A sharp increase in terrorism arrests in Indonesia in 2016 point to an ongoing threat in the coming year, amid evidence that Islamic State figures abroad are actively directing militants at home.
Terrorism attacks and arrests more than doubled to 170 this year, from 82 in 2015, National Police Chief Tito Karnavian told a press conference in Jakarta on Dec. 28.
“There are still terrorism suspects on the wanted list,” he said.
Morevoer, the loss of territory held by the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has led its leaders to call for acts of terror in other locations, including Indonesia, he said.
Earlier this month, police disrupted a planned attack outside the presidential palace in Jakarta that would have been the first by a female suicide bomber in Indonesia.
In chilling television interviews after their arrest, the woman and her husband said they were following orders given via Telegram text messages by Bahrun Naim, an Indonesian IS figure who went to Syria in 2014 but may have since moved to the southern Philippines, according to police.
Police say that Bahrun Naim also masterminded an attack outside a department store in central Jakarta on Jan. 14 that left eight dead, including four attackers. That incident was the first Islamic State-claimed attack in Southeast Asia.
At least five people have been convicted and sent to jail for support roles in that attack.
“Most of these cases we prevented. But for those that turned into attacks, we want to successfully solve them,” Tito said.
The 2016 figure of 170 attacks or arrests includes 33 suspected terrorists killed by security forces, a sharp increase from seven in 2015.
Among those killed in 2016 was Santoso, Indonesia’s most wanted militant since 2012, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014.
Indonesia security forces also succeeded in 2016 in reducing his group, the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen (MIT), to some nine fugitives, thanks to a series of joint police-military operations in Central Sulawesi launched in January 2015.
The MIT, which carried out a series of attacks on police in 2012, was seen as the remnants of the Jemaah Islamiyah network responsible for the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings. At the start of this year, MIT numbered around 30 people, including six ethnic Uyghurs from China and three women.
Indonesia’s counterterrorism force, Densus 88, has foiled dozens of planned terrorist attacks over the years – at least 54 since 2010, according to an analysis by Reuters.
“Densus 88 has become better than pretty well any other counter-terrorism group in the world,” Greg Barton, a terrorism export at Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, told the British news agency.
But the unit is deeply unpopular in many parts of Indonesia, accused of secrecy and killing too many alleged terrorism suspects.
In March, there were calls for reform and oversight of the unit after a suspect died three days after being taken into custody by Densus 88 in Klanten, Central Java.
The following month, at a press conference in Jakarta, a national police spokesman claimed that Siyono, 34, was the leader of a new offshoot of Jemaah Islamiyah.
Also in April, at the request of his wife, Siyono’s corpse was disinterred for an autopsy, which found that he had suffered six broken ribs, a fractured sternum and blunt trauma to the chest cavity that affected heart tissue and caused his death.
In May, a police commission on ethics and professionalism ordered that two Densus 88 members receive a no-confidence demotion, effectively terminating their work with the force.
Haris Azhar, coordinator of the Commission for the Disappeared and Victims of Violence (KontraS), expressed appreciation for the work of the counter terror force combating what he called a real terrorism threat in Indonesia.
“But there are still many accountability matters over the least ten years that have not been addressed. There needs to be accountabilility for every bomb found and every person killed, and clear accusations,” he told BenarNews.
Hafid Abbas, who sits on the National Human Rights Commission (Komnas HAM), urged Densus 88 to adhere to human rights principles in carrying out its work.
“There must be accountability and auditing institutions, so that it [Densus 88] is not the only source of truth,” he said.
‘Many victims would have fallen’
In an interview with BenarNews on Friday, Saud Usman Nasution, the former head of Densus 88, said the force follows clear procedure and shoots only at suspects who resist arrest or brandish weapons or explosives.
“If my men didn’t succeed in the field, many attacks would have taken place and many victims would have fallen,” he said.
Terrorism will remain a problem as long as militants groups aspire to establish a state based on Sharia law and a radical understanding of religious ideology, said Saud, who is also the former director of the National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT).
“The ideology alone is not so (dangerous) but it can become dangerous when there is poverty, social inequality … and a will to force their goals,” he said.