ASEAN Beat | Security | Southeast Asia

Tracing Indonesia’s Counterterrorism Measures Since the 2002 Bali Bombings

Indonesia’s current focus on reactive, and in a narrow sense preventive, measures for fighting terrorism can only offer short-term success.

By Kathrin Rucktäschel and Christoph Schuck for
Tracing Indonesia’s Counterterrorism Measures Since the 2002 Bali Bombings

Indonesian Special Detachment 88 anti-terror police unit escorts terror suspect during a press conference at in Jakarta, Indonesia, Friday, May 17, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Achmad Ibrahim)

In the aftermath of the high-profile 2002 Bali bombings by Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), finding a strategy to deal with terrorism became one of Indonesia’s most urgent national security priorities. What counterterrorism measures has Indonesia adopted over the past two decades? And have the measures proven successful?

Reactive Counterterrorism Measures

The Indonesian government’s counterterrorism measures, adopted in response to the 2002 Bali bombings and further attacks by Islamist militants in the 18 years since, can mainly be seen within the framework of the “criminal justice model.” Through this approach, terrorism has been treated foremost as a crime, and a coercive counterterrorism strategy has been adopted by the Indonesian government. 

The fight against terrorism has taken place within the existing legal framework. When the Badan Nasional Penanggulangan Terorisme (BNPT) – the national agency for combating terrorism – was established after the Jakarta hotel bombings of 2009, it was the first time that the police, military and intelligence agencies had joined forces to establish a more coordinated and concerted nationwide counterterrorism strategy. 

Yet Densus 88 – the special anti-terror unit of the police – which was established in the wake of the Bali attacks in 2002 and 2005, and whose operations are not directed by the BNPT, has been largely responsible for pursuing terror suspects. The supposed role of the military was to concentrate on preventing terrorism only within the BNPT concept. This clear division of responsibilities, however, does not exist in practice.

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Calls for reduced military involvement in counterterrorism have become more intense since President Joko Widodo publicly advocated a stronger role for the military in 2017. Muhammad Syafii, the chairman of the commission tasked with revising current anti-terror laws, also said that he favored this kind of orientation

Indonesian human rights organizations, such as Imparsial, continued to insist that Widodo should support the existing criminal justice model, even after the anti-terror laws were changed, in order to prevent the abuse of power by the armed forces. Yet as a result of the disastrous string of bomb attacks carried-out in Surabaya by Islamist militants in May 2018, the decision was made to grant the military a greater role. 

A key example of the increased involvement of the military is the ongoing Operation Tinombala in Poso, Central Sulawesi, which was established in 2016 as a joint army-police operation to eliminate the threat posed by the terrorist group Mujahidin Indonesia Timur (MIT), which is active in the region. 

While this mission can be seen as a relatively successful example of cooperation, which resulted in several MIT members being captured or killed, it took a significant toll on the local population. Repeat extensions to the operation were legitimized by the fact that MIT had not been destroyed and was still recruiting new members. While this initiative evidences partly-functioning cooperation, its “joint mission” status resulted in opacity regarding the assigned competencies and “competition between the two security forces.”

The limitations of the anti-terrorism battle within the criminal justice model can also be seen when measures border on – or are beyond – the bounds of legality. Densus 88 is credited for successful measures against suspected terrorists, yet they have been accused of human rights violations. This may lead to the increased radicalization of suspected terrorists and their supporters because they feel such actions prove that the state does not represent the rule of law. Operation Tinombala is a good example of this as Densus 88 is accused to “have shot targets who have not shown any resistance, made aggressive shows of force, and treated captured suspects inhumanely” which resulted in “suspicion and distrust of the security forces.”

Defensive Counterterrorism Measures

“Defensive counterterrorism” describes measures aimed at preventing terrorist attacks from taking place. This includes the physical hardening of potential targets, involving both the regulation and surveillance of traffic and increasing security measures outside buildings and prominent sites which may be targeted.

In recent times, this approach has become more important in Indonesia, although some such measures were established after the 2009 Jakarta hotel blasts. For example, it is clear that important public places, ministries and embassies, but also places popular with foreign tourists, must and will be protected by additional security measures such as checks on baggage or on vehicles driving through these areas. 

Much to the regret of those responsible for formulating anti-terror initiatives, measures which were given more attention after ISIS arose proved to be incompatible with the anti-terror laws that were valid before May 2018. As the deputy chief of the national police, Commander General Badrodin Haiti said, “there is no legal ground in Indonesia’s law that clearly forbids ISIS […] the consequence is that when some individuals or a group supports ISIS, we must find another potential charge [to detain them]. If we can’t find one, we have no other choice but to release them.” 

Since then, counterterrorism units feel that the reform of Indonesia’s anti-terrorism laws have adequately dealt with this problem. Under new laws introduced last year, it is now possible to charge Indonesians who joined ISIS abroad and then returned to Indonesia, having belonged to a foreign terrorist organization. 

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Preventive Counterterrorism Measures 

“Preventive counterterrorism” measures cover complex and diverse approaches, including the activities of Indonesia’s state intelligence agencies. 

Even before the BNPT was formed, Densus 88 had already established certain – relatively uncoordinated – prevention measures. Densus 88 worked to persuade disengaged former terrorists to help the police and to promote disengagement among their cohorts. Through such work, the authorities were frequently able to obtain information about the structure and potential targets of their organizations. The success of such approaches should not be underestimated.

Deterrence through the communication of measures is also key: Reports on counterterrorism measures are aimed at terrorists and their potential recruits. It must be made clear that the state pursues perpetrators of terrorist acts uncompromisingly and that terrorists will not gain from such actions. Addressees also include those who suffer from attacks and hold fear that attacks will occur, in order to maintain public trust. 

The Indonesian government under former President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono felt it was very important that its successes in the battle against terrorism served as deterrents to those who might sympathize with terrorists or seek to join terrorist groups. This method is of course less effective when directed at militant Islamists, for whom death is not considered a punishment. Instead, authorities hope to scare off those who might sympathize with terrorists before being radicalized. President Widodo labelled this security-first approach as insufficient, saying that a more comprehensive approach was needed that included cultural and religious prevention. 

After the high-profile Bali attacks, acts of terrorism became of great concern for the Indonesian public, who expected decisive action to be taken. This was also reflected by the increase in Indonesian media reporting on the country’s counterterrorism measures. Reports showed the public that the government was doing everything within its power to provide the police and the judiciary with the authority to combat the threat. 

Long-term Counterterrorism Measures

Almost all measures taken by Indonesia since the mid-2000s can be considered “hard” in nature. While these measures were important and necessary in order to reduce specific instances of terrorism, they largely ignored factors like poverty and social conflicts, which contribute to radicalization and terrorism. 

Relatively successful anti-terrorism efforts by special forces and in the courts have been handicapped by several systemic problems. The budget of many prisons is inadequate and prisoners depend on support from the outside. The state has often been accused of failing to provide adequate assistance to released former terrorists in order to reintegrate them. This lack of state support for deradicalized terrorists is not compensated for by occasional measures for helping families of terrorists, and must be viewed critically. 

Indonesia’s current focus on reactive, and in a narrow sense preventive, measures for fighting terrorism can only offer short-term success, as the root causes are not being dealt with systematically and reintegration measures have been neglected. It is likely that Indonesia’s brief successes will not prove enough to avoid further radicalization. This will continue for as long as Indonesia fails to address corruption within the police force, the military, and the courts – and for as long as it is unable to provide adequate support to prisons. 

It is not yet clear whether moves to extend the counterterrorism battle to include cultural and religious strategies will have a far-reaching impact. The BNPT’s 2nd division is trying to implement soft approaches to counter radicalization within society and to deradicalize convicted terrorists within prisons, and the Wahid Foundation is also working with the BNPT to implement programs aimed at deradicalization. While recent reforms have been focused on hard short-term measures for confronting terrorism, President Widodo has also agreed to support “a new policy designed to prevent youth from coming under extremist influence”; so it remains possible that soft approaches will take on a greater role in combating terrorism in Indonesia over the long-term – alongside the existing hard approaches, which are still the mainstay of anti-terror strategy.

This article is a shorter-form version of a research paper published in The Pacific Review, a journal focused on the international interactions of the countries of the Pacific Basin. The Pacific Review covers political, security, military, economic and cultural exchanges in seeking greater understanding of the region.

Kathrin Rucktäschel is political scientist in the Department of Philosophy and Political Science, at TU Dortmund University. Her research concentrates on Southeast Asia with a particular focus on Indonesia. In her dissertation, she analyzed environmental issues in Indonesia.

Christoph Schuck is a Professor of Political Science at the Department of Philosophy and Political Science and currently Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Theology at TU Dortmund University. His research concentrates on security issues with a particular focus on Islamism, terrorism, and counterterrorism.