Indonesia’s No. 1 Militant May Have Died in Firefight: Officials

Keisyah Aprilia and Zahara Tiba
Palu, Central Sulawesi and Jakarta
160718_ID_Santoso_1000.jpg This screenshot from a video shows Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen leader Santoso (left) with one of his men, as they were filmed while hiding out in the forests of Central Sulawesi province in February 2016.
Photo: Benar

Indonesian security forces Monday shot dead two militants in Central Sulawesi province, one of whom could be Indonesia’s most wanted militant whose group is linked to the Islamic State (IS), authorities said.

They said they had yet to confirm whether Eastern Indonesian Mujahideen (MIT) leader Santoso (alias Abu Wardah) died in a shootout with members of a taskforce in Poso regency, but that facial features of one of the two slain men resembled Santoso’s.

"Indeed, there is a mole on his forehead that characterizes Santoso. But, again, I have not been able to confirm. My colleagues are still evacuating the bodies [of the two men] for further identification," National police chief Gen. Tito Karnavian told reporters in Jakarta, according to the Indonesian news website

Santoso and his band of men have been the target of a manhunt lasting at least 17 months and involving hundreds of security personnel drawn from the military and police, who have scoured the jungles and mountains of central Sulawesi island in search of Indonesia’s most elusive militant.

Santoso and his members, who have been wanted over the years in connection with killings of civilians and police officers and attacks on police stations, had pledged allegiance to the Middle East-based extremist group IS.

“It’s possible, but we’re still confirming the news,” Indonesia Security minister Luhut Pandjaitan said of reports about Santoso’s death as he confirmed that two members of the MIT were killed around 5:30 p.m. (Jakarta time; 6:30 p.m. in Central Sulawesi) in the village of Tambarana on Sulawesi, the Jakarta Post reported.

The newspaper quoted a source in the field as saying that one of the two militants killed in the firefight with the Alpha 29 taskforce had long hair, a long beard, and a mole on his face – features that matched those of Santoso.

In Palu, the provincial capital of Central Sulawesi, local police spokesman Hari Suprapto confirmed that the shootout had occurred in Tambarana.

“It is right, [the firefight] happened this afternoon, but we cannot ensure yet that [one of the persons] killed was Santoso,” Hari told BenarNews.

“The topography is quite difficult there. When the evacuation is complete the two bodies will be immediately dispatched to Bhayangkara hospital in Palu for further identification,” he added, referring to a local military hospital.

According to the Straits-Times newspaper of Singapore, the body that may belong to Santoso was to undergo “a gamut of forensic tests,” including tests on DNA samples. In addition, jailed militants were to be summoned by Indonesian authorities to identify the corpse.


The firefight erupted when the Alpha 29 team encountered five suspected MIT members, including three men and two women, while patrolling in the area around the village, officials said.

The firefight lasted around 30 minutes and three of the militants ran away after Alpha 29 killed two of them, according to officials.

“When we combed the area, the Alfa 29 found a firearm … along with some shells and live ammunition,” said Hari.

“From the report of my staff, they are carrying M-16 rifles. That is why all the members of the taskforce are instructed to remain cautious,” Central Sulawesi Deputy Police Chief Lubis Leo Bona told BenarNews by phone, referring to the three militants at-large.


News of Santoso’s possible death came only five days after Tito Karnavian, the former head of the police anti-terrorist squad Densus 88, vowed to capture the MIT leader dead or alive as he was sworn in as Indonesia’s national police chief.

The hunt for Santoso has been long and difficult, with Indonesian security forces launching two major operations to catch him since January 2015. The first of two operations launched in the jungles of Poso, Operation Camar Maleo, was extended three times until Jan. 8, 2016, when a new operation, code-named Tinombala, began.

Before Monday’s firefight, 13 suspected MIT members, including five Uyghurs from China’s Xinjiang province, were killed during the latest operation, while five other militants were captured alive, officials said.

Three months ago, the U.S. State Department, added Santoso’s name to its list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. Under Santoso, MIT carried out killings and kidnappings in Indonesia over the past few years, according to the State Department, which also listed his group as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.

In announcing the designations, U.S. officials cited the killings of two policemen by MIT in August 2012; the bombing of a police station a month later; the November 2012 shooting of a police chief; and the shootings of four members of the national police’s Mobile Brigade (Brimob) in December 2012.

In April, Indonesian authorities claimed they had cornered the remnants of Santoso’s band in the jungle, and that the militants were running out of food.

As evidence of a chronic food shortage, officials pointed to pictures and images from a video, which were taken on mobile phones and cameras that were seized from captured MIT fighters.

Authorities released footage that showed Santoso and his men eating the flesh of endangered species, including a maleo, a native bird of Sulawesi. In one soundless video, Santoso was seen eating a midget buffalo, known locally as anoa, also an endangered species.


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