By: Ainur Rohmah

Indonesia’s elite Densus 88 anti-terror unit has rounded up hundreds of militants in recent months and is likely to take down more following a series of suicide bombings targeting churches and police stations in the country’s second biggest city of Surabaya in May.

The arrests come at a time when entire families are collaborating in bombing attacks, apparently radicalized by the Middle East-based Islamic State or IS, which is seeking to establish an Islamic caliphate across the region but has largely been wiped out by Russian, Syrian, American and other troops in Syria.  Many have fled the region and returned to their home countries, including Indonesia, where they are believed to be seeking to radicalize Muslims to violence.

National Police Chief Gen. Tito Karnavian said Densus 88 is continuing to intensify its pursuit of terrorist networks. At least 197 militants related to the networks have been arrested. “We know where the networks are,” Karnavian said. 

Densus 88 has an impressive record of getting their man, and often getting him dead, without too much attention to civil niceties. In their latest forays, according to Karnavian, 20 of those arrested died for fighting the police. He argued that the law allows police officers to commit lethal repressive acts against suspected terrorists when they do things that endanger the safety of police and civilians. “We are not dealing with the usual perpetrators, they are the ones who are ready to die,” Karnavian said.

The latest arrests occurred on July 15, when two militants tried to attack a police station in Indramayu City, West Java, by throwing a bomb placed in a pot that failed to explode. Police arrested a husband and wife after showering them with gunfire.

A day earlier, police shot it out with four suspects in a crowded area in Yogyakarta City. Police shot dead three of the four after they hijacked a truck and took a citizen hostage. Another one ran away. Two policemen were stabbed, according to the police.

Karnavian said those apprehended are sympathizers of Jamaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD), a group affiliated with the Islamic State and were behind a series of terror attacks going back to 2016. They are now fighting against the police since the widespread terrorist arrests.

Former terrorist Ali Fauzi said terrorist groups are under intense police pressure, monitoring their movements. Any mistake subjects them to capture. Indeed, events in Yogyakarta and Indramayu show that the militants were unprepared for the Densus counterattack.

“They only use simple weapons like knives and ‘pot bombs’, which often don’t explode, indicating that their preparations are very weak,” Ali said. “They must now be under pressure from Densus 88.” 

Momentum in Combating Terrorism

Shola Uddin, a terrorism expert from the University of Indonesia (UI), predicted Densus 88 will more encounter more suspected terrorists in the next two years, given the many important events to be held in Indonesia such as the Asian Games and the International Monetary Fund IMF) meeting this year, and presidential elections next year. 

“The Asian Games in Jakarta and Palembang that will soon take place is a bet on Indonesia’s reputation in the eyes of the world,” said Sholahudin. “Therefore, the police do not want to be distracted.”

In addition, a new anti-terrorism law passed in May enlarges police authority to go after suspected terrorists even without attacks. The 2013 anti-terrorism law only authorized police to take in suspects after an attack.

Under the new law, police also have more time to conduct investigations because the legislation triples the maximum detention period without charge for suspected militants to 21 days and doubles the entire permissible detention period from the arrest to trial to more than two years.

Sholahuddin said nearly 200 suspects have been arrested over the past few months after officials captured only 190 during all of 2017.

 “We predict (arrests) will continue to grow until the end of the year,” said Sholahuddin, who is also a researcher at the Center for Studies on Terrorism and Social Conflict at the University of Indonesia.

However, the government will also face other risks with the number of captured militants, including poor infrastructure and a lack of detention facilities, as well as fear of spreading radicalism inside the prison. “We fear that if terrorist prisoners are mixed with other criminal prisoners, then they will conduct radical group cadre in prison,” he said.

In May, the public was struck by a series of grisly suicide bombings carried out by an entire family, the first such incident in country, by a group who apparently had been radicalized by IS. Dian Oeprianto, his wife and four children, the smallest aged 12 and 9 respectively, carried out bombings at three churches in Surabaya City on Sunday (May 13), killing at least 18 people and injuring 43.

Later, a bomb exploded prematurely in a low-cost apartment in Sidoarjo, just outside Surabaya, the home of Anton Febrianto and his family. Anton’s wife and one of their children died in the explosion, and he was later shot and killed by police. Their three other children survived. On July 17, a third family blew themselves up at the Surabaya police headquarters. The husband, Tri Murtiono, his wife, and two sons were killed. Their daughter survived.

Sholahuddin said the suicide bombings in Surabaya have raised the momentum for police to capture terrorist networks. Bringing whole families into the scheme is a strategy by perpetrators to provoke jihadists to follow their footsteps.

“Their message is, if women and children are courageous (to commit suicide bombings), it’s hard to believe that you (the jihadist) wouldn’t (do the same),” he said.

Police Chief Karnavian acknowledged that the series of attacks in Surabaya opened the door for police to uncover and capture terrorist networks in Indonesia. “We are sad because the terror attacks caused many casualties, but on the other hand, it gave a huge opportunity to the police to get into the terrorist network and arrest them,” he said.

Densus, Karnavian said, has formulated a map of terrorist networks across the country and ordered anti-terror personnel to be more aggressive in pursuing them. He has set up an anti-terror task force in several areas to help Densus oversee network activities, especially those without the potential for offensive (non-active) attacks. Active terrorist cells, he said, are still monitored by Densus 88.

“This is a lesson from Surabaya’s terror acts, the networks that we consider to be active and which we monitor, do nothing, but the inactive networks actually carry out acts of terror,” he said.