By Rohan Gunaratna*
After prisoners seized control of an Indonesia maximum security facility housing 155 terrorist inmates and a baby, Islamic State (IS) leaders in Syria instructed their followers inside to fight until death.
But Indonesian police checkmated IS’s plans for a bloodbath inside the penitentiary in Kelapa Dua, near Jakarta, held by inmates from May 8-10.
Taking advantage of a prison riot, IS operationalized three phases of its standard four-step strategy seen in Paris in 2015 and Dhaka the year after: herding and slaughtering hostages; issuing propaganda; inviting government troops for a showdown; and then fighting until “martyrdom.”
Although 800 personnel from the 40,000-member Brimob staff surrounded the facility and waited for orders to break the siege, the militants were undeterred. Having gained control of the compound, including access to 26 weapons and 300 rounds of ammunition, the IS convicts and detainees maimed and injured seven, tortured to death five and took one Densus 88 officer hostage.
In addition, IS called their supporters throughout Indonesia to storm Kelapa Dua and join the fight to free their supreme leader, Aman Abdurrahman, held in the nearby Brimob provost building.
National Police Chief Tito Karnavian advised a team of counterterrorism officers to meet with Aman. After initially resisting, Aman agreed and advised the inmates not to create a “commotion inside a lion’s cage.”
Aman’s fatwa to end the siege peacefully calmed the inmate population, which had pledged or renewed allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to fight-to-death. All but one terrorist suspect – fatally injured during the take-over – surrendered. The condition of surrender was that there would be no follow up investigations into police lives lost and inmates would be treated like “human beings and not animals.”
Indonesia houses its large terrorist population at Nusakambangan, nicknamed “execution island.” However, the penitentiary in Kelapa Dua was the holding facility for terrorist suspects under investigation, on trial, or convicts waiting to be placed in a prison.
Located at the heart of the headquarters of the Police Mobile Brigade (Brimob), the facility housed the most dangerous inmates. They included Abu Qutaibah, the Indonesia IS emir; Young Farmer, arrested in Bandung in August 2017 when he was building a radiological dispersal device with Thorium; and Anggi Indah Kusuma, the IS propagandist deported from Hong Kong, and her 1-year-old baby.
Jointly run by Brimob and Densus 88, the penitentiary was overcrowded and faced the challenges almost all prisons housing terrorists face.
Iwan Sarjana, the police officer held hostage by the inmates, explained the typical mindset of the detainees and convicts to Jawa Pos journalist Ilham Dwi Ridlo Wancoko: “They were angry, unhappy, and would be combative with the police. Each time a member [of the police] would walk past a cell, they would be shouting. Usually, they would call out the word ‘thogut’ [Satan].”
The genesis of the siege can be traced to 7:20 p.m. May 8, when an inmate complained to the staff that food brought by a family member to an inmate was late. The incident was exploited by an IS leader, Wawan, who incited a riot by calling out that “the warden is a dog.”
After the terrorists broke out of the holding blocks at 8:20 p.m., they attacked a second building in the compound, known as the investigation building, and overpowered the officers inside.
Seven including a female investigator escaped with injuries, but six officers were captured and dragged to the cells. Five were tortured to death.
Iwan was beaten, tied up, blindfolded and lashed with chains. Boiling water was splashed and poured onto his back. “I shouted, but still tried to withstand it. The pain was tremendous, but I believed that this would pass,” Iwan said.
The inmates broke into the evidence room and seized arms, ammunition and explosives, and renewed their bayat (oath of allegiance) to the “Caliph.” At this point, 40 percent of the inmates wanted to fight.
Not knowing that their colleagues had been butchered by inmates, police pressured the perpetrators at 9:15 p.m. to release the Densus 88 officers. Police also offered to treat terrorist suspects Ibrahim and Wawan, who had been injured by officers, but there was no compromise. Police threatened to attack the penitentiary, but the terrorist convicts and detainees were unrelenting.
At first, the directions of IS central were followed by the inmates to the letter.
“For almost three hours, the dialogue did not bear any fruit,” revealed a Densus 88 officer at the forefront of trying to initiate a dialogue.
Initially, the inmates wanted to fight. But over time many of them realized the reality of the situation. Most Densus 88 officers, especially those with experience, had treated the inmates respectfully. They regretted the torture and deaths of the officers at the hands of a few inmates.
Although IS leadership within the facility tried to justify the action, a part of the inmate population realized that they had merely jumped on the bandwagon without thinking through their actions. Meanwhile, food, water and electricity had been cut off.
At 1:30 a.m. May 9, inmate representative Abu Umar asked for permission to leave the Detention Center and meet with Aman Abdurrahman. Abu Umar’s request to meet the IS leader was conveyed to senior police officials.
When they met with Abu Umar, they told him that “five Densus 88 officers had died, one was still held hostage and one detainee was shot dead, and another detainee was wounded.”
In reality, the officers had been tortured to death, and had Ibrahim received timely treatment, he could have been saved. The Jakarta provincial police chief told detainees to surrender and give up the weapons under their control.
At 8:15 a.m., the inmate representative asked to meet again to convey their request to normalize the situation, to meet with “Ustad Aman Abdurahman to hear his ruling” following the riots, and to get medical treatment for those who were hurt. After reviewing the requests, Densus 88 agreed to evacuate the dead bodies, the female detainees, the two injured inmates and one baby.
To keep up the pressure, however, Densus 88 did not respond to inmate requests immediately. Close to noon prayers, the bodies were retrieved. The female detainees and the child were not released. At 3:35 p.m., police pressured the perpetrators to release the hostage by issuing a warning and agreeing to treat the wounded terrorists.
At 8:15 p.m., the inmates asked to meet again, to convey their requests to the Densus 88 officers and their wish to meet “Ustaz Aman” and hear his fatwa (ruling). The representative of the inmates promised to release the hostage. But they did not because they were worried that once the hostage was released, “all of the inmates would be under attack.”
At 10:30 p.m., Densus 88 pressured the perpetrators again by issuing a warning of an imminent attack on the prisoners. The representative of the inmates asked to meet with officers. They told them that when their request to contact “Ustaz Aman” via telephone was fulfilled, they would release the hostage, who was still alive. After they spoke with Aman, Iwan was released at 11:15 p.m. and was immediately brought to the hospital.
At 1:30 a.m., Densus 88 officers issued warnings that they would “attack within a short period of time.”
At 2:40 a.m., the inmates’ representative asked to meet again to convey that they wanted to surrender and hand over the weapons.
At 5:30 a.m., the inmates’ representative asked for a meeting to convey the technicalities of the weapons handover. At 6:45 a.m., the detainees left the Detention Centre and surrendered.
Weapons numbering 26 units and about 300 rounds of ammunition were handed over by way of leaving them in cells.
Managing the IS threat requires sophistication, both insight and foresight. There are no easy solutions or positive outcomes, no outright wins and failures. Many hard questions linger.
Will the veterans of Kelapa Dua join the terrorist iconography and be hailed by terrorists and extremists as heroes? Respect within IS rank and file is measured by the number of years a leader or a member has been in custody and the battles they have fought. What can be done to prevent their elevation to iconic status, and will they lead a new wave of violence?
The Densus 88 officers paid the supreme sacrifice for Indonesia, fighting the most ruthless terrorists. Should investigators working in penitentiaries holding terrorist inmates, especially high value targets (HVTs), be better protected, better equipped and trained to fight back?
More than any other group, IS has developed a mastery of how to break out and break into penitentiaries. IS know-how and expertise on “breaking walls” has grown steadily since 2003. Should prison management protocols and procedures be revisited? Should the perimeter of terrorist penitentiaries be protected by the military?
The IS leadership, including apex leaders like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and Aman Abdurrahman, are recidivist. How can terrorist penitentiaries housing HVTs be better secured and better managed? Considering that the Kelapa Dua inmates had phones, should there be innovative measures to screen visitors and staff entering penitentiaries?
Currently, the global best practice is to implement rehabilitation initiatives after a court of law finds a terrorist guilty. Should governments implement rehabilitation initiatives from the point of capture and throughout the investigation phase, rather than wait for sentencing?
Furthermore, rehabilitation is voluntary and not mandatory. If terrorists in custody are not rehabilitated, they will pose a threat, infect others with their ideas and be hailed as icons. Many IS members who are released relapse and are rearrested. Considering the threat posed by recidivists, should rehabilitation be made mandatory and conditional to release?
In the coming months and years, experts around the world will dissect the siege, the state response and the failure to detect the subsequent Surabaya and Riau attacks. The full extent of the siege and follow-on attacks will be known only to those managing security, and their implications will be experienced only by Indonesia and the region.
What is evident is that IS has come of age in the region.
The new wave of extremism and terrorism engulfing the Southeast Asian region requires greater intelligence collaboration between law enforcement, military and national security agencies. At a national, bilateral and regional level, there are different degrees of cooperation within the ASEAN space.
However, considering the rising regional IS threat and the global expansion of IS, Southeast Asian governments need to rethink their existing security arrangements. The siege of Marawi (May to October 2017), multiple attacks in Indonesia in May 2018, and likely future IS-inspired or directed events require a shift from existing cooperation to collaboration within and between governments.
*Rohan Gunaratna is professor of Security Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at the Nanyang Technology University and head of the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research in Singapore. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and not of BenarNews.