Islamic State-linked Suspects Arrested in Indonesia’s Papua Region Allegedly Targeted Bishop

Ronna Nirmala
Islamic State-linked Suspects Arrested in Indonesia’s Papua Region Allegedly Targeted Bishop Indonesian soldiers prepare to boost security on the eve of Eid al-Fitr in Timika, Papua, May 12, 2021.

Twelve suspected Islamic militants taken into custody in a southern district of Indonesia’s troubled Papua region had planned to attack a local archbishop and police stations there, authorities said Tuesday.

The suspects arrested in Papua’s Merauke regency on Friday and Sunday were linked to a cell of Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, an Indonesian militant network affiliated with the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, police said.

Indonesian authorities had blamed JAD for suicide attacks that targeted churches in other parts of the Muslim-majority country in March 2021 and May 2018.

“The targets were the bishop and police stations in Merauke,” Untung Sangaji, Merauke police chief, told BenarNews.

Untung said church officials told police that one suspect had entered the St. Frasiskus Xaverius cathedral, home to the Merauke Archdiocese, with a backpack believed to contain explosives. But Archbishop Petrus Canisius Mandagi was not home at the time, Untung said.

“It is true that they had entered the church carrying a backpack to target the archbishop of Merauke, because the target was not there, they left,” said Untung.

The population of Papua, a region located at the far-eastern end of Indonesia, is mainly Melanesian and Christian. The region is home to a separatist insurgency that has simmered for decades but become more intense lately.

On Monday, national police spokesman Inspector Gen. Argo Yuwono said the suspected Islamic militants arrested in the past few days were not native Papuans, but migrants from Java and Sulawesi islands who had lived in Papua for some time.

Argo said officers confiscated chemical materials, air rifles, machetes and arrows from the suspects.

The suspects were linked to the JAD group in the city of Makassar on Sulawesi Island, said Aswin Azhar Siregar, head of operations at the police Densus 88 anti-terrorism unit.

The JAD Makassar cell-members carried out a suicide bombing outside a church there on March 28, Palm Sunday, which left the two attackers dead and injured 20 people.

The coordinating minister for political, legal and security affairs, Mohammad Mahfud MD, said in late April that police had arrested at least 83 suspects linked to the Makassar cell.

In Merauke, “their main targets were not churches, but police stations,” he told BenarNews.

It was a second group of suspected JAD-linked militants to have been arrested in Papua since 2019, when police arrested eight suspected in the provincial capital Jayapura.

JAD has been blamed for a series of terrorist attacks in Indonesia in recent years, including two suicide bombings in May 2018, which killed 22 people including the bombers in Surabaya – Indonesia’s second largest city.

‘Indigenous people less supportive of JAD’

On Monday, Mimika police chief I. Gusti Gede Era Adhinata said that the group arrested in Merauke had settled in Timika, the main town in Papua’s Mimika regency.

“We are investigating whether there are still other terrorist cells in Timika,” the state-run Antara news agency quoted Era as saying.

Muh Taufiqurrohman, a senior researcher at the Center for the Study of Radicalism and Deradicalization (PAKAR), said the presence of IS-linked militants in Papua dated to 2018.

At the time, a group of 14 militants from Java, Borneo, and Sulawesi islands came to Papua in search a safe location for training.

They had moved from Timika to Merauke to escape a counter-terrorism operation by security forces there, Taufiqurrohman said.

Indigenous people who are Muslims, even those who espouse more puritan forms of Islam, “are ideologically different and less supportive of JAD actions,” he said.

Meanwhile, violence in the region’s separatist conflict has become more intense in recent weeks.

In April, the Indonesian government designated the Free Papua Movement separatist group and its armed wing, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), as terrorists.

That happened after the TPNPB claimed responsibility for killing the government’s intelligence chief in Papua and four civilians, whom the rebels accused of being spies for the government.

The killings prompted President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo to launch a crackdown on the insurgent group.

In 1963, Indonesian forces invaded the Papua region – which makes up the western half of New Guinea Island – and annexed it.

Papua was incorporated into Indonesia in 1969 after a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only about 1,000 people.



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