News / Asia

Indonesian Police Link Church, Mosque Bombings

A policeman stands guard as residents watch the site of an explosion in front of a church in Solo, Central Java September 25, 2011.
A policeman stands guard as residents watch the site of an explosion in front of a church in Solo, Central Java September 25, 2011.
Kate Lamb

A suicide bomb attack on a church in Central Java, Indonesia, Sunday is raising new concerns over sectarian violence. Following a string of religious hate crimes against Christians and minority groups across the country this year, analysts blame splinter jihadists for Sunday’s attacks.

Witnesses said the suicide bomber mingled among the crowd at Bethel Injil Sepenuh Christian Church in Kepunton, Solo, before detonating the bomb that killed himself and wounded at least 20 others.

National police spokesman Anton Bachrul Alam says DNA results confirming the identity of the bomber will be released Tuesday.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono addressed the violence in a televised address Sunday. He admitted that terrorism in Indonesia remains a very real threat.

The president speculated on the bomber's jihadist links, saying it was likely he was connected to a network in Cirebon, which carried out a similar attack on a mosque this May.

Since last June, more than 10 suspected militants have been captured or killed in police raids in Central Java, which is also home to the Ngruki Islamic boarding school founded by convicted militant Abu Bakar Bashir.

Security analyst Noor Huda Ismail says Solo has long been identified as an active militant recruitment center, but not a place for terrorist attacks. 

"Central Java and specifically Solo is historically a place for jihadists to get new recruits but they never consider this area as a place where they can put into practice radical teachings," he said. "So this is a test that people behind this attack didn't have enough commitment to people in this area because usually they strengthen their cause here in these two areas but put their ideology into practice outside of Java, such as in Ambon, Poso, Jakarta or Bali."

While analysts are reluctant to suggest that extremism is on the rise in the world's largest Muslim-majority nation, Sunday's attack, he says, is likely to be the work of splinter jihadists. He says these could include disgruntled members of organizations such as Jeemah Islamiyah and Darual Islam who are disappointed that their leaders are not actively pursuing jihad.

Ismail says the suicide bombing in Solo may have been sparked by sectarian clashes in Ambon, which resulted in the deaths of more than five people on September 11 this year.

"The reason why they attack Christian groups, especially churches, has to do with what is happening now in Ambon, where they believe Muslims are being oppressed in that area. Seven were killed, hundreds of houses being burnt but there was no intervention from the government," he noted. "There are individuals within the network that really really want to do real jihad, action jihad, and what they need is a trigger and Ambon is a clear trigger for this."

Sidney Jones, a terrorism analyst from the International Crisis Group, says it is still premature to link Sunday’s attack to other attacks between Muslims and Christians in recent weeks. But she says there are signs that radical groups are trying to capitalize on the violence.

"I think there might be a possible motivation for targeting a church but we won't know until the investigation is fully underway," said Jones. "There has been a lot of material on radical websites expressing anger toward Crusader Christians and things like this and holding them responsible for the unrest, so it wouldn't surprise if there was a link but we will have to wait and see."

During his nationwide address Sunday, Indonesia’s president called for an intensive investigation into terrorist networks in Solo and also instructed the police to investigate its own personnel. Such quick action from the government is one sign that they worry the violence could spread.

Gregory Fealy is an associate professor at the Australian National University, who specializes in Islamist movements in Indonesia. He says the government is also concerned about how the violence is perceived abroad.

“I think this is a case where the government will react pretty swiftly because it is politically sensitive," said Fealy. "If Christians are being attacked in Indonesia, it often leads to international pressure on Indonesia and the Christian community itself is reasonably well connected politically, although it is numerically small compared to the Muslim community, nonetheless it is regarded as a community that the national government should go to all lengths to protect. They don’t always do that for some of the minority religious groups.”

Members of Indonesia’s minority Muslim sect Ahmadiyah have also suffered attacks in the past year. However that violence has not been met by a firm government response. Human Rights Watch says there were at least 50 acts of violence committed against Ahmadiyah members in the past year. But those convicted in attacks have received relatively light prison sentences.

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