Indonesia's War on Terrorism Bears Fruit

With US President Barack Obama due in Jakarta next week, Indonesia's counterterrorism forces seem to be doing a creditable job rolling up terrorists in advance of his visit. A demoralized suspect named Abu Rimba turned himself in to police Wednesday night, carrying with him an AK 47, five magazines and 238 bullets, police said.

Indonesian authorities said the Obama visit is likely to go ahead as planned and described it as a confidence vote in the Indonesian counterterrorism fight. Obama, his wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha are expected to visit Indonesia, where Obama spent several childhood years going to school, through March 22.

Rimba said he had left an alleged terrorist camp in Aceh before police raids began there on February 22 and had hidden in remote villages before deciding to turn himself in. Police are still searching for six other suspects.

Breaking up the Aceh network follows the slaying last week in the town of Tangerang of Ammar Usman, who gained fame under the jihadi nom de guerre Dulmatin, who was accused of having played a key role in 2002 bombings in Bali that left 202 people dead, mostly western tourists. The 39-year-old Dulmatin and two other people were shot dead March 9 in a gunfight with counterterrorism forces in Tangerang, a city 27 km south of Jakarta. Officials had put a US$10 million reward on his head.

In their intensified campaign to go after terrorists, since Feb. 22 the Densus 88 antiterrorism police unit has so far arrested 31militants in Aceh, West Java and Jakarta including firearms suppliers and financiers since the first arrests were made. They have killed six more, raising questions for human rights observers on whether the police are too quick on the trigger.

Last year, the police staged several spectacular gun battles, killing a top Malaysian operative named Noordin Mohammad Top, who was also implicated in bombings in Bali that took the lives of scores of innocent people, as well as the bombings of two American luxury hotels in Jakarta last year. Three others were killed in the gun battle and a woman was wounded. At one point, Noordin's confederates were involved in an audacious plan last year to blow up the Presidential palace of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono himself.

In 2005, police also shot and killed Azahari bin Husin, a confederate in the Bali bombings. Dulmatin, however, was considered to be a particular prize. He was the Jemaah Islamiyah leader for the entire Southeast Asian region, police said, and had been given intensive military training in Mindanao starting in 2003. He was also a sophisticated bomb-maker, police said.

"For us, counterterrorism using violence is not sufficient to stop terrorism. We think it is contrary to the principles of human rights and citizens' rights to legal aid," said Bhatara Ibnu Reza, a researcher for Imparsial, the Indonesian human rights monitor. Despite a decrease in the number of terrorist attacks, he added, violence runs the risk of encouraging the expansion of terrorist networks and movements at the grass-roots level. Some 400 suspects have been captured or killed since the first Bali bombing in 2002.

However, Jim Della-Giacoma, Southeast Asia Project Director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told Asia Sentinel in an email that Indonesian counterterrorist forces have actually been restrained in their attempts to search out jihadis.

"They know that each time one of these suspects is shot dead they're losing a lot of information, but they don't want to risk the lives of their own men to get it," Della-Giacoma said. "They are probably aware also that they are creating martyrs. High rates of public approval for the police-led fight against terrorism, even after the killings and an uncritical local media go some way to explaining why there is less pressure to develop better techniques to capture rather than kill suspects - to smoke them out rather than shoot them out."

Indonesia has put hundreds on trial for terrorism offences, with authorities ready and able to use the courts in a way others in the region have not, Della-Giacoma said. "You've got to give both the police and the prosecutors some credit for this."

The successes don't mean the US president's security forces have any reason to relax. The outpouring of defiance at the burial of Dulmatin in his home town in Central Java brought thousands to the streets, shouting "Allahu Akhbar" and calling the dead man a mujahideen and not a terrorist. Others called him a holy warrior.

Heru Kuncoro, Dulmatin's brother-in-law and one of Indonesia's most wanted figures, is still on the loose. Police continue to Dulmatin's confederates throughout Central Java. Others who remain at large are Upik Lawangga, Umar Patek and Zulkarnaen. Umar and Zulkarnean are wanted by the US government for their roles in the 2002 Bali bombings. Zulkarnean is believed by some analysts to now head Jemaat Islamiyah, which is believed to have carried out more than 50 bombings in Indonesia since April 1999, the International Crisis Group, including the 2002 Bali bombings and attacks on the resort island in 2005 that killed 20 more.

Andi Widjajanto, a military analyst from the University of Indonesia, told local media that Jemaah Islamiyah bombings, appears to be growing stronger, recruiting new members outside of the island of Java. He estimated that that there are 300 active JI members spread nationwide with [an additional] 240 released terrorist convicts. This does not include many people who are being trained secretly."

The International Crisis Group, in a report last August, said that the network is proving to be larger and more sophisticated than previously thought, with funding coming from the Middle East.

"While the extent of foreign involvement this time around remains unclear, recruitment in Indonesia has proved disturbingly easy," the report said. "The salafi jihadi ideology that legitimizes attacks on the US and its allies, and Muslims who associate with them, remains confined to a tiny fringe, but that fringe includes disaffected factions of many different radical groups and impressionable youths with no history of violence."

The jihadi movement, the crisis group said in another report, continues to evolve in new directions, with an inner circle that may include no more than seven or eight men, who escaped capture in earlier dragnets. It is possible, the crisis group said at the time, that the jihadi organization had no clear structure beyond Noordin and his inner circle and consists only of ad hoc cells put together for specific operations.

Despite concerns over released terrorism suspects, the crisis group said, they are mostly not a threat. So many of them are turned and go back to their old organizations as police informers that the jihadis tend not to trust them.