Five Years on, Indonesian Manhunts Fail to Destroy MIT Militant Group

Keisyah Aprilia
Poso, Indonesia
2020-12-02
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Five Years on, Indonesian Manhunts Fail to Destroy MIT Militant Group An officer guards the Indonesian Mobile Brigade’s headquarters in Poso, Central Sulawesi, a day after suspected militants shot dead three policemen in the area, Dec. 21, 2012
AFP

First of three parts

Indonesia’s failure to weed out remnants of the Eastern Indonesia Mujahideen group five years into military-police manhunts for the pro-Islamic State militants is prompting calls for a different, softer approach.

Operations Camar Maleo and Tinombala – the consecutive government drives targeting the small number who belong to the band of militants better known as MIT – have focused on using force to go after them in Poso, the mountainous and jungle-clad regency in Central Sulawesi province where they roam and carry out deadly attacks.

But economic and social rehabilitation of the militants is the key to stopping the group from gaining new recruits, according to local leaders and observers.

“The operation has not been accompanied by efforts to stop the recruitment of new followers who espouse religious radicalism and acts of extremism,” Adriyani Badrah, executive director of the Celebes Institute, an NGO that has studied the conflict in Poso, told BenarNews.

MIT formed in 2010 as a reaction to Christian-Muslim sectarian violence in Poso town that left more than 1,000 people dead between 1998 and 2001, observers and former militants said.

Camar Maleo, which started in January 2015, and Tinombala, which replaced it a year later, killed several MIT members and arrested many of their sympathizers.

As of November, the Islamic State-linked extremist group had dwindled to 11 members, from a high of 40 in MIT’s early years, police said.

And yet, the group endures as a potent threat. Its remaining members keep mounting deadly attacks while evading the government’s security dragnet by hiding out amid Poso’s rugged terrain.

Only last week, suspected MIT members killed four Christians during an attack on their village in Sigi, a regency that borders Poso.

Poso-map-withlogo2.jpg

Elusive prey

The Tinombala operation will last until all MIT members are caught or killed, the police and the army have said time and again.

Nonetheless, as questions persist about the success and effectiveness of the manhunt in catching the fewer than a dozen MIT holdovers, national and local police have acknowledged there are some geographical obstacles.

Poso is an area that security forces find difficult to penetrate, Inspector Gen. Imam Sugianto, the national police deputy for operations, told BenarNews.

“The difficulty is that these wanted people hide in the forest and occasionally emerge to seek logistical support,” Imam said.

Last month, Indonesian security forces shot dead two suspected MIT members during a gunfight in Parigi Moutong regency.

The two had somehow eluded the huge security presence in Poso to move to neighboring Parigi Moutong, two months before they were killed.

“This shows that the operation in Poso is not effective. Obviously people will think that the operation in Poso is not serious,” Muhammad Lukman Tahir, a terrorism expert at the State Islamic Institute of Palu, told BenarNews last month after the two were slain.

Local police spokesman Didik Supranoto denied that the task force was ineffective, saying MIT members were familiar with Poso’s forests and mountains where they hide out.

Still, the police are investigating how the two militant managed to get to Parigi Moutong, Didik said.

Recruitment efforts

Despite setbacks following operations Camar Maleo and Tinombala, MIT’s members have pressed on with recruitment efforts.

Lukman said the two MIT suspects who were killed in November might well have left Poso for neighboring Parigi Moutong to look for new members.

Over the years, MIT succeed in attracting new members from places such as Bima on Sumbawa Island, Banten province on Java Island, and Makassar in South Sulawesi province.

The group even snagged a former member of Kopassus, the Indonesian army’s special forces.

Sabar Subagyo, the ex-Kopassus man, joined MIT in 2012 before security forces killed him and three militants from China’s Uyghur Muslim community in 2016.

MIT also took advantage of a devastating earthquake and tsunami in Central Sulawesi in 2018 to bring in potential new members from other parts of the country, said Deka Anwar, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta.

“MIT were almost destroyed before, but with the tsunami they made it an opportunity to bring in aid as well as new recruits. Events like this are often used by terrorist groups to get supplies and other assistance,” Deka told BenarNews.

The number of post-disaster recruits, though, was not “significant,” he added.

Indonesian military personnel conduct search operations to root out suspected MIT militants in Central Sulawesi province in Indonesia, Dec. 1, 2020.
Indonesian military personnel conduct search operations to root out suspected MIT militants in Central Sulawesi province in Indonesia, Dec. 1, 2020. [Wahono/BenarNews]

‘Strategy has to change’

Ibrahim Ismail, a Muslim leader in Poso, says the government should eliminate MIT by going at the root of the problem – recruitment.

“Recruitment is still taking place in religious study groups and illegal Islamic boarding schools,” he told BenarNews.

One former militant, who fought in the sectarian conflict at the turn of the century, agreed with Ibrahim.

Islamic groups and schools were vulnerable to radical influence, Sukarno Ahmad Ino told BenarNews.

“In Poso, that’s usually the route that many radicals went through,” he said.

Many of these boarding schools must be shut, and there should be a crackdown on dubious religious study groups, Ibrahim said.

Dialogue with potential militants’ support systems should complement other efforts to end MIT, said Lukman for the State Islamic Institute of Palu.

“I have always said that that the strategy has to change. The task force should not only hunt [MIT militants] but must also focus on dismantling the network,” Lukman said.

“Enlist religious leaders, youth leaders, and all parties who can communicate with MIT militants and their families.”

For his part, Central Sulawesi police chief Inspector General Abdul Rakhman Baso denied that efforts to dismantle MIT focused only on the use of force.

“We also adopt a persuasive approach, including reaching out to groups that are linked to MIT,” Rakhman told BenarNews.

He said police were also investigating reports about recruitment involving religious study groups and boarding schools.

Ibrahim Ismail (left), a local Muslim leader, and Sukarno Ahmad Ino, a former combatant in the Poso sectarian conflict, speak during an interview with BenarNews in Poso, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2020.
Ibrahim Ismail (left), a local Muslim leader, and Sukarno Ahmad Ino, a former combatant in the Poso sectarian conflict, speak during an interview with BenarNews in Poso, Indonesia, Nov. 19, 2020. [Keisyah Aprilia/BenarNews]

'Heightened fear'

Meanwhile, operations Camar Maleo and Tinombala have made the situation even more fraught for residents of Poso, said Adriyani Badrah of the Celebes Institute.

“The fact is there’s been heightened fear in the communities,” Adriyani said.

Many residents work in the forest and on the mountains, part of the area of security forces’ operations, said Rahman, a farmer in the Tambarana village of Poso Pesisir Utara district.

“Naturally, we are very afraid,” Rahman told BenarNews.

Since the manhunt operations began in January 2015, local residents have received threats from both sides, the farmer said.

“We dread being accused of being MIT sympathizers. On the other hand, we are afraid that we will be mistaken for being informants for security forces,” Rahman said. “But if we don’t go to the field, how are we going to put food on the table?”

The militants are ruthless toward anyone suspected of being a state informant, IPAC’s Deka said.

“Farmers have been killed because they were accused of being intelligence agents,” he said.

At least three farmers were killed, allegedly by MIT militants, this year.

Still, the hunt for MIT members would be intensified, Central Sulawesi police chief Rakhman said.

“If you ask why we haven’t been able to root out MIT, the answer is simply because they haven't been caught. If all of them have been caught, then it is finished.”

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