Indonesia on Tuesday launched an elite counterterrorism force that extends the military’s reach into an area reserved for police until now.
The Joint Special Operations Command brings together “highly skilled” army, navy and air force units and is designed to mobilize and deploy quickly to any part of the archipelagic country, according to Indonesian military commander Gen. Moeldoko.
"The force is ready to be moved to the rest of Indonesia in the shortest possible time and at any time," Moeldoko told reporters Tuesday.
The force comprises 90 people “with high ability and standards,'' Moeldoko said.
It debuted Tuesday with a military exercise in Jakarta that illustrated its mission “to destroy terrorism and maintain security and stability in the region in the context of military operations other than war."
"This exercise aims to address the threat of terrorism on a massive scale," Moeldoko said.
Command of the joint force will rotate every six months among its various component forces, he added.
It will work with Densus 88, the elite police counterterrorism squad, and will deploy by direct request from Densus 88 or by presidential orders.
The new force is essential in Indonesia "not only to solve the problem of terrorism but also to [address] other issues related to security," Tedjo Edhy Purdijatno, coordinating minister for Political, Legal and Human Rights, told BenarNews.
It may also be used to escort officials or death-row inmates, he said.
Before its official debut the joint force trained for weeks in Poso, a remote and mountainous area in Central Sulawesi province with a high concentration of militants, Moeldoko noted.
During those exercises, a key aide to Indonesia’s most wanted terrorist, Santoso, was killed.
Daeng Koro, whose real name was Sabar Subagio, was a strategist and arms procurer for the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), and he served as a liaison to radical groups in Makassar, South Sulawesi, authorities allege.
"The arrest of terrorists and supporters of IS [the Islamic State] shows that Indonesia is vulnerable to the threat of terror," Tedjo Edhy said.
According to the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT), at least 540 Indonesians have joined IS ranks in the Middle East. Government officials have warned, too, that jihadists returning home from combat tours in Iraq and Syria could import terrorism.
Until now, TNI has had no formal role in the fight against terrorism, and some activists see the change as an unwelcome expansion of the military into domestic affairs.
Under the New Order of President Suharto, the military was omnipresent in civilian life and was used to perpetuate a regime that lasted 32 years.
"Terror was given to those who opposed government policies. At the same time, kidnapping, murder, and shooting of activists continued,” Krisbiantoro, vice-chairman of the Commission for Missing Persons and Victims of Violence (KontraS), told BenarNews.
He cited the military shootings of student activists during riots and demonstrations immediately before and after Suharto’s fall in 1998.
To date, no high-level military official has been prosecuted for those deaths, and the government has suggested that families accept reconciliation instead, according to KontraS and the Indonesian Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM).
"Why would the military be given a greater role if until now the Indonesian government has not managed to resolve cases of human rights violations involving the military?" Krisbiantoro said.
Eric Hiariej, a lecturer at Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, said the military's role should be limited so as not to repeat past mistakes.
"We must defend the values of democracy that we have fought hard to earn," he told BenarNews.