election next year coupled with growing religious intolerance could spark new violence, especially if Islam is used as a politicizing weapon.

Since 2016, President Joko (Jokowi) Widodo has struggled to push through anti-terror legislation proposed that would make it easier for law enforcement officers to go after extremists. In condemning the recent attacks, he vowed to issue an emergency presidential decree if parliament continues to drag its feet.

Singh said: "I'm not afraid of the bombing. I think it's the rising radicalization and growing intolerance of Indonesia. It has been moving in a very dangerous way, and it has not been stopped. And I think the danger of Indonesia is not tomorrow. The danger of Indonesia is in the next five to 10 years."