Indonesia: Putting the Sigi Attack in Context

Commentary by Alif Satria
2020-12-04
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Indonesia: Putting the Sigi Attack in Context Indonesian military personnel arrive at Lembantongoa, a village in Sigi regency, Central Sulawesi province, after Islamic State-linked militants killed four members of a Christian community there, Dec. 1, 2020.
Wahono/BenarNews

The recent attack in Sigi, Sulawesi by the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen group, or MIT, is an important development in Indonesia’s terrorism landscape. It demonstrates both MIT’s ability to increase operational lethality amid a pandemic and the militant group’s resilience despite years of counterterrorism pressure.

As the Indonesian government adds to its military and police presence in Central Sulawesi province in the hopes of trying again to eliminate MIT once and for all, it is important that authorities also address the organization’s social network and support within Poso’s surrounding communities – communities that have simultaneously been the source and victim of MIT’s resilience.

On Nov. 27, the MIT attacked a village in Sigi regency, a neighboring area of the group’s main operating base in Poso regency. Over several hours, eight MIT operatives killed four members of a family, burned six houses, and stole 40 kilos of rice.

Although the victims were Christians, reports suggest the attack was motivated less by religious animosity and more by vengeance over the recent killing of two MIT militants, as well as suspicion that the family’s members had acted as police informants.

The Sigi attack showcased how MIT could both maintain and increase its lethality during a pandemic that has stifled other terrorist organizations. Before Sigi, MIT conducted four other attacks in 2020 in which they ambushed convoys, beheaded farmers, and shot police officers – but only killed two victims.

By contrast, the casualties and infrastructure-damage from the Sigi attack marks a significant increase in MIT’s brutality. As the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR) notes, the killings claimed the highest death toll by MIT in a single attack.

These operations have occurred as other terrorist organizations struggle to conduct attacks due to the pandemic. The viral outbreak has forced them to relocate operational funds and rebuild organizational structures while facing internal disagreements.

More broadly, however, the Sigi attack shows that MIT remains resilient and relevant to the local population despite years of counterterrorism pressure from the Indonesian government. MIT was deemed defeated by authorities in 2016 due to the death of its key leaders and waning membership as a result of Operation Tinombala – the joint police-military campaign launched in January of that year.

The Sigi attack signifies that MIT is still capable of instilling fear to coerce compliance among the local population. This is particularly noteworthy considering that Operation Tinombala is still ongoing. In late 2019 – the last time the government gave figures – an estimated total of 600 military and police personnel were present in Poso under Operation Tinombala.

Government responses

In response to the Sigi attack, the Indonesian government has increased counterterrorism operations in Poso.

President Joko Widodo ordered the Indonesian National Police (Polri) and Indonesian Military (TNI) to dismantle MIT. More aggressively, Chief of Police Idham Azis reportedly ordered police officers to shoot MIT members dead if they fought back.

The government mobilized 100 members of Operation Tinombala to track the perpetrators in the forests of Central Sulawesi, and TNI commander Hadi Tjahjanto deployed the military’s new counterterrorism unit (Koopsus) to assist existing units in the area.

The response to the Sigi attack continues a pattern of Indonesia’s increased reliance on kinetic counterterrorism operations to address terrorist threats.

This was evident in 2007 as Indonesia attributed the defeat of al-Qaeda affiliate Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) largely to the dismantling of its base in Poso, in the wake of the joint TNI-Polri Operation Tanah Runtuh that year.

Similarly, authorities largely attributed MIT’s defeat in 2016 to the success of the joint TNI-Polri Operation Tinombala. More recently, Indonesia has increasingly militarized its counterterrorism infrastructure and used leadership decapitation tactics and preventive arrests to stifle threats from Islamic State-linked Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) and JI. In 2020 alone, authorities have arrested more than 80 JAD and JI suspects.

While kinetic operations succeeded in curbing terrorist threats in Indonesia, history has shown that such approaches alone are not sufficient to neutralize them for good. While the 2007 Tanah Runtuh Operation forced JI to stop using violence, it did not stop them from rebuilding their economic, education, and military training infrastructure. By 2013, JI successfully sent their operatives to Syria and, by 2020, they were once again plotting attacks.

Four years ago, MIT faced the same daunting conditions as they do today. At the time, MIT had around 19 members pitted against a joint TNI-Polri force of 2,400 personnel. Operation Tinombala successfully decimated MIT’s structure and halted their recruitment that year. But by 2020, MIT had amassed enough members to renew attacks.

Targeting MIT’s Resilience

To eradicate MIT, Indonesia’s government needs to tackle MIT’s source of resilience: its social networks and popular support within pockets of communities in Poso.

As noted in a report by the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), an increase in membership enabled a surge of MIT activity in 2020. This increase was made possible partly by the mobilization of family members who, while not directly involved in MIT, helped them renew local recruitment.

Additionally, MIT’s membership surge was also made possible by the network of a local ulama, through which MIT was able to funnel funds and potential recruits among families of ex-terrorist prisoners from across Sulawesi and Java.

Finally, MIT is still strongly supported by elements of the community in Poso due to their involvement in the regency’s long history of conflict, and negative perceptions of police. Evidently, thousands attended Santoso’s funeral in 2016, and hundreds attended the funeral of two MIT members who were killed in April 2020.

That said, some communities might be supportive of MIT out of fear. MIT’s signature beheading of suspected informants indicates that there is a concerted effort from the group to force community members to comply with the militants.      

To tackle MIT’s social networks and popular support in Poso, the government needs to complement the current boots-on-the-ground approach with an evaluation and reworking of related social programs in the area.

While Poso’s police have long implemented a much-heralded de-radicalization program, the Sigi attack shows that such efforts have not succeeded in weakening MIT’s local support.

Additionally, it is important to make sure that the current surge of counterterrorism operations does not result in unnecessary casualties, which could further deepen society’s animosity towards the government’s security apparatus. Accidental murders of innocent civilians by Operation Tinombala operatives, such as those that occurred this June and August, need to be prevented and strictly punished.

Alif Satria is a master's candidate at Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program in Washington. His research focuses on terrorism and political violence in Southeast Asia.

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