If you’re reading this, you’re probably heard about the ongoing terror attack in Jakarta. Here are three pieces of information that it is important to keep in mind, not so much as the situation unfolds, but for the aftermath as we try to make sense of what happened.
The location is symbolically powerful
As far as we can tell for now, all of the incidents took place near Sarinah, on Jalan Thamrin in Central Jakarta.
The Starbucks at the Skyline building, opposite Sarinah, is fairly popular with an international and upscale crowd, but an attack designed for maximum carnage against foreigners would have picked somewhere else. Rather, the Sarinah area is a symbolically important place: Indonesia’s first international-style mall, fallen on harder times as of late but still understood among Jakartans as an early and powerful symbol of Indonesian prosperity.
This is not like earlier terror attacks in Indonesia
“International terrorism”-style attacks in Indonesia have historically been designed to destroy. The best examples are the Bali bombings, the Marriott bombing, and the Australian embassy bombing. Those were “big” events, with large devices. They were also tied (variously) to al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah. The Sarinah attacks appear to be operationally different: more individuals involved, and with guns and grenades rather than exclusively suicide bombings. It suggests they were preparing for a fight—not exactly like the Nairobi attacks, but perhaps closer. We don’t know yet what the motivation is, or with whom the terrorists are tied (or with anyone), but it is reasonable to wonder if this is a different organization.
Rumors are everywhere, most untrue
Among people in the office where I am working, for example, I have heard that the perpetrators were “African” (they used a different, extremely improper word), that they destroyed the McDonalds, that the airport is under attack, that there are incidents all over town, and so forth. All of these things appear to be untrue. Twitter and text messaging is not helping; the local office workers have been showing me ridiculous things on their cellphones, including that there is an incident in our own office, which would be surprising because our building is roughly the size of a small house.
In reality, Jakarta is just really quiet at the moment. Most Indonesians I have spoken to—not a wide sample, but different from the population one finds on twitter—are using the term kacau to describe the events. Kacau means something like disorder, and is a constant theme in Indonesian thinking, a kind of existential anxiety about what could happen if “things got out of hand.” Kacau is what they think the terrorists want, and that is what they fear the terrorists can create.