Counter-Terrorism In Indonesia: The Price Of Success


By Chloe Choquie

On 22 February 2010, a series of Indonesian police operations led to the discovery of an alleged militant training camp in the Jalin Forest of the province of Aceh. The operations revealed the existence of a previously unknown group calling itself al Qaeda in Aceh, whose supposed leader, top-ranked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militant Dulmatin was killed in a shootout with Indonesian police on 9 March 2010. One of the most wanted terrorist in Southeast Asia, he was suspected of being the mastermind behind the 2002 Bali bombings. Much-praised by Washington and Canberra, this success is nevertheless challenged by the continued presence of al Qaeda in Aceh, which shows “the strengthening of the terrorist network in Indonesia, not it’s weakening” said Andi Widjajanto, a military analyst at the University of Indonesia. A new unity among extremist groups questions the degree to which offensive counterterrorism measures actually damage the terrorists’ ability to perpetrate attacks. Does the number of arrests and police raids actually reduce the terrorist threat in the country?

Supposedly resulting from a split within JI, the composite group seems to have gathered together terrorists from several militant factions that had never been allied before. “They didn’t necessarily agree to carry out Bali-style bombings, but they did agree on military training and the need to establish an Islamic state, by force if necessary,” said Sidney Jones, International Crisis Group’s expert on Indonesia, to the Canadian Globe and Mail. The head of the counter-terrorism division at the Coordinating Ministry for Political, Legal, and Security Affairs, Inspector General Ansyaad Mbai told The Jakarta Post that terrorists are also believed to be receiving assistance from several former Free Aceh Movement (GAM) combatants dissatisfied with the 2005 peace accord in the region. Mr Dulmatin and his presumed successor, Umar Patek, also created a direct link between the new organization and the Filipino terrorist group ‘Abu Sayyaf’, which had both joined after the Bali bombings. The ability of these groups to maintain regional contacts and create alliances might draw a reassessment of Jakarta’s glorified counter-terrorism achievements.

Indonesia has greatly improved its capacities and efforts over the last few years, with a wake-up call provoked by the July 2009 Jakarta bombing. The archipelagic State officially adopts a ‘soft approach’ based on the prosecution of most of the 450 extremists arrested since 2002. By not declaring a War on Terror and by treating terrorists as criminals rather than enemies, Indonesia managed to gain public support among moderate Muslims. The de-radicalization programs established from 2004 in Indonesian prisons succeeded to persuade dozens of jihadists to renounce violence and cooperate with the police.

But what is the effectiveness of these soft measures? According to Noor Huda Ismail, former extremist Dar-ul Islam member, too many released terror suspects are still prone to becoming recidivists. On 12 April, six alleged terrorists suspected of participating in military training activities in Aceh were arrested on Sumatra Island. Two of them, identified as Ibrahim and Lutfi, had earlier served time in prison for their roles in the 2004 Australian embassy bombing in Jakarta. Indonesian prisons actually remain a hot spot for recruitment, due to massive corruption and a lack of supervision. Radicalization within jails is still a major concern for the government, which needs to allow more funding for de-radicalization programs and more energy to monitoring activities of former prisoners.

Indonesia’s anti-terrorism policy has left aside two major causes of terrorists’ strength. First, it does not damage the fundraising process, mainly based on a system of Zakat, Infaq and Sadaqah collected through Mosques owned by radical Islamic groups. A 2008 evaluation report by the Asia-Pacific Group on money laundering, notes that there has been a very limited use of the terrorist financing offence in Indonesia, since it can only be used when linked to a specific terrorist act. Second, in the case of al Qaeda in Aceh, the arming of terrorists was facilitated by indirect factors – the massive availability of weapons in Aceh despite the provisions of the 2005 Helsinki Peace Agreement and the proximity of the Malacca Straits easing the procurement of firearms through drug trafficking in Thailand and Myanmar.

With the expected ‘pulang kampong’ (homecoming) of President Barack Obama in Jakarta, Indonesia’s US-funded special counterterrorism unit, Detachment 88, had stepped up its hunt for wanted terrorists over the past few weeks. But the extensive number of shootouts of top operatives by Detachment 88 in the last few months does not stop these networks from constantly evolving, recruiting, and becoming less dependent upon high profile figures. By killing terror suspects, the police lose the opportunity of obtaining crucial intelligence, and run the risk of converting sympathizers into combatants. Consequently, neither a soft approach nor a military approach can succeed in countering terrorism in Indonesia as long as it does not tackle recruitment processes.

In conclusion, Indonesia’s counter-terrorism policy won’t gain long-term efficiency unless it addresses larger security issues and tackles the root causes of radicalism by adopting a preventive approach. Even though this soft approach drastically reduced its potential to jeopardize the state, the terrorist threat will remain a challenge for Indonesia in the near future.

Chloe Choquier is a Research Intern at IPCS and may be reached at [email protected] This article was published by IPCS.


IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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