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Indonesia’s Struggle Against Terrorism

Iis Gindarsah, Researcher, Department of Politics and International Relations, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, and Visiting Researcher at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological Univeristy
Apr 11, 2014

African Union Expert Brief Members of the Indonesian army anti-terror squad take part in an anti-terror drill at the police special forces headquarter compound in Depok, Indonesia's West Java province (Beawiharta/Courtesy Reuters).

Since the 2002 bombings in Bali, Indonesia has been struggling against the threat of violent terrorism. As the Indonesian government has developed a counterterrorism strategy, it has sought to address both the immediate threat and underlying causes of terrorism. Indonesia's multipronged approach to counterterrorism and continued efforts to thwart radicalism provide valuable examples for other nations.

Terrorism in Indonesia

Radicalism, spurred by extremist religious teachings, has become the primary challenge of Indonesia's counterterrorism campaign. Given Indonesia's social diversity, radical preachers often deliver messages of hate and violence. With the growing threat of religious intolerance and radicalism, the Indonesian government is coordinating and developing coherent counterradicalization programs in order to revitalize "national resilience" against venomous radical ideology.

No longer do terrorist groups affiliate themselves with a global cause or ideology; rather, they mostly emerge from the splinters of Jemaah Islamiyah and Darul Islam. The current generation of Indonesian jihadists also comes from ordinary public schools rather than Islamist boarding schools (pesantren), and they often form from small but radical religious study groups (pengajian) in different parts of the country. Similarly, the main bases of terrorist operations in the country have also shifted to Poso region in central Sulawesi.

Alongside these transformations, notable trends have emerged in recent terrorist threats in Indonesia. First, the police have become the main target of terrorist plots and attacks. In December 2012, for instance, a police patrol was ambushed by gunmen in Tambarana, Poso, causing the deaths of four officers. Recent incidents have also taken place in areas outside Poso, including Jakarta. These include the violent attack against a policeman in front of the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) building on September 11, 2013.

Second, despite their ideological distinctions, relationships between jihadist fighters and religious vigilante groups have emerged. The Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT)—a militant Islamist organization has allegedly served as the liaison among the like-minded radicals through lectures by radical preachers who instill in their audience a commitment to jihad. In recent years, violence against minority groups has taken place in various parts of Indonesia. Attacks against Ahmadiyya and Shia believers have claimed lives and displaced hundreds, and Christian communities continue to experience intimidation by radical Islamists. These incidents provide opportunities for the jihadist groups to recruit new operators and enhance their influence in society.

Indonesia's Counterterrorism Regime

In light of these threats, the Indonesian government has sought to broaden the scope of its counterterrorism campaign, including the involvement the Indonesian military (TNI). Currently, however, the responsibility for counterterror operations remains under the Indonesian police, particularly the unit Detachment-88. As of 2012, this elite counterterrorism unit has successfully captured hundreds of terrorist suspects and confiscated their weapons across the Indonesian archipelago.

Source: adapted from a presentation by Muhammad Tito Karnavian, former Deputy of National Agency for Counter-Terrorism (BNPT) at the Focus Group Discussion on "Indonesia's Security Index" organized by the National Development Planning Agency (Bappenas), 14 August 2012.

More recently, the newly appointed TNI Chief, General Moeldoko, put forward the military's plan to establish a counterterror taskforce. The new unit will be assembled from troops with relevant skills for special operations on ground, sea and air, and each respective division of the armed services will retain command of these soldiers during peacetime. The National Coordinating Agency for Counter-Terrorism (BNPT) will also take advantage of the army's extensive territorial structure for counterradicalization and intelligence gathering purposes.

While improving the effectiveness of counterterrorism operations, Indonesian authorities have also been working on deradicalization and counterradicalization strategies. A recent report suggests that many convicted Indonesian terrorists are due for release after serving time in prison. Given the grave danger of terrorist recidivism, the Ministry of Law and Human Rights seeks to reform the correction system and improve the physical condition of many prisons in Indonesia as part of its deradicalization program for terrorist inmates.

As the terrorist groups are also adapting to the new environment and beginning to update their operations and targets, Indonesia has developed a comprehensive counterterrorism approach. The capture of ex-terrorist convicts, including Lutfi Haedaroh (aka Ubaid) and Abdullah Sunata in 2010 shows the importance of addressing the overall environment that breeds religious extremism and terrorist activities. In that sense, the Indonesian government has begun incorporating persuasive measures to tackle the dissemination of radical religious doctrines and discriminative sentiments at the grassroots level.

Indonesia's Experience: Lessons for Global Counterterrorism

Indonesia has come a long way, but still faces the threat of terrorism in the future. The country's porous land and sea borders, endemic criminality and residual radical views continue to provide an attractive logistical and operational theatre for terrorist networks. Weaknesses are also looming from the suboptimal interagency cooperation, especially between the police and military, due to conflicting spheres of jurisdiction and functional confusion arising from the laws mandating domestic security role for the military.

Nevertheless, Indonesia's experiences in tackling the threats of religious radicalism and terrorism are invaluable and relevant for other nations. As a result of its counterterror offensive, Indonesia today is less susceptible to major terrorist attacks than it was in the early 2000s. In particular, there are three lessons from the country's counterterrorism that can be applied at the global level.

First, Indonesia addresses the threats of terrorism through the lens of law enforcement. With this approach, the Indonesian government seeks to try terrorist suspects according to the existing laws while modestly using coercive measures against violent terror attacks. To its credit, the police's counterterror squads have been successful in conducting raids, capturing terrorist suspects, and canceling their plots in recent years.

Second, given the sensitivity of military force employment, the Indonesian government carefully engages the TNI in the counterterrorism campaign. To date, the military has played a crucial role in intelligence gathering. It also contributes to counterradicalization programs through civic missions in conflict-prone areas.

Third, as the threat of terrorism evolves, the Indonesian government enhances its counterterrorism strategy. In addition to counterterror operations, it undertakes a persuasive approach—including prison reform, rehabilitation programs and counter-propaganda. The purpose of these measures is to disengage terrorist convicts from future terrorism activities and prevent or disrupt the radicalization process of Indonesian society.

In a nutshell, an overarching focus of counterterrorism strategy is critical for all nations to address the evolving threats of terrorism.

Global Memos are briefs by the Council of Councils that gather opinions from global experts on major international developments.