By Ronna Nirmala
Indonesia’s president on Monday condemned what he described as a terrorist attack in Central Sulawesi late last week, while the country’s security minister urged residents of the area not to interpret the grisly killings as part of “a religious war.”
The commander of the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), for his part, said he would send Special Forces to hunt members of the Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT) militant group accused of killing four Christian villagers in the area, which was hit by communal violence two decades ago that left more than 1,000 dead.
“I strongly condemn the inhuman and uncivilized act, which resulted in the deaths of our four brothers,” President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said in a video statement on Monday.
Jokowi said Friday’s attack was a deliberate attempt to sow divisions in the community, and urged police to root out the group behind the attack. He said the government would provide compensation to the victims’ families.
“Once again, I emphasize that there is no place in our country for terrorism,” the president said.
Authorities blamed the MIT militant group for the killing of four members of the Salvation Army evangelical Christian church on Friday in the village of Lembantongoa, in Central Sulawesi’s Sigi regency.
The group, which has pledged allegiance to both the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah in the past, has persisted for years in the mountains of nearby Poso regency.
At least eight houses were burned in Friday’s attack, including those of the victims, and some 49 families sought refuge in village administrative offices afterwards, local police said.
The grisly nature of the killings has shocked the Indonesian public. The bodies of two of the victims were charred, while one was decapitated, police said.
The Salvation Army church in Indonesia said the four slain men were its members, and its outpost in Lembantongoa was one of the houses burned.
Indonesia’s coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, said the government would guarantee the security of the villagers, and appealed to the mainly Christian community not to be provoked into retaliating.
“This is not a tribal war, let alone a religious war,” he said. “The act was carried out by a criminal group called MIT led by Ali Kalora, which cannot be said to represent a particular religion,” Mahfud said in a video conference with the military chief.
“The government has ordered security forces to hunt and arrest the perpetrators, so that justice can be served,” he said.
Between 1998 and 2001, more than 1,000 people were killed in violence between Muslims and Christians in Poso regency. The fighting erupted after a drunken Christian man stabbed a Muslim.
Indonesia’s military commander, General Hadi Tjahjanto, vowed that the perpetrators would be “immediately caught.”
He said Special Forces members would be sent to Poso on Tuesday, to reinforce security forces already present in the region. He did not say how many were being dispatched.
“The TNI will take strong action against the perpetrators and support the police,” he told a press conference in Jakarta. “I believe the MIT group that committed this crime against innocent citizens will be immediately caught.”
National police spokesman Brig. Gen Awi Setiyono, for his part, said at least 100 more police were being sent to Poso, including members of the Densus 88 anti-terrorism unit.
A joint military and police operation to hunt MIT, Operation Tinombala, has been ongoing for five years in Poso.
Awi said the team would look for remnants of the MIT in the forest near the village where the killings took place.
Police said MIT militants were also responsible for the killing of three farmers in Poso this year, although its strength has been reduced to just 11 members.
In 2016, police killed MIT’s previous leader, Santoso, who was the first Indonesian militant to pledge allegiance publicly to the Islamic State. Santoso also had ties to the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) group, which was founded in 2008 after JI was outlawed.
MIT is one of two pro-IS groups operating in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country. The other is Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), which authorities have blamed for most terror attacks in the archipelago nation since 2016.
The plots linked to JAD included devastating suicide attacks on churches and police stations in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second largest city – perpetrated by families in May 2018.
JI member arrested
In a separate development, police said Monday they had arrested a member of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant group identified as Upik Lawangan.
Upik, who is accused of involvement in acts of terrorism in Poso, had been on the run for 14 years when he was arrested in Lampung province on Sumatra island in early November, police spokesman Awi said.
Awi described Upik as “a very valuable asset” for JI because he was seen as a successor to expert bomb maker Azahari Husin, who was killed in a police raid in 2005.
According to police, various attacks in Poso in which Upik was involved killed 27 people and wounded 90 others.
Police blame JI for a string of major attacks in the early 2000s.
They include two bombings in Bali, in 2002 and 2005, that together killed 225; the 2003 bombing at the J.W. Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, which killed 12; the 2004 attack on the Australian Embassy that killed nine; and twin bombings at the J.W. Marriott and Ritz Carlton hotels in Jakarta in 2009 that killed nine people, including two suicide bombers.
Tia Asmara in Jakarta contributed to this report.