Jakarta’s war on terror won high marks


Recently, the Indonesian government was praised highly by the United States and neighbouring countries, including Australia, for its excellent efforts in fighting terrorism. This came after Jakarta’s success last month in capturing many terrorists belonging to Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), including the latter’s alleged supreme commander Zarkasih (45) and head of the military wing Abu Dujana (37).

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government, in fact, deserves international praise and support for many reasons. Since he came to power in 2004 following the country’s first direct presidential elections, he has shown a great deal of firmness and decisiveness in running the world’s most populous Muslim nation and managing its crises, something that could partially be attributed to his military background and long experience. This, of course, differs from the weak and hesitating leadership of his three predecessors in the post-authoritative Suharto regime years.

As a result, Indonesia under Yudhoyono has been doing an outstanding job in fighting terrorist groups and killing or capturing their members. This can be supported by the fact that over the past 18 months, there have been no new major terrorist attacks against local or Western targets similar to those that occurred during the rule of former presidents Abdurrahman Wahid and Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Yudhoyono’s most significant tool in his campaign against terrorism has been Detachment 88, an 800-personnel strong special force that is highly trained to counter various terrorist threats and assist regular police officers in investigations. The force was set up in 2003, only months after the 2002 Bali bombings in which 88 Australian tourists were killed or wounded. It is said that the number 88 in the force’s name points to these victims of the first major terrorist attack in the country. It is also said that the number, which looks like police handcuffs, symbolizes the determination of the force to arrest all terrorist elements.

However, Detachment 88 had not been fully operative before Yudhoyono came to power, probably because of former president Megawati’s soft anti-terror policy and her differences with the US government, which pledged to fund the unit through its State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service.

It was, therefore, Yudhoyono’s close ties with the Americans that have greatly helped Detachment 88 receive high quality training and US most advanced weaponry and assault vehicles and consequently became one of the world’s top anti-terror units. This enabled it in the past months to capture hundreds of suspects and seize caches of weapons, explosives and chemicals in numerous raids in Central and East Java. It also succeeded in November 2005 in killing one of the two most wanted terrorists, namely Azahari bin Husin, a Malaysian national accused of being the mastermind behind recruiting and training JI’s suicide-bombers.

This, despite the country’s 2003 anti-terrorism law, which does not allow security forces to detain suspects for more than a week without providing evidence or to take preemptive action on those suspected of plotting terrorist strikes. In other words, if Indonesia had tougher laws to fight terrorism similar to those of neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore, the unit would have achieved far more successes.

Its recent success in capturing Zarkasih and Abu Dujana, however, was viewed as an outstanding triumph, given the special implications of the event. This was the first time that Jakarta arrested top JI leaders and managed to have them disclose valuable information on the group’s structures, cells, past operations, and future plans, including the role of controversial Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir in the 2002 Bali massacre. Bashir, who was convicted but soon thereafter released, has not only denied involvement in the incident but also frequently denied the existence of JI.

According to information and evidence collected in recent weeks, JI planed to move its operatives, including those flushed out of the southern Philippines by the US-backed Philippine armed forces, to the Poso area in Indonesia’s Central Sulawesi province in order to exploit communal tensions between Muslims and Christians there for its own ideological ends.

Jakarta’s recent triumph, on the other hand, came at a time when several US Congressmen have been trying to cut US military and security aid to Indonesia or to see conditions attached to it, arguing that Jakarta has neither reformed its military establishment, nor has it prosecuted senior officers for the violence in East Timor in 1999. Their argument also includes Jakarta’s support for a draft anti-terrorism law that gives the Indonesian armed forces a role in arresting and questioning terrorist suspects. Observers now hold that these Congressmen may change their views in light of potential terrorist threats in Sulawesi and Jakarta’s dire need for additional support and assistance.

Academic researcher and lecturer on Asian affairs

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