Indonesia's Trigger-Happy Densus 88 Get their Men

Questions are rising in Jakarta over the latest raid by the National Police’s elite Densus 88 antiterrorism unit, which shot five suspected militants dead in Bali Sunday. The police said the five were from a group that “may have planned an attack” on a café popular with foreigners and were “believed” to be planning robberies.

Densus 88 has an impressive record of getting their man, and usually getting him dead. In this case, they say they were forced to kill the five after they resisted arrest. The unit has come under criticism not only because of the questionable shootings but because dead men don’t talk. International law enforcement officials say that gunning down suspects denies officials valuable intelligence on their connections to other suspected terrorists.

Nonetheless, National Police spokesman Saud Usman Nasution told reporters at a press conference on Monday: “During the raids, the suspects resisted arrest and our officers were forced to take them down.” Nasution said police had the suspects under surveillance for as long as a month, tailing them as they allegedly cased several potential targets including money changers and gold stores as well as the café.

Apparently police had established an overwhelming presence in the area in the week before the shooting, with dozens of armed personnel stationed near the café suspected of being a target.

“There were about 200 armed police guarding the area around of the cafe and they stayed here until the cafe closed at 3 a.m.,” an employee said, speculating that the establishment may have been targeted because it is usually packed with foreigners.

It has since transpired that the suspects actually had planned to hire three prostitutes for the night they were killed, and two women were just about to enter the compound where they were staying when police stopped them before the shooting started.

Police said they had found no explosives, but did find two pistols and 12 bullets along with a rental car.

Later, police said other intelligence sources related that the five had ties to the terrorist group Jamaah Ansharut Tauhid, founded by the murderous Islamic cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, and had been planning a major attack on the resort island, and that they had been canvassing areas in Bali for three months before they were shot.

Bashir was suspected of being the mastermind behind a long string of violent incidents including the 2002 bombings in Bali that took the lives of 202 people and injured another 240. Bashir was arrested and jailed for that tragedy but served only 18 months before his sentence was reduced, allegedly because he said he was only peripherally involved in the bombings. Other members of Jemaah Islamiyah, which he had founded, were convicted in relation to the bombings and three were sentenced to death.

Bashir was given 15 years in jail last year on a variety of charges including running a jihadi terrorist camp in Aceh from which his acolytes were said to be preparing a large-scale massacre of westerners in Jakarta.

In 2009, Densus 88 rolled up a long string of terrorists in shootouts in Central Java, killing, among others, Noordin Mohama Top, perhaps Southeast Asia’s top jihadi terrorist among others. At that time, Densus 88 was also assailed for being trigger-happy. In the shootout that netted Noordin, three other suspects were killed as well, and a woman in the house was wounded. In early August 2009, police also killed two other suspected militants and found 500 kilograms of explosives in a raid on a house in the Bekasi area near Jakarta. At that time, the International Crisis Group did give considerable praise to Indonesian police, who it says worked closely with prisoners and former prisoners involved in terrorism, as well as with some "Afghan alumni" who were never arrested. In the wake of previous bombings, they have acted quickly and effectively and arrests have come quickly.

They have also been accused of brutality, however. In June of 2011, Densus 88 arrested a 43-year-old terrorist suspect in Bandung. A day later, the presumably healthy suspect’s body was delivered to his family.