Presidential Decree Underscores Indonesian Military’s Counterterror Role

Commentary by Zachary Abuza
200512-ID0military-1000.JPG Indonesian peacekeeping forces personnel march in a parade during the celebrations for the National Armed Forces Day at the Halim Perdanakusuma airbase in Jakarta, Oct. 5, 2019.

When Indonesian leader Joko “Jokowi” Widodo sent a draft of a long-awaited presidential decree (Perpres) to parliament last week, he defined the military’s role in counter-terrorism.

That move spotlighted the latest setback to democracy in the country and a further erosion of civil-military relations that came about after the 1998 fall of President Suharto and the end of the New Order, his 32-year-old dictatorship backed by the armed forces.

After the May 2018 suicide bombings in the Indonesian city of Surabaya, parliament quickly passed a new counterterrorism bill. Security forces had argued that the 2003 counterterrorism law, passed following the Bali bombings, was insufficient.

The new law, which had been stalled for several years due to a number of highly controversial provisions, gives security forces the powers of preventative detention and extended the period of time that they could hold suspects before bringing charges. It broadens the definition of terrorism and criminalizes the act of traveling overseas to join a militant group.

The most controversial provision, however, was that it gave the armed forces (TNI) a formal counterterrorism role.

There was some logic to this. Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), the first group in Indonesia to pledge allegiance to the extremist group known as Islamic State (IS), operated out of the dense jungles of Central Sulawesi. The police lacked the capabilities to engage in jungle warfare.

In a very controversial decision in 2015, Widodo allowed the TNI to have a very limited operational role in the Poso region. Operation Tinombala was forged. Meanwhile, MIT was significantly degraded after the killing of its leader, Santoso, although it remains stubbornly determined to regroup.

In June 2015, the then TNI chief Gen. Moeldoko established the Joint Special Operations Command (Koopsusgab), which included forces from the army, navy and the air force.

Yet, the new military chief, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, quickly disbanded the group, saying he was concerned about any political backlash regarding the TNI’s lack of a legal basis for counterterror operations.

But since then, acquiring legal counterterrorism authorities has been a top priority for the TNI.

Competition with the police was a factor. The TNI has long been under differing international sanctions because of allegations linking it to human rights abuses dating back to the war in East Timor in the early-1990s.

Since 2003, the police have been the recipient of significant international aid, training and assistance to improve its capacities. The TNI sees counterterrorism as a way to increase its own share of the budgetary pie as well as be a potential for international assistance.


The concerns from human rights and democracy activists about Jokowi’s May 10 decree are well-founded.

The push by the TNI for a formal counterterrorism role should be seen as part of an overall clawback of civilian actions and authorities, which the TNI had relinquished following the collapse of the New Order regime 22 years ago.

Widodo’s first minister of defense, Ryamizard Ryacudu, identified the greatest threats to the country as illegal narcotic, secessionism, communism, and LGBTQ rights. He espoused a national defense program, Bela Negara, which defined the military’s role in civil administration, internal security and food security.

The Surabaya bombings were the justification the TNI needed to assume a formal role in counterterrorism. On May 18, 2018, days after the bombing, but before the passage of the new Counterterrorism Law, the president had already authorized the reactivation of the Joint Special Operations Command.

In July 2019, TNI chief Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto announced the founding of the military’s 500-strong counter-terrorism force Kopassus, and requested an additional 1.5 trillion rupiah (U.S. $101.6 million) in government funding to set up the united purchase of new equipment.

A dangerous precedent

The military gaining a larger role in counterterrorism is a dangerous precedent. But is it even necessary?

For one thing, the Indonesian police and in particular their elite counterterrorism force, Densus-88, has done an outstanding job in mitigating the threat. It’s hard to argue that they do not have sufficient powers and resources. Indeed, in 2019, Densus-88 doubled in size, and now operates in every province. JAD, the Indonesian umbrella grouping for pro-IS organizations, is significantly degraded.

Recent counterterrorist operations following the November 2019 suicide bombing in Medan and the knife attack on Gen. Wiranto, the coordinating minister for politics and security affairs, have led to the arrest of dozens of suspects. Likewise, counterterrorism officials have a better understanding how Jemaah Islamiyah has been regrouping.

There are also very legitimate legal concerns about how the military’s involvement in counterterrorism will impact court cases and other investigations. The military is trained to deliver lethal force. While military leaders argue that they can be deployed rapidly, they are not trained to arrest, collect evidence and maintain chains of evidence and custody that will be admissible in courts.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during a news briefing about an emergency hospital being built to treat coronavirus patients in the Riau Islands province, April 1, 2020. [Reuters]
Indonesian President Joko Widodo gestures during a news briefing about an emergency hospital being built to treat coronavirus patients in the Riau Islands province, April 1, 2020. [Reuters]

Civil-military relations

Jokowi promised that he would issue a decree formally outlining in what conditions the military could involve itself.

The intention of the 2018 law was that the military could only operate in coordination with the police and the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), and not conduct independent operations. While this fell far short of being under the police chain of command that many had demanded, Jokowi pledged limitations on the military’s role.

But competing interests led to the prolonged drafting of the Perpres. And the draft guidelines appear to be a victory for the TNI.

The most controversial provision is that the military no longer has to conduct its operations in coordination with the police.

The wording in the regulation is intentionally vague and does not define what “other operations” are. There is adequate concern that it could be used to target political opponents, or non-violent activists in places such as Papua.

Members of Parliament have already warned that the guidelines are not specific enough, but it seems unlikely that the president is going to face sustained political pressure for him to amend the Perpres, and he has sufficient backing in parliament to pass it.

So why did the president cave in to the TNI’s demands?

First, Jokowi proved himself during his first term to not be the political reformer many had expected. Although known as the first president with no ties to the New Order regime, Jokowi was reflexively more cautious and conservative than many had hoped.

Courting the generals bolstered his position, especially in the run-up to the 2019 presidential election, when his challenger, Prabowo Subianto, was going to make security the cornerstone of an opposition campaign.

Second, Jokowi has only become more beholden to the military, which he has used to backstop his poor handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jokowi has surrounded himself with generals, rather than public health officials, and has allowed the military to take a leading role in the response to the pandemic. The government has tried to silence criticism of its handling of COVID-19, and in a blow to government transparency, there are reports that the government will no longer provide daily statistics on the outbreak.

The military’s fingerprints are all over this.

Zachary Abuza is a professor at the National War College and Georgetown University in Washington and the author of “Forging Peace in Southeast Asia: Insurgencies, Peace Processes, and Reconciliation.” The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the National War College, Georgetown University or BenarNews.


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