On Tuesday, the Indonesian military (TNI) launched a new counterterrorism squad called the TNI Joint Special Operations Command or Koopsusgab. While the move clearly illustrates Jakarta’s determination to eradicate the terrorism threat, it is also likely to heighten anxieties about the military’s growing role in the country.
The new squad is the latest sign that the Indonesian government is stepping up its efforts to combat the Islamic State (IS) threat. As I have reported previously, while numbers vary, hundreds of Indonesians have already joined IS abroad. In addition, several extremist cells are operating within Indonesia and are engaged in recruitment, indoctrination and some military training, including in Poso where security forces mounted operations earlier this year.
Indonesian officials say Koopsusgab will be a further boost to their counter-terrorism efforts. The group, which will reportedly be stationed in Sentul, West Java, will be an elite, inter-service team comprising 81 trained counter-terrorism personnel from the Army, the Navy’s special forces and the Air Force’s Bravo 90 special forces unit. The lean and capable force will also enable it to be deployed quickly to hotspots as they arise. “They are ready to fight terrorism at any second,” Indonesia’s outgoing military chief General Moeldoko boasted to local news portal Kompas.
Yet the new group is also likely to revive old concerns. In particular, some worry that this is the latest sign that the military is seeking to wrest control of the counter-terrorism realm from the police, thereby intensifying turf battles between the two and undermining efforts. This is not just an existential worry about furthering rather than reversing the gains made in civil-military relations in the post-Suharto era. There is already evidence of a lack of coordination and overt competition playing out, including when both carried out large operations in Poso earlier this year. Given the fierce rivalry between the two, Sidney Jones, head of Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, has argued that President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo may be better served leaving counter-terrorism to the police – including Detachment 88, a highly-capable counter-terrorism unit – instead of supporting a greater role for the military.
As of now, the exact mandate of this new organization and its relationship with other agencies remain vague. Indonesia’s coordinating minister for Political, Legal and Human Rights Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno has suggested that the Koopsusgab may be used not only for terrorism, “but also to [address] other issues related to security,” including escorting officials or death-row inmates. Unless this broad set of responsibilities is clarified, it will make those worried about military encroachment even more nervous. In addition, the new squad can reportedly be deployed either by direct request from Detachment 88 or by presidential orders. But there is little guidance about when each of the approval methods will be used, in spite of the fact that this could play a significant role in the balance of power between the military and the police.
With these concerns in mind, observers will be watching closely to see how Koopsusgab will operate in practice, as well as how it affects the relationship between Indonesia’s military and police in the counterterrorism realm more generally.