The apocalyptic logic behind suicide bombings

The series of attacks and suicide bombings in Depok and Surabaya over the last week has negated the view of some analysts who have said that the remaining mostly-young terrorists in Indonesia are not as skilled as their predecessors and are only capable of conducting terror attacks on a small scale.

The clash at the National Police’s Mobile Brigade headquarters’ (Mako Brimob) detention center in Depok on May 9 started when the terrorists seized weapons from police officers which they eventually used to kill five police personnel. This incident seemed to have sounded the drums of war triggering members of the ISIS-linked Indonesian group Jamaah Anshorud Daulah (JAD) who are not in prison to launch attacks around each of the group’s bases as a “lesson” that even if their leaders are in prison, they are still able to hit their enemies hard. A few days later, Surabaya witnessed terror attacks against three churches in a style unprecendented in Indonesian history: suicide bombings carried out by a family of six, consisting of a father (aged 46), a mother (42), two sons (18 & 16) and two daughters (12 & 9).

Questions arising from these terror incidents range from why terrorists suddenly launched attacks after such a long “silence” to why the state security and intelligence agencies failed to detect their planning. Yet the most shocking for the public is the fact that the suicide bombings in Surabaya were committed by a family. What kind of parents could strap bombs onto their children’s bodies and lead them to commit suicide together? What kind of logic implanted in their minds could allow them to deny their own children their futures? Indonesia’s happy image of parents picking up their children from school has been twisted by these family suicide bombings.    

The logic of apocalyptic violence

The involvement of children in these suicide bombings does show a new level of terrorist atrocities. Such cruel acts, however, are not new for those who hold an apocalyptic logic. They are capable of even greater cruelty.

Apocalypticism is a belief, or rather an eschatological imagination, which perceives the world to be in greatly damaged condition and controlled by the enemies of God in such a way that it can no longer be repaired except in an extraordinary way. This imagination is often associated with beliefs about the Last Days when the war between the soldiers of God and the soldiers of Satan will reach its climax. Those who adopt apocalyptic logic believe that they are part of God’s army that will defeat Satan’s as a precondition for the coming of the Last Day.

Apocalyptic logic produces a reasoning which sees violence not as an act of aggression but rather as salvation and redemption. Death is seen as the gateway to a new life free from a world corrupted by sin. Leaders of apocalyptic movements usually inculcate the belief that they are a chosen group, a kind of last defender of the only true beliefs while all others are seen as having taken heretical paths. In the discourse of Muslim extremists, they usually proclaim themselves to be the ghuraba, the people who are considered strangers by the world just as the Prophet Muhammad was treated like a stranger during his early days of propagating Islam.

In his Destroying the World to Save It (2000), the eminent psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton argued that apocalyptic movements bring destruction to the world, ironically, as a way to save it. Referring to a Japanese apocalyptic figure, Asahara Shoko, the leader of Aum Shinrikyo, the group whose members released poisonous gas in the Tokyo subway in 1995, the attack was carried out in order “to save more people by first destroying them.”

Many other tragedies show a similar reasoning. One of them is the case of the Rev. Jim Jones, a pastor in San Francisco, USA, in the 1970s. At first he was a fairly progressive pastor in antiracism advocacy. But he was later accused of involvement in a sexual abuse and financial scandal that made him depressed. Feeling that his country could no longer be a safe place for him and his church, he invited his followers to migrate to a forest in Guyana, a country in South America. There he built an exclusive settlement called Jonestown which he promised would become an ideal society. But instead of being realized, this utopian society suffered many problems and became a target of investigation by local authorities. Feeling threatened, Jones led 918 of his followers (304 of whom were children) to take the final step he called a “revolutionary act”: mass suicide by drinking cyanide poison that he told them would lead to the gate of salvation. Likewise, suicide bombers frame their “revolutionary act” of self-destruction as “’amaliyya al-istishhad”, lit. an act of seeking martyrdom.

Because he is already dead, we cannot know exactly what kind of reasoning was in the mind of Dita Oepriarto, the father of the “terrorist family” who committed suicide bombings in three churches in Surabaya. But, as stated by the Indonesian police chief Tito Karnavian, we know he was a JAD activist, allegedly the head of the JAD Surabaya branch. Apocalyptic logic occupies a central place in ISIS’s ideology (see, for example, William McCants’s The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State [2016]). They claim to be the chosen army (taifah mansura) carrying black flags to guard the coming of the Mahdi who is believed to bring victory to Muslims in the battle of Armageddon (al-malhamah al-kubra) near the end of time as prophesied in several Islamic classical texts.

Suicide bombings are not always based on apocalyptic logic. Likewise, there are many criminal cases of parents killing their children for motives unrelated to religion. But apocalyptic logic boosts killing power. For the realization of the ideal society imagined by these apocalyptic people, the death of innocent civilians are only seen as collateral damage, a small consequence “acceptable” for a much greater agenda.

Cosmic war narratives

What brings people to adopt apocalyptic logic? There are many factors. But it can be said that if one is continuously exposed to a totalizing narrative in which the problems of everyday life are the result of a systemic and permanent evil power that is opposed to religion, one may become prone to embracing apocalypticism.

Leading expert on terrorism Mark Juergensmeyer, in his famous work Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (2000), points to the important role of the idea of the “cosmic war” in escalating temporal/“mundane” conflicts into eschatological ones, re-imagining them as part of the war of God’s forces versus Satan’s. Based on his interviews with ideologues of terrorist groups from various religions, he concludes that one important aspect of their ability to recruit “combatants” ready to die for the cause is the employment of narratives of overcoming social and other problems such as poverty and discrimination by framing them in terms of the stories of warfare found in the scriptures. For those whose imagination of the world is now based on cosmic war, there is no room for compromise. They have elevated their sense of crisis to an existential level, connected the meaning of their lives and deaths and the very survival of their beliefs/groups.

Continuous exposure to cosmic war narratives can lead to a normalization of violence. The most cruel evils, as the philosopher Hannah Arendt famously termed “the banality of evil“, are not committed by mad people or maniacs, but rather by normal people like you and me who have been so habituated to violence that they see no “human” in the people they kill.

One of the children of Anton Ferdiantoro, whose bombs exploded prematurely in his apartment in Wonocolo, Sidoarjo, recounted that he was often encouraged by his father to watch videos about war and bomb-making exercises. To ensure the success of this normalization, Ferdiantoro limited his children’s communication with the outside world by not allowing them going to school. This normalization of violence enabled the terrorists to glorify death of martyrdom in the eyes of their children.

The normalization of violence is certainly not limited to family spaces at home; it can also prevail through narratives of cosmic wars spread in public sphere. In this case, we should be concerned with the tendency of some politicians who use cosmic war rhetoric against their political rivals. Such rhetoric is dangerous because a loss in a temporal-worldly political competition will be perceived as an eschatological defeat.

Now what?

This series of terror attacks in big cities in Java will put the adoption of security approach into a central concern in counterterrorism agenda. The new bill on terrorism will give the police greater authority, including by involving the military, in detaining suspected terrorists. While accepting that a security approach is important, we should note that excessive repression to alleged terrorists may potentially be counterproductive as it will instead reinforce their apocalyptic logic. In other words, instead of combating this fuel of terrorism, excessive repression may indirectly strengthen it.

In addition, the spread of cosmic war narratives in public sphere is a major factor in the reproduction of terrorism that cannot be tackled by a security approach. As I have argued in another piece on this website about the necessity of winning a “war of position” (i.e. a war of discourse and influence control in order to seize hegemony in the public sphere), we need an alternative approach that can prevent the spread of cosmic war narratives and apocalyptic logic in the public sphere.


This piece is a translation by Azis Anwar (edited by Greg Vanderbilt) from its original version in Indonesian: Nalar Apokaliptik di Balik Bom Bunuh Diri.

Header image: A number of motorbikes caught fire shortly after the suicide bombing at the Pentecost Church of Surabaya on May 13, 2018. ANTARA FOTO/Andy Pinaria.



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