Counter-Terrorism: The Mythical But Mighty Infidel Threat


January 8, 2017: In Indonesia counter-terrorism forces ended a busy year by raiding two Islamic terrorist hideouts near the capital, killing three of them at one location and capturing several bombs. The other raid led to the arrest of four Islamic terrorists, including a female suicide bomber and the bomb was apparently set to use in an effort to bomb the presidential palace. This last round of raids was part of the annual pre-Christmas effort to prevent attacks on the thousands of Christian churches that have become a familiar part of the Indonesian landscape. Security forces encountered Islamic terrorists 170 times in 2016, versus 85 in 2015. These actions included Islamic terrorist attacks or, most frequently security forces raids or other encounters with Islamic terrorists. In 2016 that led to 33 Islamic terrorists killed.

In addition to the crippling ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) efforts to expand into Indonesia, counter-terror forces managed to cripple MIT (Mujahadeen Indonesia Timur, or Mujahadeen of Eastern Indonesia), the last of the older Islamic terrorist organizations still active in the country. MIT was long led by Santoso (single names are common in this region), who openly allied MIT with ISIL in 2014. In 2016 a series of raids and arrests left Santoso dead and MIT reduced to fewer than ten active members. MIT carried out some attacks in the last few years but has suffered heavy losses in the process. Since 2014 MIT concentrated most of its efforts on recruiting and setting up trained cells of terrorists in other parts of the country. MIT failed because Indonesian counter-terror forces are among the best in the region, most Indonesians are hostile to groups like ISIL and many MIT members left the country to join ISIL in areas like Syria and Libya where ISIL was a less of a disadvantage than in Indonesia.

Indonesia has cooperated in identifying its citizens suspected of going overseas to work with Islamic terrorist organizations. Thus hundreds of Indonesians have been arrested overseas (usually in Turkey) and deported to Indonesia to face prosecution or, at the very least, constant surveillance. This is because many Indonesians remember what happened when several dozen Indonesians who went to fight in with al Qaeda in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Many of these men returned to Indonesia and formed Islamic terrorist groups that, after 2001, carried out several spectacular attacks, including one in 2002 that killed nearly 200 foreign tourists. This resulted in a major counter-terrorism campaign that eventually killed or drove into exile nearly all the active Indonesian Islamic terrorists. There is a real fear that some of those ISIL members returning from Syria will try to emulate what the Afghan veterans did. In 2015 police revealed that they were monitoring returning ISIL men and would act against any suspected of engaging in terrorist activities in Indonesia. Many arrests since then are apparently a result of that surveillance program.

This also led to increased counter-terror activity each year on Java and Sumatra before Christmas. Police make numerous arrests and seized bombs or bomb components intended for attacks on Shia and Christian communities. Christians are ten percent of the population while Shia are less than a half percent of Indonesian Moslems. These minorities are not evenly distributed so there are areas that are all Moslem and easier for Islamic terrorist groups to recruit and survive. The Christian islands used to be almost entirely Christian, but since the 1980s the government has encouraged (with laws, money and land) Moslems from overpopulated areas to move to less populated Christian territories. This has created frictions on islands like Sulawesi that are not entirely religious. Islamic terrorist groups began forming in the late 1990s and concentrated their attacks on non-Moslems, both local and foreign (tourists). Since 2013 small ISIL type (or affiliated) groups gave been appearing and single out Shia Moslems as well as Christians and other non-Moslems (or Moslem sects ISIL does not approve of). Islamic conservatives in the government (especially parliament and the judicial system) deliberately target Christians by accusing them of anti-Islamic acts. These accusations are almost always false but because of the way politics works in democracies with a Moslem majority, such accusations mobilize many Moslems who are willing to demonstrate, often violently, in support of “defending Islam.”

Despite all this since 2004 Indonesia has been pretty successful in preventing most Islamic terrorist violence. But there are still attempts. Few of these succeed because counter-terror efforts have kept the most competent Islamic terrorists leaders, planners and bomb-builders unable to function. These men are constantly hunted, often caught (and killed or jailed) and many prefer to flee the country and operate elsewhere. Police keep a close watch on Islamic radicals and the increased use of security cameras provides clues not available before. It has become very difficult to be an Islamic terrorist in Indonesia.

Since 2013 Detachment 88 (the primary counter-terror unit) has had a lot of success detecting and arresting Islamic terrorists all over Indonesia. These Islamic radicals are not popular with most Indonesians and the police get plenty of useful tips. Islamic terrorist groups help make themselves targets by carrying out armed robberies and other criminal acts to support their operations. When counter-terrorism efforts wiped out or drove away Jemaah Islamiah (JI, the largest Indonesian terror group) new Islamic radical groups formed, especially in places like Sulawesi Island. Since 2004 the police have been working their way down an increasingly threadbare list of terrorist suspects. Moreover, it's been years since JI has been able to launch a major attack. This is because counter-terrorism forces have created a good intelligence network. Thus threats are quickly detected. Since 2007 attacks against non-Moslems have resulted in a stronger and stronger backlash from the police, and Christians. After 2007 the vigilantes switched tactics and began concentrating on driving Christians into ghettos, and reducing the number of Moslems converting to Christianity. Anti-infidel (non-Moslem) violence remains a growing problem, as Islamic radicals seek an outlet for their aggression that won't land them in prison. All this Islamic radical activity keeps producing new recruits for Islamic terror groups. With little support from mosques or the larger Islamic organizations, these new Islamic terrorists have to resort to crime to fund their operations.

Since the 1990s Sulawesi has been the scene of growing Islamic radicalism and terrorism. That’s because over half the population on the island of Sulawesi is non-Moslem (mostly Christian). In the late 1990s, Islamic militants came along, preaching violence against infidels (non-Moslems). Over a thousand people died before additional police and soldiers eliminated most of the violence. Hundreds of Islamic radicals are still on the island and nearby West Java and are still preaching violence. Christians are a minority nationwide while 87 percent of the population is Moslem. The tensions in Sulawesi are not entirely religious. The Christian areas used to be almost entirely Christian, but over the last three decades the government has encouraged (with laws, money, and land) Moslems from overpopulated areas to move to less populated Christian areas. This has created friction.

There’s another major reason why Islamic terrorism continues. That’s because the government does not want to offend the many Islamic conservatives out there. The Islamic conservative politicians use religion as a tool to get what they want, which often has nothing to do with religion or the “infidel (non-Moslem) threat.”




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