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Family Photo Becomes New Picture of Militancy in Indonesia

Surabaya Police Chief Col. Rudi Setiawan shows a picture of the family of Dita Oepriarto who carried out the church attacks on May 13, 2018 in Surabaya, East Java, Indonesia.

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 colors — a purple batik shirt, a pink flowered dress — and Mom's flowing headscarf is the color 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 neighbors 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 neighborhood.

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. At least 13 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 8 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 7-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 group.

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.''

Indonesia suffered its worst terrorist attack in 2002 on the resort island of Bali when 202 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed in nightclub bombings. Jemaah Islamiyah, an al-Qaida-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 center near Jakarta last week in which jailed Muslim extremists killed six officers. Andrie said much information leaked out after the incident, likely inciting others to act. IS 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.''

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

Experts say more than 1,000 Indonesians have gone abroad to help IS, 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. President Joko "Jokowi " Widodo has struggled to push through anti-terror legislation proposed since 2016 which 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.

"I'm not afraid of the bombing. I think it's the rising radicalization and growing intolerance of Indonesia,'' Singh said. "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.''