The rise of familial extremism: Suicide bombings in Philippines, Indonesia linked to family in Malaysia

SABAH (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - Recent terrorist bombings in the Philippines and Indonesia have been linked to a family living in Malaysia's Sabah state, say experts, who warn that familial extremism is a growing trend in the region.

The perpetrators of the suicide bombings that killed 23 at the Jolo cathedral in the southern Philippines in 2019, and wounded 20 people at the Makassar church in Indonesia this year, are connected to an Indonesian family who lived in Sabah for about two months.

The rise of familial extremism, defined as personal ties that connect militants across the region, is responsible for the suicide attacks two years apart in the two neighbouring countries.

"The attacks in both Indonesia and Philippines can be categorised as an action mobilised by a group with strong family ties and that was organised by two cross-border groups, namely JAD (Jemaah Ansharut Daulah) in Indonesia and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines," said Stanislaus Riyanta, a Jakarta-based security and terrorism expert.

Former Sabah police commissioner Datuk Hazani Ghazali said Malaysia's police closely monitors foreign threats in the state.

"The three nations - Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines - exchange intelligence," Mr Hazani said.

The Indonesian couple responsible for the Jolo suicide bombings, Rullie Rian Zeke, 35, and his wife Ulfah Handayani Saleh, 32, blew themselves up during mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of Mount Carmel on Jan 27, 2019.

Back in their hometown of Makassar, the capital of Sulawesi, Rullie and Ulfah were cell members of JAD, an Indonesian group with connections to the Islamic State (IS).

The couple earned a living selling rice. They joined JAD because of kinship ties with the group's leadership in south Sulawesi.

Stanislaus said the JAD leader in Makassar was Mohammad Rizaldy S., the 46-year-old brother of Ulfah.

On Jan 6 this year, Indonesian security forces killed Mohammad Rizaldy and his 23-year-old son-in-law Sanjai Azis in a raid in Makassar. The authorities also captured 18 JAD members, including Ainun Preety, the daughter of Rullie and Ulfah.

Two months later, Muhammad Lukman, 26, and his wife Yogi Sahfitri Fortuna @ Dewi, 26, were killed when Yogi detonated a bomb outside Makassar's Sacred Heart Cathedral at the end of the Palm Sunday service on March 28.

Muhammad and Yogi were part of the JAD cell in Makassar.

"It was revenge for the killing of Mohammad Rizaldy and Sanjai. Muhammad Lukman and Yogi were angry that the JAD did not do any bombing in the few past years, and yet Indonesian police had killed two JAD members," said a regional intelligence source who asked not to be identified.

The mastermind

Indonesian police identified Saefullah, a man in close contact with pro-IS groups in Indonesia, especially JAD, as the mastermind of the Makassar attack. Saefullah, an Indonesian believed to be in Afghanistan or Pakistan, is also connected to the 2019 Jolo attack.

The Jolo suicide bombers were influenced to travel from Sulawesi to nearby Sabah by Andi Baso, 21, who later became their son-in-law.

"Andi is thought to have influenced and arranged the journey and actions of Rullie and Ulfah," said Stanislaus.

Andi, a JAD figure with strong connections to IS and Abu Sayyaf, received instructions from JAD mastermind Saefullah, he added.

The regional intelligence source said Andi was an intermediary: "Saefullah did not give instructions directly to Andi but conveyed them through Suryadi Masud, an influential Indonesian militant based in Jakarta."

On Nov 13, 2016, Andi planned a church attack that killed a toddler in Samarinda, East Kalimantan. Pursued by Indonesian security forces, he fled to neighbouring Sabah in late 2016 or early 2017.

He ended up in Bingkor, Keningau, a district in Sabah's interior, about 120km from Kota Kinabalu. In Bingkor, the fugitive worked odd jobs to raise funds to finance his illegal activities.

In November 2018, Rullie, Ulfah and their three children travelled from Makassar to Keningau, where they lived for less than two months before heading for their final destination - Jolo island - to carry out their suicide bombing.

Stanislaus said the couple and their children had in March 2016 travelled from Indonesia to Turkey, where they tried to enter Syria to join IS fighters.

"But when they crossed from Turkey, they were caught and deported to Indonesia. After that, they decided to go to the Philippines - they were smuggled there through Malaysia by migrant workers in oil palm plantations in Sabah. Once in the Philippines and after joining the Abu Sayyaf, they carried out the Jolo bombing," he said.

"I don't think Saefullah's orders (to Rullie and Ulfah to go to Jolo) were direct, but of course, there was coordination with the Abu Sayyaf. The driving factor was not someone's instructions but the tight situation the couple was in, so they finally chose to take action as a form of jihad."

Foot soldiers

The regional intelligence source said Rullie and Ulfah were low-level JAD foot soldiers.

"They were already indoctrinated. There was no need to motivate them... They were identified as potential suicide bombers. Then Andi and the Jolo bombers were connected as they were already part of the JAD cell in Makassar."

In November 2018, Andi married the Jolo bombers' 17-year-old daughter Rezky in Bingkor, Sabah.

"It was an arranged marriage. If you are a JAD member, you want your daughter to marry another JAD member," the source said. "It is like a cult system. Intermarriage among themselves. No outsiders because they don't have an understanding of the mission."

Around December 2018, Rullie, Ulfah, their three children as well as Andi all travelled to Jolo via Sabah.

The source said Rullie and Ulfah were preparing to carry out the suicide bombings, "but they did not know where and when", as their host, the Abu Sayyaf, made the decisions.

The Rullie family lived in Patikul in the Philippines with the Sawadjaan group, also known as Jemaah Abu Sayyaf, which was led by a man called Hajan Sawadjaan.

Hajan's nephew, Mundi Sawadjaan - a rising subleader with ambitions to become the next IS emir in the southern Philippines - facilitated Rullie and Ulfah's mission to attack the Jolo cathedral by providing suicide bomber vests and logistical support.

"Any foreign militant - whether Indonesian, Syrian, Uyghur or Egyptian - who comes to Jolo has to report to either Hajan Sawadjaan or Mundi Sawadjaan to get protection," the source said.

"To be a leader, you must do something radical. By doing this, the name of Mundi will surface. If he is the number one wanted man in the Philippines, he will become more popular. So he can get more support."

The Jolo and Makassar suicide bombings were essentially the handiwork of the JAD cell in Makassar, Stanislaus said.

"There is kinship and family relationship - the Makassar JAD group is mostly united because of ideological ties and kinship ties," he said.

And the result of these ties were the two deadly bombings.