The recent arrest of eight suspected pro-Islamic State militants in Indonesia’s far-flung Papua province signifies that extremists are exploring new hideouts and locations for paramilitary training away from their usual bases on Sumatra and Java islands, counter-terrorism officials and analysts say.
Papua, located some 3,700 km (2,300 miles) east of the capital Jakarta, is seen as a “safe place” to avoid detection as the police’s special counter-terrorism squad, Densus 88, conducts operations in other parts of the country, they say.
The idea to search in Papua for potential hideouts and training sites was conceived by a Sumatra-based cell belonging to Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), a pro-Islamic State (IS) group that authorities have blamed for most terrorist attacks in Indonesia since 2016, according to a source in Densus 88.
“The idea to scout out locations for training in Papua came from the head of JAD Lampung named Solihin. He felt that Papua would be safe as it has yet to be touched by Densus all this while,” the source told BenarNews.
“They are looking for alternatives. Poso remains the favored choice for locations [for paramilitary training],” he said of JAD.
Solihin was arrested in March this year, the source said.
“The men were not able to find a location before they were arrested,” he said, referring to the eight suspects taken into custody earlier this month. The source spoke on condition of anonymity because he said he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Papua: ‘A logical choice’
The suspects were captured during raids in several locations in Jayapura, the capital of Papua province. The predominantly Christian region in Indonesia’s far east is where separatist crowds staged anti-Jakarta protests, which turned violent in August and September.
Police said they seized knives, laptops, explosive materials and a bomb from three houses rented by the eight suspected JAD members.
“From the initial information that we received, the suspects who were caught have been on the run since their group was exposed by the police,” said Adhe Bakti, executive director of the Center for Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR), an Indonesian think-tank.
“Papua is a logical choice as it is remote and they (pro-IS) hope they will not be detected by the police,” he told BenarNews.
According to Adhe, the arrests of the IS-linked suspects in Papua were the “first” in that province but before this, pro-IS suspects were arrested in West Papua, a neighboring province. Indonesia’s Papua region makes up the western half of New Guinea island.
In September, Indonesian police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said that JAD’s presence was first detected in Papua in 2017, and its members had become increasingly active there since last year.
Dedi said JAD had planned to bomb the Manokwari police headquarters in West Papua in 2018, but Densus 88 managed to capture them and foil the attack.
Prior to the recent arrests, Adhe said, IS had spread to almost every province in Indonesia, except for three provinces including Papua. Indonesia has 34 provinces.
“The two provinces which have not been sounded (out)…are North Sulawesi and Bangka Belitung (Sumatra island), based on preliminary research by PAKAR in 2018,” Adhe said.
While there are no IS teachings being spread in North Sulawesi by the extremist group’s network, the province has been used as a gateway to enter the southern Philippines, especially via the Sangihe islands, according to Adhe.
Indonesian extremists have made their way to Mindanao island in the southern Philippines to fight alongside pro-IS groups like the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF).
Mindanao island is seen as a “jihad zone” where pro-IS groups seized Marawi city for five months in 2017 before government troops regained control. It was the most serious assault by IS in Southeast Asia that unsettled governments in the region.
Indonesian extremists were among foreign fighters who had converged there during the Marawi siege.
Analyst: JAD fragmented
JAD, according to Indonesian authorities, is led by Aman Abdurrahman, a jailed Muslim cleric who has pledged allegiance to IS and was sentenced to death last year for ordering terrorist attacks in the country.
JAD is Indonesia’s largest Islamic State affiliate. But PAKAR’s Adhe prefers to define JAD not as a single organization but a network of pro-IS groups because, in his view, not all JAD cells are led by Aman Abdurrahman.
He warned that in the short-term, pro-IS groups continue to pose a threat to Indonesia, especially since many of them are fragmented and dispersed throughout the country, making it difficult for police to detect them.
“[P]ro IS in Indonesia is not well-consolidated and fragmented into several groups,” Adhe said.
Adhe said in some provinces, there could be between two to six pro-IS groups.
“The strength of JAD or pro-IS in my terminology is worrying enough in the context of how widespread their operations are,” Adhe said.
Yudi Zulfahri, a former convicted Indonesian militant, said that from his monitoring of social media and interactions online, there are people in Papua who are “pro-radical groups.”
Yudi, who was jailed in 2010 for his involvement in a terror training camp in Indonesia’s westernmost Aceh region, now runs a deradicalization organization called Establish Peace.
“These groups are people currently living in Papua. It is very interesting to study JAD’s network in Papua right now,” Yudi told BenarNews.