Center for Strategic Communication

by Chris Lundry

On Sunday, September 25, a lone suicide bomber detonated a bomb at a Protestant Church in Surakarta (Solo), Central Java, as services were letting out. Along with the bomber, one congregant was killed and several wounded from the shrapnel composed of nails, bolts and buckshot. In the ensuing week there has been a struggle over how the event should be framed, with most Islamist groups denying responsibility.

The bomber has been identified as Pino Damayanto aka Yosepa Hayat Ahmad aka Abu Daud Raharjo, and was wanted by police in connection to the network that bombed a mosque in a police station in Cirebon, West Java, last April. Police have since announced that they are in pursuit of others suspected of being a part of the attack, who might have fled to East Java, as well as a number of bombs that are suspected to have been built. On Friday, Indonesia’s anti-terrorism squad Densus 88 captured Beni Ahmad Asri, wanted in conjunction with the Cirebon network, in West Sumatra.

Police announced that the bomber was a member of jailed terrorist leader Abu Bakar Basyir’s Jama’ah Ansarut Tauhid (JAT). This was quickly met with a denial by a JAT spokesman. It has been confirmed, however, that he studied at the Islamic boarding school run by Abu Bakar Basyir at Ngruki.

One immediate concern was whether this bombing was a reaction to the sectarian violence in Ambon three weeks ago. As my earlier post notes, extremist Islamist groups have stoked the flames of violence in Ambon, calling for jihad and continuing to portray Christians in the region as separatist members of the Republik Maluku Selatan (Republic of the South Moluccas, or RMS). The RMS was defeated in the early 1950s, was supported then by both Christians and Muslims alike, has little support in the Moluccas, and has never been a significant threat to the state of Indonesia since its defeat.

The day of the Solo church bombing, there were three bombs found in Ambon, in front of churches.  A fourth was found a day later. Despite the location of the bombs, extremist sites such as Prisoner of Joy place the blame on Christians. Indonesian police have reported similarities in the construction of the bombs found in Ambon to those found and used in Cirebon and Solo. One extremist site, Ghur4ba,  proudly proclaimed its support for the church bombing, and linked it to the violence in Ambon, the general crusade of Christians against Muslims, the apostacy of the Indonesian government, and referred to the bomber as a martyr. The declaration has appeared on several other sites, and is attributed to Forum Islam al-Busyro.

On Saturday, the head of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency proclaimed that after investigation, the violence in Ambon was not tied to the bombing.

As the toll rose to two dead including the bomber and 22 injured, and others reported that the suicide bomber had apparently left a bag containing a Qur’an, gloves and other items at a nearby internet cafe, where he used a computer just prior to carrying out the bombing. The day after the bombing, news site Surya published this story stating that the bomber had looked at the extremist site ar Rahmah before the bombing.

Eastern Indonesia’s flagship paper Pos Kupang gave a list of the stories that the bomber had viewed. The stories the bomber viewed were mostly about American and allied casualties in Afghanistan, with one about Osama bin Laden. The stories referenced powerful Islamist master narratives, notably the crusader master narrative and the martyr master narrative (the latter in reference to Osama bin Laden).

In the days following the Solo bombing, police and investigative journalists began to release details about the bombing, and extremists began issuing their predictable condemnations of the event – while continuing to valorize suicide bombings elsewhere and jihad in general. Mainstream Muslim groups such as Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and Muhammadiyah immediately condemned the bombings, and an NU spokesman asked that the government take down extremist sites.

Responding to calls for shutting down extremist websites, Indonesia’s Minister of Communication and Information Titaful Sembiring stated that websites are likely not what push people to radicalism, but rather it is a fundamental misunderstanding of Islam, which bans attacks on places of worship. While I agree with the latter part of the statement, there is mounting evidence that self-radicalization can occur via the internet.

Extremist sites such as ar Rahmah and Voice of al-Islam cited the minister’s speech in defense of their right to publish, and argued that they are the only ones exposing the true war against Islam in Indonesia, citing (once again!) the conflict in Ambon. Ar Rahmah plays the persecuted card, as though it is a victim of Islamophobia (and as though it doesn’t publish stories inciting violence in the name of twisted interpretation of Islam). Ar Rahmah published a story asking why the death of Christians warranted so much attention, when the deaths of Muslims in Ambon — according to them — did not.

As extremist groups began distancing themselves from the bombing, ar Rahmah published a story asking people not to link the bombing with jailed terrorist leader Abu Bakar Bashir. Conspiratorial thinking emerged as well — according to another story on ar Rahmah, intelligence analyst A. C. Manullang stated that the bombing may have been a pretext to crack down on radical groups in  Solo. In a story on Voice of al-Islam (which was subsequently removed), head of the paramilitary group Islamic Defenders Front Habib Rizieq claimed that the bombing was part of a “divide and conquer” tactic by the government.