Jakarta terror attack, one year on: Emotional scars, but they won't be cowed

A year ago, four gunmen and suicide bombers mounted a brazen strike in the heart of Jakarta in the name of ISIS. It was the first ISIS-inspired attack in Indonesia, and one that would signal the start of a campaign of terror in the country. The Sunday Times finds out what has changed for people living and working in the capital, and examines the looming threat of ISIS in the world's most populous Muslim nation.

Security guard Mulyadi checks every bag at the mall and screens everyone, including staff.
Security guard Mulyadi checks every bag at the mall and screens everyone, including staff. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

Shortly after the first bomb went off during a terror attack in the heart of Jakarta last January, sales assistant Eka Pratiwi thought she was going to die, so she called her husband to say her last farewell.

The 33-year-old and several dozen of her colleagues were holed up inside Sarinah shopping mall as suicide bombers and gunmen struck at a busy intersection just outside.

"Everyone panicked, some were crying and others were shouting 'Bomb! Bomb!', I only thought of the worst, that the end was near for me," she told The Sunday Times.

Many who live and work in downtown Jakarta still vividly recall the chaos that broke out as four terrorists, armed with pistols and home- made bombs, first struck, one year ago yesterday.

All were killed, along with four bystanders, in the audacious attack at the busy intersection near a Starbucks cafe. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) later claimed responsibility for the strike.

Police officer Denny Mahieu was seriously injured when the terrorists struck his post on Jan 14 last year. PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

One year on, extra security measures, including vehicle screenings in the area, serve as a reminder that the terror threat continues to loom large in Indonesia.

Visitors must surrender their bags for checks and go through metal detectors to enter buildings in the area, while security officers are no longer "mobile", but must stand guard at designated posts so they can keep an eye out for threats.

"Anybody can be a terrorist these days, be they young or old, even women. We don't discriminate, we even screen the staff we see every day," said security guard Mulyadi at Menara Cakrawala which houses the Starbucks cafe that was hit.

The 46-year-old said he has become even more vigilant and will never rule out any explosion as "the sound of a punctured bus tyre".

"I now realise just how important my job is. Now I simply turn away anybody who refuses to let me check their bags," he said.

It is not only buildings that have beefed up security. A string of lone-wolf attacks in Indonesia has resulted in a higher state of alert for the police and private security service providers across the country.

Experts like associate research fellow V. Arianti of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research said the Indonesian security apparatus has been successful in mounting several counter-terrorism operations to capture and kill terrorists, and thwarting a number of plots.

That means Indonesians are able to go on with their lives, despite a belief that it is a matter of when, not if, terrorists will strike again.

Memories of the chaos on Jan 14 still ring clear for many.

Ms Novianti Mariana, 30, who sells waffles at Sarinah mall, recalled one of the terrorists lingering suspiciously for half an hour at the basement level and even stopping by her shop before the attack.

"He was looking around but when I asked if he wanted some waffles, he simply shrugged and walked away," she said. "His behaviour was strange, so I alerted security."

Soon after, explosions rang out and people ran helter-skelter into the mall, screaming "Terrorists! Run!", she said, adding that she rushed outside and was shocked to see a second gunman shooting into the crowd.

"My heart was pounding so hard I couldn't breathe, I was so scared a terrorist would pop up and point a gun at my face but I had to turn off the gas and lights and close the cash register first," added Ms Novianti.

It was only several hours later that the police gave her and others in the mall the green light to leave in small groups.

In the aftermath of the attack, many Indonesians took to social media using the hashtag "KamiTidakTakut", which means "We are not afraid" in Bahasa Indonesia.

Many also gathered in the area of the attack to rally for peace and call for an end to terror.

Indeed, the ease and nonchalance showed the resilience and defiance of Jakartans in the face of terror.

They have refused to give in to fear - despite revelations of more terror plots over the past one year.

After all, terrorism could happen anywhere and attacks take various forms, they said, and many felt the Indonesian police are doing a good job in thwarting terror plots.

Yesterday, community groups like the Peaceful Indonesia Alliance gathered at the scene to mark the anniversary of the attack.

Also present was police officer Denny Mahieu, who was seriously injured when the terrorists struck his post with a bomb.

Showing his scars to reporters, he said he was still undergoing treatment to recover from his injuries. "But I'm not complaining of pain because it was fate," he said.

Property agent Montez Christian, 27, said: "The cafe was boarded up but when it reopened a fortnight later, I was back at my favourite hangout. Terrorists want us to fear them so we must deny them that."

Still, there are worries that Indonesian militants loyal to ISIS may be inspired by attacks carried out by their counterparts in other parts of the world - such as Belgium, France, Germany, Turkey and Israel - and mount similar strikes.

Indeed, counter-terrorism and radicalism studies expert Adhe Bhakti said "nothing is impossible in terrorism", and warned that terrorists will continue to change their methods of attack.

"Incidents overseas could provide ideas for how Indonesian terrorists plan an attack here," he added. "They will get inspired by the styles of attacks overseas."

•Additional reporting by Wahyudi Soeriaatmadja

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 15, 2017, with the headline Jakarta terror attack, one year on: Emotional scars, but they won't be cowed. Subscribe