Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Islamic Militancy: Jakarta Hits Back

Indonesia’s Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit has had some big successes this year. But are separatist militants down and out?

Luke Hunt

Indonesia has developed a ruthless reputation over the way it handles Islamic militants. More than 100 alleged terrorists have been captured or killed this year alone in a crackdown headed by the Detachment 88 counterterrorism unit.

The unit’s biggest break came in Aceh earlier this year after militants started trying to cobble together what became known in some quarters as the ‘Coalition of the Leftovers’ on the home ground of Acehnese separatists at the north-eastern tip of Sumatra.

Jihad remnants of the splintered Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) and an assortment of other outfits had gathered at a paramilitary training camp in the mountains of Aceh determined to re-group.Among their plans was an attack on the Presidential Palace and state guests who would be gathered there for the Independence Day ceremonies in August.

But the police were tipped off and raided the base on February 22;three officers and one terrorist were killed during the raid. Despite the inauspicious start to the operation, the balance has shifted, with another 13 alleged terrorists killed by police and more than 60 arrested.

Among the dead was Dulmutin, by far the most prominent member of JI, who was also wanted in connection with the 2002 Bali bombings and who carried a $10 million reward on his head.However, Dulmutin’s favoured cohort, Omar Patek, is still at large and was recently sighted on the island province of Tawi Tawi in the Southern Philippines. He’s now probably the region’s most wanted terrorist.

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But it looks like a potentially bigger prize hasn’t eluded the authorities— radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir. The police believe Bashir is a key player in the organizational structure of terror cells as opposed to being the simple preacher he has always claimed to be. He’s now in front of the courts again after being arrested in August on charges relating to the Aceh paramilitary camp.

Bashir insists the Bali bombing eight years ago that left more than 200 dead was the result of an offshore missile fired by the CIA. The September 11, 2001, strikes by al-Qaeda, a JI affiliate, were part of an Israeli conspiracy to make Muslims look bad, he says.  

He also insists that he has never been a terrorist because he has never killed anyone and that JI— where he sat as spiritual head—never even existed.However, some of those close to him have suggested otherwise, arguing the 72-year-old Javanese cleric has a two-pronged strategy that advocates terrorism in private while promoting conspiracy theories in public.

Indeed, it’s a line that has worked well previously in the courts, where he has a history of being acquitted of more serious charges such as those over the Bali bombings and the 2000 Christmas Eve strikes on churches across Indonesia. Instead, he’s only been found guilty over lesser charges, such as those relating to conspiracy or immigration violations.

Time off for good behavior has ensured Bashir’s stays behind bars have been short, much to the anguish of the family and friends of those who died in the scores of attacks—small and large—launched by JI and their affiliates over more than a decade.

But things may be beginning to change as authorities shift their emphasis from the cleric to his followers, charging three of them with funding the paramilitary group in Aceh at Bashir’s request, charges that relate back to the February meeting in Aceh.

Abdul Haris, as leader of the Jakarta branch of Jamaah Anshorut Tauhid (JAT), an Islamic organization founded by Bashir that advocates the full implementation of Sharia law across Indonesia, was perhaps closest to the Imam. Haris, medical doctor Syarif Usman and businessman Hariadi Usman are currently being tried in Jakarta’s district courts for allegedly raising $39,000 for paramilitary training. 

Bashir is said to have told all three on separate occasions: ‘We’re launching a programme of major jihadi activities. If you have extra money, you can donate to us and the biggest returns will come from God.’ 

It’s claims such as these that prompted police to arrest Bashir on allegations he recruited Dulmutin and the likes of Abu Tholut (a bomb making expert from Java with years of experience in Afghanistan) to lead the training that he’s supposed to have funded. Indeed, Tholut is seen as potentially more dangerous than Patek—educated and well spoken, he’s famous for his ability to wax lyrically around Koranic verses and recruit hard-line members to his cause.

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So, how was the cash involved raised? Hariadi Usman is said to have sold his Toyota Avanza, Syarif apparently had some money to spare and Abdul allegedly collected funds from donations that were channelled to Bashir.

The successful rounding up by Detachment 88 of dozens of suspects involved in the alleged plotting and fundraising has prompted the International Crisis Group to label Islamic militancy in Indonesia as weak and divisive.

Still, with Bashir in many people’s eyes having gotten off so lightly before, the public and outside observers remain to be convinced that the militant movement is down and out. Right now, it will take some successful prosecutions and served-out jail terms to convince most of them otherwise.