By Remy Mahzam
The Paris-inspired Jakarta attacks at the start of a brand new year took on global headlines instantaneously. A new wave of terrorism has filled our mobile screens as we witness yet another act of terror on 14 January 2016 at a busy commercial hub along Jalan MH Thamrin that killed four civilians, leaving over 24 others wounded and four militants dead.
Amateur videos and photos capturing the explosions at the point of detonation and other terrifying moments from the attacks which were shared over Whatsapp, Telegram and on Twitter postings came ahead of official news reports, bringing the experience to a whole new level. The physical threat is now felt even closer to anyone as the spectre of terrorism has made its way to the personal spaces of those on mobile connectivity.
Similar to the Paris massacre on 13 November 2015 which was executed by assailants allegedly supported by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL), the Jakarta 2016 attacks have brought the region to a standstill and neighbouring countries such as Malaysia, Philippines, Thailand and Singapore on high alert.
Small-scale lone-wolf attacks which used to be the preferred method of terrorizing have made way for a more independent, amateurishly coordinated act of violence under a decentralized command structure. The autonomous killings made in the name of ISIS have demonstrated the organization’s unpretentious network affiliation and robust fidelity.
Updates on the Jakarta attacks have swarmed individual’s mobile notifications with amateur videos and photos shared by eyewitnesses, including a selfie-shot taken by one of the bystanders amidst the chaos. The attention has magnified the effect of the actual terror, making the threat even more personal, closer and relatable to anyone, even the innocent bystanders and eye-witnesses.
A War of Attention
ISIS official media statement, “Islamic State Special Operation Targets Gathering of Crusader Coalition Citizens in Jakarta” which claimed responsibility for the attacks can be seen as a form of celebration of this horror. Much to its intention to instil paranoia amongst people, the acknowledgement which came in the form of a simple Telegram update could inspire independent pro-ISIS operatives to launch future attacks in the name of the organization.
In response to the hysteria brought about by the attacks at Thamrin in Jakarta, Indonesians took on the hashtag #KamiTidakTakut (We Do Not Fear) online, which was inspired by President Joko Widodo’s televised statement that urged his nation not to be afraid of the acts of terror. The move is similar to #PrayforParis initiative, the driving narrative in Twitter to express condemnation on the horrific killings in Paris which had left more than 129 dead and over 350 wounded.
The impact of these hashtags however has made ISIS to become even more widely feared and recognized. Inadvertently, it has grown into a force to be reckoned with not only worldwide but also across the personal space of the naïve online audience on mobile connection.
Online Solidarity and Safety Check Bias
During the aftermath of the 2015 Paris attacks, Facebook allowed users to change their profile picture to a France’s tri-color national flag filter, as a form of solidarity. There was even a Safety Check feature that let users who were directly affected by the incident to inform their family and friends of their own well-being.
As clarified by Alex Schultz, Facebook’s Vice President of Growth, the Safety Check feature was inspired by an early version of the utility used during the 2011 Tsunami and nuclear disaster in Tokyo. Ideally, the tool was supposed to be accessible to users “whenever and wherever” there are “serious and tragic incidents in the future.”
Surprisingly, these features were not made available for the case of the recent Jakarta attacks. The absence of these technological tools reflected some disparity on the social networking service that has become the go-to platform for nearly 63 million people in Indonesia, making the country the third-largest Facebook mobile phone audience in the world.
The deadly Beirut blasts on 12 November 2015 which ISIS had claimed responsibility too suffered from this indifference and discrimination. Unlike Paris, Lebanon was regarded as a place with on-going crisis where attacks are common and hence the Facebook Safety Check feature is deemed somewhat irrelevant.
The Virtual Scapegoat
As the attention turns to Bahrun Naim, the alleged mastermind behind the Sarinah attacks, a 6-second audio recording of his voice was immediately discovered on SoundCloud, an audio sharing site, on 16 January 2016, seemingly suggesting that he was not the conspirator. Even Muhammad Jibriel Abdul Rahman, a terrorism analyst from Arrahmah Media who knows Naim personally, rejected the idea that he was the mastermind. If this is true, then it may suggest that they are possibly other like-minded pro-ISIS operatives who are conspiring for attacks in Jakarta.
Naim even wrote in his personal blog, www.bahrunnaim.site on 18 January 2016, commenting that the Sarinah attacks is a form of retaliation or condemnation against Detachment 88, Indonesian counterterrorism unit that is responsible for hunting, criminalizing and even killing ISIS-affiliated groups.
His blog posting is aptly titled, “Nasihat Untuk Penonton” (Advice for Spectators) which is directed specifically towards those who have become spectators of the attacks, the man on the streets or perhaps the witnesses of the unfolding drama, to come out of their passive state to become active participants by outwardly displaying their condemnation on the government and police.
A War That Concerns All of Us
Who would have thought that many, if not most, people on the virtual space have begun to associate themselves with the occurrence of a terror attack? From taking a selfie to capturing an amateurish video documentation of a bomb explosion, or changing one’s social media profile picture and crafting unique hashtags, terrorism has penetrated through the digitized social fabric of our lives.
The Jakarta and Paris episodes have become a testimony to ISIS’s successful endeavour to bring the threat landscape beyond the physical realm and into the personal space of a self-conscious, attention seeking hashtag-driven generation. The actual act of terror performed by a group of aficionado in the name of ISIS is more than just an attempt to inflict massive civilian casualty on distant territory outside Syria and Iraq. It has become a symbolic move to create a war that concerns everyone, even the spectators and the bystanders who are already on mobile connectivity.
*Remy Mahzam is an Associate Research Fellow with the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.