Three Hours of Mayhem, Panic and Bloodshed as Terror Comes to Jakarta


by Beh Lih Yi in Jakarta and Luke Harding in London, The Guardian, January 14, 2015

The branch of Starbucks in downtown Jakarta is a popular meeting point. Its customers include locals and foreigners. Nearby is a UN office, a street popular with backpackers, and a five-star business hotel, the Sari Pan Pacific. Cars whizz past, or more frequently crawl, in both directions. A police traffic post sits in the middle of a grassy island.

At around 10.50am local time on Thursday, a figure approached the ground-floor coffee shop. He appeared to be Indonesian, casually dressed. He arrived at Starbucks, which is attached to the Jakarta Theatre building. And then he blew himself up. The explosion caused mayhem, with glass blown out into the car park, screams within, chaos.

At the same time two more attackers, carrying handguns, grabbed a couple of hostages. They were identified as an Algerian and a westerner, possibly from Canada or the Netherlands. Police spokesman Anton Charliyan said the Algerian managed to escape with bullet wounds.

The second hostage was less fortunate. He was shot dead on the spot, the police said. Another Indonesian man who tried to help the hostages was also shot and killed. It’s unclear whether these executions took place inside Starbucks, which sits next to Burger King and Pizza Hut, or in the parking lot nearby, where the bodies of the dead hostages could be seen under a tree.

Within minutes the police were scrambling to the scene, exchanging fire with unknown adversaries in the heart of the city’s business and embassy district.

Indonesia’s reformist government had long warned that the country might be a target for radical homegrown terrorists, taking their inspiration from Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

Over the holiday period Indonesia had been on high alert. Police said they foiled a new year suicide attack in Jakarta, arresting 10 alleged terrorists including a member of China’s Uighur minority. Intelligence had suggested an attack was imminent. Now it was under way.

At 10.55am a second group of attackers hit another target. They ambushed the police traffic booth in the middle of a busy intersection. Some witnesses suggested they had turned up on motorbikes. One of the attackers blew himself up. There was gunfire.

In the streets surrounding the building there was panic. Some fled, others stayed put. Black armoured cars screeched to a halt in front of Starbucks. Sniper teams were deployed near Sarinah’s, Jakarta’s oldest department store, across the street from the UN headquarters. Helicopters flew overhead as police tried to hold back crowds. After 15 minutes dozens of military troops arrived.

Related: Jakarta attack the latest step in Islamic State's global expansion plans

One of those critically wounded in the initial Starbucks attack was a Dutch national working for the UN Environment Programme (Unep). A renowned expert in forestry management, he was stationed in Jakarta as part of the UN team that provides support to the Indonesian government in combating peat fires.

From the UN building on Thamrin Road his colleagues watched in horror at the events unfolding below them. Jeremy Douglas, the UN’s regional representative on drugs and crime, peered out of his window. He tweeted: “Serious exchange of fire in downtown Jakarta. Didn’t experience this in 3.5 years in Pakistan.”

In another tweet, he added: “Amazing how some folks are walking and some running. Kind of denial or something.” He said he had just got out of a car with a colleague when there was a tremendous bang. “A massive bomb went off. Chaos and we’re going into lockdown.”

Police cover the bodies of victims of one of the bomb explosions in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Police cover the bodies of victims of one of the bomb explosions in Jakarta, Indonesia. Photograph: Solo Imaji / Barcroft Media

Police pursued two of the attackers. The pair took cover behind a white vehicle in the car park in front of Starbucks and Burger King. Video footage captures what happened next. The two men – one in a long-sleeved white shirt, another wearing red – crouch down low. In front of them is a gruesome sight: the bodies of two people. One has been shot in the head. There is a loud pop pop – outgoing fire from the police.

One of the men fumbles with something in his hand. Then, casually, he stretches out his left arm. He appears to be trying to reach something inside a rucksack. There is a sudden explosion: a flash of orange and a whoosh of white-grey smoke ejected into a clear blue sky. The bombers had blown themselves up. It was unclear if this was an accident or deliberate.

By 11am, with the situation apparently safe, crowds had gathered to look at the bodies of three of the attackers, lying sprawled in the road. Several policeman stood nearby. Nobody noticed two men who approached from behind. One was wearing a Nike cap, blue trainers, and carrying a backpack. Another appeared to be his accomplice.

The first man suddenly produced a handgun. He strolled calmly towards the crowd, weapon in front of him, and shot a policeman. A photographer, Aditia Novinsiyah, captured the moment in a set of remarkable photographs. The crowd ran for it. The second terrorist opened fire at another policemen. Soon after both gunmen were shot dead.

By 11.30am the authorities seemed to be mostly in control of a confused situation. Witnesses had counted one explosion after another: five or six percussive blasts. Teams searched the Skyline building above the cafe floor by floor. No one was found hiding there. But police discovered improvised hand grenades and one other bomb, slightly bigger than a biscuit tin.

The centre of Jakarta resembled a battlezone. Three bodies lay on the road near the police traffic post, its sign “POLIS” visible in yellow capitals. The explosion in Starbucks had sent debris flying 30 to 40 metres. Rescue workers dragged away the body of a dead officer.

In the surrounding area guests and office workers were holed up, glued to their phones, and awaiting further news. MY Farooqui, general manager of a firm in Dubai, had been having breakfast in the Sari Pan Pacific. “Hotel is locked up from all sides and no one is allowed to got out or in. May God bless us,” he wrote on a Facebook message to Reuters.

Ambulance workers took the injured to the nearby Gatot Subroto hospital. Staff wrote the names of those who arrived on a whiteboard. Indonesia’s president, Joko Widodo, meanwhile, condemned the attacks and appealed for calm. “The state, nation and people should not be afraid of, and lose to, such terror acts,” he said.

The casualty figures told their own grim story: two dead civilians and five terrorists. Five policemen had suffered gunshot or shrapnel wounds.

After three hours, the authorities declared the incident over. Jakarta’s police chief, Tito Karnavian, said the attackers were all Indonesian men from west Java, central Java, Sulawesi and the greater Jakarta area. Their targets, he said, were the police and symbols of the west. As if on cue, Isis claimed responsibility.

The Jakarta attacks seemed linked to recent events in Paris in November when a group of Belgian and French jihadis killed 130 people in a series of coordinated attacks across the city.

Indonesia’s police spokesman General Anton Charliyan made exactly this point, telling the media: “They imitated the terror actions in Paris.” This was true, up to a point. The attackers – apparently inspired by Isis – were certainly keen to demonstrate the organisation’s global potency and reach. Their message: no western target anywhere is safe.

This Indonesian cell, however, appeared to have less military experience than its Paris counterparts. The carnage, though terrible, was much lower.

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This article was written by Beh Lih Yi in Jakarta and Luke Harding in London from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.