It was a grisly find that Indonesian villagers stumbled upon – a head wrapped in a cloth placed on a bridge in Parigi Moutong, Central Sulawesi on Dec. 30, just before 2018 ended.
When police went to retrieve the mutilated body of the hapless victim, later identified as Stevanus Ronal Batau, gunshots from the surrounding hills broke out, wounding two officers.
Police believe remnants of the pro-Islamic State Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT) based in nearby Poso were behind Batau’s killing and the attack on police personnel.
The incident was a worrying sign of the persistence of a group Indonesia has spent years trying to root out – and it could draw fresh militants to the remote, mountainous region, analysts say.
“The sadistic killing was a deliberate attempt to show that they still exist. The act of placing the victim’s head on the bridge was a bait to draw police out there so they could shoot them,” retired Inspector-General of Indonesian Police Benny Mamoto told BenarNews.
“Such conditions will motivate other extremists to gather in Poso because it is ‘proven’ that right until this moment, the police and military are unable to overcome the situation there,” said Mamoto, now vice director of Strategic and Global Studies at University of Indonesia (UI).
In the interview conducted via text message from Jakarta, Mamoto urged the government to maintain its security operation in the region.
“If the threat is not eliminated, there is a big possibility that the location will become a base for IS since the fall of Marawi,” he said. “Extremists from other countries will train and consolidate themselves in Poso where they will plan attacks that will be carried out in several targeted countries.”
In 2017, pro-Islamic State militants took over Marawi city on Mindanao island in the southern Philippines and laid siege to the city for five months before government forces regained control.
At least 1,200 people, mostly militants, were killed, and much of the city was decimated. It was the most serious assault by IS in Southeast Asia, and unsettled governments across the region.
Return of foreign fighters?
A former militant who fought in Poso echoed Mamoto’s warning.
“In Southeast Asia, the most suitable places for Islamic State to ‘transplant’ their fighting zone is either Mindanao in southern Philippines or Poso,” Ali Fauzi Manzi, a former bomb-maker for Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), al-Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, told BenarNews during a recent visit to Kuala Lumpur.
“Islamic State is currently looking for an alternative to Iraq and Syria where they have lost their territories,” he said.
“If this (violence) is allowed to continue, it could draw foreign fighters to return to Poso to give support to that group,” said Ali, who fought in Poso around 1998. “From the outside, foreign fighters will look at Poso and think that MIT is getting stronger by the day, not weaker.”
Police spokesman for Central Sulawesi Hery Murwono told BenarNews the current situation in Poso was “normal.”
“It is peaceful here. It is just that we are having operations against MIT,” Murwono said.
Indonesia has mounted a joint police-military operation in the mountains of Poso since 2015 – and recently extended it another 90 days.
MIT was led by Santoso, alias Abu Wardah, who was killed in July 2016 by Operation Tinombala to hunt down the militants.
Santoso operated out of the surrounding mountains in Poso and conducted para-military training for militants, drawing recruits from within and outside the country including at least six Uyghurs.
Two months after his death, his successor Mohamad Basri also was captured. That same year, authorities announced they had reduced MIT’s ranks from an estimated 40 people to fewer than 10.
The death of Santoso and the capture of his deputy significantly weakened the group until the recent brutal killing brought them back into the spotlight.
Santoso was the first Indonesian militant to publicly pledge allegiance to IS. During his leadership, at least three farmers in the same district in Parigi Moutong were beheaded in 2015 – many of them non-Muslims from other parts of Indonesia.
“There are many non-Muslim farmers from Bali who are staying in that area who were killed by MIT when the militants stumbled upon them. Not only non-Muslims, but also Muslims whom they deemed as infidels for not sharing their ideology were also killed. It was dangerous out there,” Ali said, describing MIT tactics under Santoso’s leadership.
His replacement, Ali Kalora, is seen as an uninspiring leader, Ali said.
“Ali was made MIT leader because the group has no other choice,” he said.
He also has limited experience, according to Robi Sugara, a counter-terrorism analyst at Syarif Hidayatullah Islamic University.
“[H]e only has knowledge of how to wage guerrilla warfare in the mountains. This group will become dangerous if it is helped by terror groups from Java island,” Sugara said.
But in announcing the latest extension of Operation Tinombala, Murwono, the local police spokesman, said the MIT now had 14 members, including three new people from Banten, West Java, and one from Makassar, in South Sulawesi.
A local human rights activists expressed frustration at the news.
“The increase in the number of MIT followers shows that Operation Timonbala has missed the mark for the umpteenth time,” Mohammad Afandi, executive director of the Central Sulawesi Institute for Development of Human Rights Studies, told BenarNews earlier this month.
“I’m not blaming any party. But do we want to let this go on? The group grows, the operation continues, there’s no resolution. How long will this go on?”
A rather long time, according to Mamoto, who worked with Indonesia’s anti-terror squad Densus 88 following the 2002 Bali bombings, the 2003 Marriot Hotel bombing, and the 2004 Australian embassy bombing – all carried out by Jemaah Islamiyah, whose remnants later fled to Poso.
“The security apparatus can handle this but it needs to be an all-out effort , which will take a rather long time, as well requiring consistency in the operations,” Mamoto said.
Keisyah Aprilia in Jakarta contributed to this report.