In Indonesia, Facebook Foiled Burma Embassy Bomb Plot
By Niniek Karmini 21 June 2013
JAKARTA, Indonesia — Sefa Riano didn’t try to hide his plans or his beliefs. A Facebook page that police traced to him is plastered with photos of bearded men in camouflage uniforms holding rifles and banners hailing “The Spirit of Jihad.”
One status update in late April apologizes to his parents before telling them goodbye. Another declares ominously, “God willing, I will take action at the Myanmar Embassy, hope you will share responsibility for my struggle.” It ends with a yellow smiley face.
Days later, police arrested Riano, whose Facebook name is Mambo Wahab, just before midnight in central Jakarta. Police say he and another man were on a motorbike carrying a backpack filled with five low-explosive pipe bombs tied together. Riano, 29, is awaiting charges related to allegations that he plotted to bomb the embassy to protest the persecution of Muslims in Buddhist-majority Burma.
A police investigator revealed Riano’s connection to the page, which was still online Thursday, to The Associated Press. The investigator spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk to reporters.
The investigator said Riano caused his own downfall by publicizing his mission on Facebook, but added that police believe it was another Facebook page that drew him to radical Islam to begin with.
Police said a growing number of young people in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority nation, are being targeted for recruitment by terrorists on the social media site. More than one in four of the country’s 240 million people are on Facebook, thanks in large part to cheap and fast Internet-capable phones.
While it is not clear how many terrorists are actually recruited through Facebook, the use of social networking to groom potential attackers poses new challenges for authorities struggling to eradicate militant groups that have been weakened over the last 10 years. Though Facebook shuts down pages that promote terrorism when it learns of them, police say new pages are easily created and some have attracted thousands of followers.
Muhammad Taufiqurrohman, an analyst from the Center for Radicalism and De-radicalization Studies who works closely with Indonesian anti-terrorism officials, said 50 to 100 militants in the country have been recruited directly through Facebook over the past two years.
He said there are at least 18 radical Facebook groups in Indonesia, and one of them has 7,000 members. Police said some sites where radical discussion takes place focus on Islam, while others engage in talk about committing violence, such as how to make bombs. Access is blocked unless group administrators allow users to participate.
Fred Wolens, a Facebook spokesman, said the company bars “promotion of terrorism” and “direct statements of hate.” Where abusive content is posted and reported, Facebook removes it and disables the account, he said.
Gatot S. Dewabroto, spokesman for Indonesia’s Ministry of Communication and Information, said Facebook responds quickly when officials ask them to remove such content. But he added that after one page is blocked, others quickly spring up.
William McCants, a former US State Department analyst who studies online Islamic extremism for the US-based Center for Naval Analyses, said governments in many countries “are just waking up to the fact that the conversation [about extremism] is moving to newer social media platforms.”
“On Facebook and Twitter, you can really go after people who broadly share your ideology but haven’t really committed themselves to violence,” he said.
Indonesian police say Facebook is one of many places where they’ve found terrorist activity online. They have detected militants using online games for attack drills. A group was caught uploading propaganda videos on YouTube and terrorists are known to have purchased weapons using video calls, said Brig. Gen. Petrus Reinhard Golose, the director of operations at Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency.
Golose said the Internet was used to organize recent terrorist acts in the country, including a 2010 attack on police in Solo and a police mosque bombing in Cirebon a year later. He did not elaborate on how the Web was used.
Terrorists have used the Internet for many years, but usually anonymously. Groups such as al-Qaida have employed online discussion forums where people left comments but did not directly interact. Today’s smartphone generation appears to be operating more openly: As of Thursday, Riano still had about 900 Facebook friends.
The police investigator said authorities were alerted about “Mambo Wahab’s” Burma bombing status update by other Internet users. Police used information collected from arrested militants in Riano’s online networks to track his Web footprint. After getting his Internet Protocol address and eventually linking that to a mobile phone, authorities say they were able to tap into conversations involving Riano and the plot’s alleged mastermind, the investigator said.
The Mambo Wahab page has not been updated since Riano’s arrest on May 3. Some people in Indonesian jails—even on death row—manage to post status updates, though others may be acting on their behalf.
Some Indonesian police want the law to address online communications that advocate or abet terrorism. Indonesia’s information technology laws ban only pornography and illegal online financial transactions.
Police Maj. Surya Putra, who is researching terrorists’ use of the Internet at the Institute of Police Science, said intelligence collected online cannot currently be used as evidence in court.
“There are no laws that can effectively charge people who spread hatred,” he said.
The government is drafting legislation that would criminalize hate speech and online terrorism activities.
Putra said that although police are starting to surf the Internet as part of their work, many of those arrested for terrorism-linked activities on Facebook were caught not because of cyber patrolling, but because police received tips about their accounts.
Those cases include nine militants, including one woman, who were sentenced to up to 10 years in jail for funding terrorism activities by hacking into a Malaysian website and defrauding the company out $800,000 in cash and assets.
Indonesia has fought terrorism aggressively since the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed 202 people, mostly foreign tourists. There have been no large-scale attacks for several years, though there have been several smaller strikes targeting mainly the government, police and anti-terrorism forces.
Well-funded terror networks have been disrupted, but radical clerics continue to spread their ideology to militants who set up military-style training camps.
Sidney Jones, a Jakarta-based terrorism analyst from the International Crisis Group, said that although terrorists groups’ Internet use is growing, they still do most of their recruiting face-to-face at traditional places such as prayer meetings. She said Riano’s case is the first time she’s seen a group brought together by Facebook.
She said the site is a “really stupid” way to recruit new members because it lacks privacy and no systematic way to vet credentials. But she added that even amateurish efforts to commit terrorism can cause mayhem and must be taken seriously.
Ansyaad Mbai, who heads Indonesia’s anti-terrorism agency, said Facebook has become “an effective tool for mass radicalization,” and that police need more authority to respond to online behavior.
“We can’t do it alone,” he said. “Radical sermons and jihadist sites are just a mouse click away.”
Associated Press writer Margie Mason contributed to this report from Jakarta, Indonesia.