How a Christian-Muslim Conflict in Eastern Indonesia Birthed the MIT Militant Group

Keisyah Aprilia
Poso, Indonesia
2020-12-03
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How a Christian-Muslim Conflict in Eastern Indonesia Birthed the MIT Militant Group Children play on a dirt road in Lembantongoa village in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province, days after suspected members of the MIT militant group killed four residents, Nov. 30, 2020.
[Faldi Muhammad/BenarNews]

Second of three parts

The prolonged Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen insurgency in the country’s Sulawesi region has its roots in a bloody Muslim-Christian conflict at the turn of the century, experts and locals say.

By most accounts, it all began on the night before Christmas in 1998, when a drunk Christian youth stabbed a Muslim man. That year’s Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, coincided with the Christmas holiday. Spirits were running high – and so did tempers.

The stabbing spurred a violent confrontation between Christian and Muslim gangs. That led to an all-out conflict between the two communities in Poso, a mountainous regency of Central Sulawesi province. More than 1,000 people were killed between 1998 and 2001.

Poso nowadays is the main hotbed for the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen, or MIT, a pro-Islamic State group that numbers less than a dozen fighters, according to Indonesian authorities.

The December 2001 signing of a peace agreement, called the Malino Declaration, ended the communal conflict – on paper. But seething resentment, coupled with a belief that justice had not been served, took the place of violence.

That anger spawned a band of militants, who called themselves the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen. Their mission was to establish an Islamic state in Indonesia, said Mohammad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR).

“This is a militant group, which is not simply motivated by a desire to establish an Islamic state. Historically they can be traced back to the Poso conflict. It was the reason they engaged in violence in the first place,” Adhe told BenarNews.

“We need to understand [that this is] the root of the radical movement in Poso.”

Most attacks in Poso and neighboring regencies in Sulawesi in recent years, including the killing of four Christians on Nov. 27 in Sigi, a regency that borders Poso, have been blamed on MIT.

The group, which pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror organization in 2014, is responsible for kidnappings, police station bombings and killings of security personnel and farmers, police say.

 

Villagers carry the body of a farmer killed by suspected MIT militants in Parigi Moutong regency, Indonesia, Sept. 14, 2015. [BenarNews]
Villagers carry the body of a farmer killed by suspected MIT militants in Parigi Moutong regency, Indonesia, Sept. 14, 2015. [BenarNews]

MIT’s Roots 

The forerunner to the MIT in Poso is the Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid (JAT) group. It was started in 2008 by Jemaah Islamiyah founder Abu Bakar Bashir after JI was declared an illegal organization, Arifuddin Lako, a former JI militant, told BenarNews.

Jemaah Islamiyah was the Southeast Asian affiliate of al-Qaeda that was blamed for Indonesia’s deadliest terrorist attack, the 2002 Bali Bombings.

JAT had supported MIT in the early years, especially after police discovered and then disbanded a militant training camp JAT has set up in Indonesia’s Aceh province, Arifuddin said.

But MIT, unlike the other two groups, has largely focused on Poso and its surrounding regencies, according to Terrorism Monitor, a publication of The Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based research group.

Over the years, many MIT leaders have hailed from Poso.

Most notable among them was a charismatic man called Santoso (alias Abu Wardah), who hailed from Tentena, Central Sulawesi, and who was believed to have headed the military wing of JAT’s Poso branch.

“The JAT leadership in 2010 entrusted Santoso with the task of making Poso a training center for jihad to establish an Islamic state,” Arifuddin said.

Santoso did not disappoint the JAT leadership.

He recruited followers, procured firearms, ammunition and homemade bombs, and focused his band’s military training on Mount Mauro and Mount Biru in Poso Pesisir Utara, a district in Poso, Arifuddin said.

Because he had succeeded in broadening the militant base in Poso, Santoso in 2012 was appointed as the emir, or leader, of MIT.

Soon after, in October 2012, MIT carried out one of its first brazen attacks. The militants killed two policemen and buried their bodies in a hole, an incident that brought MIT international attention for the first time.

 

A screenshot from a 2016 video shows Santoso (left), the then-leader of MIT, with one of his men, hiding out in the forests of Central Sulawesi province in Indonesia, February 2016. [BenarNews]
A screenshot from a 2016 video shows Santoso (left), the then-leader of MIT, with one of his men, hiding out in the forests of Central Sulawesi province in Indonesia, February 2016. [BenarNews]

‘Neglected and hurt’

Many of the people who joined MIT had lost family members in the 1998-2001 sectarian violence in Poso, Sukarno Ahmad Ino, who fought in the conflict, told BenarNews.

Muhammad Basri, a former Jemaah Islamiyah member and close associate of Santoso, lost relatives in the conflict. Mukhtar, another Santoso follower, also lost loved ones at that time.

“The government failed to mete out justice for the people who killed their families during the conflict. They were neglected and hurt,” Ino told BenarNews.

The Malino Declaration, which ended the fighting the between the two religious communities in 2001, did not take root, Mohammad Adhe Bhakti, executive director of the Center for Radicalism and Deradicalization Studies (PAKAR), told BenarNews.

“In the Malino agreement, there was a clause to forgive and forget – ‘you should not ask who killed your uncle, who killed your mother, who killed your family, so that we can have a clean slate,’” Adhe said.

“But apparently this message did not reach the grassroots. People still hold grudges when they see killers in the market place, integrating with society.”

Abdul Kadir Abdjul (left), a local youth leader in Poso, talks his colleague, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2020. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]
Abdul Kadir Abdjul (left), a local youth leader in Poso, talks his colleague, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2020. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

Leaders Killed

Santoso’s rise and success in 2012 emboldened MIT, which in the following years launched several bold attacks.

After the killings of many civilians, the government in January 2015 launched a hunt for MIT militants, codenamed Operation Camar Maleo. This operation was replaced by Operation Tinombala, a year later.

Hundreds of police officers and soldiers began scouring the mountains and jungles of Poso regency.

Tinombala had its first major success in July 2016 when its troops shot dead Santoso along with Mukhtar, his follower.

This was a blow for MIT.

Two months later, police arrested Basri.

The group, which at one point had more than 40 members, was further weakened after some militants surrendered to the authorities.

But as last week’s killings in Lembantongoa in Sigi show, MIT may be down, but it is not out.

‘It is progress’

Meanwhile, although public support for MIT is almost non-existent today, reconciliation between the Muslim and Christian communities has not been fully achieved, according to a study by the Paramadina Center for Studies on Religion and Democracy (PUSAD) last year.

“Peace in Poso is still vulnerable to being disrupted by the lingering influence of hardline ideologies,” said PUSAD’s study.

“Peace is being threatened by the continued support for the MIT group from groups outside Poso, both at home and overseas.”

Still, both Christians and Muslims have since largely lived side-by-side without hostilities, Renaldy Damanik, a Christian leader who was one of the signatories of the Malino Declaration, told BenarNews.

“Christians and Muslims are now free to go anywhere as there is no longer communal conflict,” he said.

“People refuse to be provoked into conflict. The recent killings in Lembantongoa have not provoked Christians to retaliate.”

There is little to no support for MIT from the Muslim community, according to Ibrahim Ismail, a Muslim leader in Poso.

“There is no place for MIT members or sympathizers in Poso. The ideology of MIT is far from being the real jihad,” Ibrahim told BenarNews.

According to him, “real jihad” is trying to be a better human being, and not to wage war.

There is hope, now, thanks to the young people of Poso, Abdul Kadir Abdjul, a youth leader, told BenarNews.

Many young people of all communities have tried to forget about the conflict and have embraced things like technology because they see it as a route to upward mobility, Abdul said.

“It is progress, especially when these young people are victims of the Poso conflict themselves,” he said. 

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