The Indonesian military says it is beefing up security along the nation’s sea border with the Philippines, where Islamic State-inspired (IS) militants are locked in ferocious battles with Filipino government forces in the southern city of Marawi.
The building of military bases in some of the country’s outermost northern islands, such as on Morotai island (see map), to block extremists who could potentially travel there from the southern Philippines was part of a strategic plan presented to Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) Commander Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo told reporters on Monday.
Gatot spoke during a dinner with journalists in Jakarta, three days after reviewing the construction of a submarine dock at a naval base in Palu, Central Sulawesi province.
After visiting the base on Friday, Gatot said in a press release that Indonesia had deployed submarines off Marore and Miangas islands along the northern end of Sulawesi Island because the military was anticipating security-related possibilities as a result of the ongoing fighting in Marawi.
Gatot said the militants could travel easily from Marawi to Indonesia’s northernmost territories, such as Bitung and Sangihe, in North Sulawesi, and Morotai, in North Maluku province.
“This is why we together have to be cautious,” he said. “Do not let the conflict in Syria move to Indonesia. We must prevent them from coming to our place because the seeds in our place already exist.”
Other than Morotai, the Indonesian military will bolster its presence around the Natuna Islands in the South China Sea, Biak Island in Papua and the Tanimbar Islands in Maluku, the general said, emphasizing that construction of military bases on the islands would depend on economic conditions in Jakarta.
Together, Indonesia and the Philippines have more than 18,400 islands and share a little-patrolled ocean border.
Gatot also told reporters that the Indonesian military had found dormant IS cells almost everywhere in the country. A possible infiltration of militant groups from Marawi could wake up those cells, he said.
“Almost all provinces in Indonesia, except Papua, have existing ISIS cells but they are sleeping,” Gatot said, using a different acronym for IS.
‘We’ve put people there’
Maj. Gen. Ganip Warsito, the commander in North Sulawesi, Gorontalo and Central Sulawesi provinces, said the military had strengthened security forces in Indonesia’s outermost islands, including in Marore, Kaiwo and Matatuang in the waters of North Sulawesi and Morotai Island, in North Maluku province. He did not provide details.
“We’ve put people there. We must be careful not to get infiltrated, that can be also weapons, because that is the possible route that can be used for infiltration,” Warsito said, explaining that the outcome of the Marawi conflict would impact Indonesia either way.
If the militants win, the Southeast Asian region would be their strong base, he said, but if the Philippine military ends up defeating the extremists, they would be expected to regroup in Indonesia.
“And here there are dormant cells that are ready to accommodate them,” Warsito said as he emphasized that Filipino troops were battling local extremists from the Abu Sayyaf and Maute groups who are backed by foreign militants, including fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia.
Khairul Fahmi, a researcher from the Jakarta-based Institute for Security and Strategic Studies (ISESS), said the plan to build a military presence on Morotai Island was part of Indonesia’s old maritime defense concept.
“Maybe now there is momentum, but the threat is already in front of us, so the TNI should have another plan while there is no base with a permanent force,” Fahmi told BenarNews.
Terrorist designation, trilateral patrol
In other news related to terrorism, the U.S. State Department on Monday declared an Indonesian militant group, Majelis Mujahideen Indonesia (MMI), as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group.
Formed in 2000 by jailed cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, MMI has claimed responsibility for terrorist attacks in Indonesia, including a May 2012 attack at the book launch of Canadian author Irshad Manji that injured three attendees, according to the State Department.
The special designation alerts the American public and the international community that MMI has “committed or pose[s] a significant risk of committing acts of terrorism,” the department said in a news released.
“Designations expose and isolate organizations and individuals, and result in denial of access to the U.S. financial system. Moreover, designations can assist or complement the law enforcement actions of other U.S. agencies and other governments,” it said.
Also on Monday, a spokesman for Indonesia’s Defense Ministry, Brig. Gen. Totok Sugiharto, confirmed that Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines would launch a joint maritime patrol in the Sulu and Sulawesi seas early next week.
“The launching of the patrol will continue the plan that previously has been delayed,” Sugiharto told BenarNews.
The launch is scheduled from the town of Tarakan, in the Indonesia province of North Kalimantan, on June 19, he said.
The three nations have been talking for more than a year about joining forces in trilateral patrols to prevent acts of piracy and kidnappings of sailors at sea by suspected Islamic militants operating out of the southern Philippines.